Justine Stamen and Jesse Johnson share more than a grantee-grantor relationship—each is an Ivy League graduate, and each has experienced the loss of a close personal friend. In Stamen’s case, tragedy has found her not once, but twice.
In Los Angeles, when Stamen was still in high school, her childhood friend Teak Dyer was murdered on the night before graduation. Nine years later in New York City, where Stamen was working as director of an academic program for disadvantaged youth, another close friend, DeWitt White, met an untimely end.
White was a 17-year-old in Stamen’s program who knew poverty all too well. He never met his father, and his mother died of AIDS. But those circumstances didn’t prevent him from excelling in the classroom and from learning the piano, an instrument he mastered and played in Carnegie Hall. Gun violence claimed his life, however, and kept him from ever fully realizing his talent.
This loss motivated Stamen, now 34, to establish the TEAK Fellowship, which is named for her high school friend. The program selects 25 deserving seventh-graders from low-income families each year and brings them aboard as “fellows.” Through a variety of programs and one-on-one counseling services, TEAK prepares its fellows to take their place in the best high schools in New York City and across the country. The program is balanced between education in the arts and academics, a model based on DeWitt’s memory.
Stamen describes TEAK as the “Rhodes Scholarship” of New York. Each year, students who otherwise would tread water or sink in their current situations gain access to the resources and schools that more fortunate students have come to expect.
Johnson lost a good friend while at Princeton, and as with Stamen, the tragedy motivated him to become involved with students whose lives are on the edge. Johnson’s college roommate, Morgan McKinzie, was by all standards an overachiever with a bright future. He played volleyball, was a cadet in the Air Force ROTC program, volunteered extensively, and was a solid student. In 1992, he died in a plane crash.
Johnson began mentoring at TEAK in 2001 when the program was in its infancy. The knowledge he gained about the program, and its leader, convinced him to fund the organization. As a board member of his family’s foundation, the Johnson Family Foundation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he convinced his fellow board members that the program deserved support.
The TEAK Program
The inside cover of TEAK’s annual report, like that of many middle school yearbooks, is full of smiles and promise. It bears the slogan, “These kids know courage.”
“Most of them have a story,” Stamen says. Little did she know just how many stories she would encounter when she began this organization in 1998 in the living room of a friend’s apartment. She crashed there to save money and to devote her energy and resources toward launching TEAK. “I had no savings to speak of because I always worked in nonprofit,” Stamen tells Philanthropy.
The early years were spent establishing a board, hiring a lawyer, locating funding, and making contacts with the schools that would feed her deserving students.
Each “fellow” who is accepted is assigned a TEAK volunteer who takes the student under his wing and provides him with “much more than an academic program. It’s making sure they have the exposure that middle class kids get,” Stamen says. “We’re interested in them because of how hard they worked with what they have.”
The TEAK program excels in showing its students all the options they have for pursuing secondary and higher education. To date, 90 TEAK fellows have been placed in academically selective high schools such as Phillips Academy Andover, Regis High School, and Riverdale Country School—a 100 percent success rate.
In addition to the academic training they receive, TEAK fellows are given one-on-one tutoring and test prep for the grueling admissions tests required by competitive high schools. TEAK fellows also learn the interviewing and phone skills necessary to navigate both the admissions process and the complicated financial aid application procedure. To date, TEAK fellows have earned more than $7.5 million in grants and scholarships.
Outside the classroom, TEAK helps its students to land internships at such places as Merrill Lynch and Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, to experience the arts, and to participate in summer programs that stress academics, field trips, and guest speakers. There’s also an after-school club where private tutors work on problem areas and offer a friendly ear for personal matters.
TEAK doesn’t stop working once the fellows gain admission to outstanding high schools. Volunteers stay in touch with graduates to help them emotionally adjust to life in their new schools—no small task for those who are moving from some of New York’s poorest neighborhoods to some of the country’s most selective schools. And as the college admission process kicks into high gear, TEAK again helps match its graduates with the right school. Had these kids stayed in their local public high schools where the graduation rates are low, it’s unlikely they’d even be thinking about college, according to Stamen. But now, the organization brags, “as top students at top high schools, they will certainly go on to great colleges and, in many cases, will be the first in their family to go to college at all.” In fact, two TEAK fellows have already gained early admissions to Princeton and Cornell universities, class of 2008.
An important component of the TEAK program is public service. Every summer the fellows are introduced to a set of programs that hone their skills in the workforce and, just as important, teach the virtues of giving. These skills are then put to use in private- and public-sector internships. For Stamen, TEAK aims for more than academic success, it’s about grooming the next generation of leaders.
“We tell them they are advantaged, not disadvantaged, and there’s no reason why they can’t give back,” says Stamen of the public-interest internships that place the fellows in museums, train them to be camp counselors for homeless children, and use their talents at TEAK.
Johnson was attracted to the public-service internship program because he saw it as the best way to help students chart their career course in a positive way. And because public service was important to his roommate Morgan, Johnson felt that endowing the service internship program would be a good way to preserve his memory. Morgan’s family and friends agreed.
TEAK “made very clear,” Johnson says, what it would cost to create the endowment—$750,000 raised over the course of seven years. To meet this goal, TEAK must raise $107,000 per year. The Johnson Family Foundation has agreed to provide $50,000 per year for seven years. This one contribution covers all expenses related to the Public Interest Internship Program and a $500 stipend paid to each fellow for their work. Others, including the Johnson and McKinzie families, and Morgan’s college friends, are contributing an additional $60,000 per year for seven years to ensure the endowment will be fully funded.
Though he has sat on the board of his family’s foundation since 1998, Johnson says this is the first project he’s been able to dig his teeth into and “explore what proactive philanthropy could be all about.”
In the end it’s all about learning, at least for the TEAK fellows. We’re interested in “bringing the absolute best to these kids so they can see what they can aspire to,” says Stamen. Above all else, she wants to be sure they never forget that “it’s cool to be smart.”
A fitting legacy to three lives cut too short.
Kate Kennedy is a freelance writer and senior associate with the White House Writers Group.