Will be run by Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens
Following the first week of in-person learning, hundreds of families enjoyed a back-to-school festival at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens (VBGC) in Astoria, marking the start of a new school year.
With the support of over a dozen community partners, the all-day celebration included school supply giveaways, local food vendors and outdoor activities for hundreds of students in Queens.
With last year’s back-to-school festival cancelled due to the pandemic, club CEO Costa Constantinides said it was extra special to help students feel normal again in a kid-friendly atmosphere.
With six sites serving over 4,000 area youth, the club is the largest youth services provider in western Queens.
“Today is a celebration,” Constantinides said. “We understand the gravity of the responsibility we have to provide them with an after-school experience and help them get back to normal.”
As a father of a son who hasn’t seen the classroom in over 18 months, Constantinides stressed the importance of the educational resources available at the club, as well as helping families through tough times.
“I know so many children in New York City who had a very similar situation,” he said. “From dealing with the angst of COVID, a family member losing their job or losing a family member, we hope to help them through the tension of this pandemic and help them feel like a kid again.”
School supplies were available to families through donations from the offices of Borough President Donovan Richards and State Senator Mike Gianaris, corporate sponsors and volunteer drives. Both Richards and Gianaris made appearances at the all-day event.
The hot and sunny day also called for Constantinides to sit in the dunk tank, making a splash for a good cause.
Elsbeth Grant, the club’s Chief Advancement Officer, would also be a dunk tank victim, saying it was wonderful to have kids back at the club playing again.
“It feels so great to have kids back at the club safely,” said Grant. “We want going back to school to be an exciting experience. I’m sure it can be scary with everything going on, we just want to support our community by making it fun and helping them prepare to go back to the classroom.”
Community partners joining the festival included Chip Cookies, San Antonio’s Wood Fired Pizza, Ample Hill Creamery and STEM learning from the BioBus. A vaccine pop-up station was also made available by the state Department of Health.
Volunteer Ashley Dean helped organize a school supply drive with her local running group, and chose the club to be the recipients of the backpacks and notebooks she collected over a month-long period.
“School is expensive for a lot of families,” said Dean. “People have multiple children so it’s nice to be able to ease a burden. Setting the kids up to succeed is important, especially right now.”
Charles Melone, better known as “Coach CP,” describes basketball as his one true love.
He takes his passion for the sport with him to work every day as the athletics director at the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens in Astoria. Melone oversees all things sports, as well as runs all of the sports teams.
The Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens has a nationally recognized AAU basketball program, which Melone founded before he started working there seven years ago.
“We take underprivileged kids from this area, especially from Queensbridge, Ravenswood, Woodside, and Astoria [houses],” Melone said. “It’s a lot of amazing kids that just weren’t given an opportunity, and so with our basketball program we give them that opportunity to play against the best kids in the country.”
Melone attended Caldwell University on a basketball scholarship, and realized he wanted to stay in the game when his own basketball career came to an end.
“At a young age, my father always really nailed home that you have to give back if you have an opportunity to,” he said. “And so I figured what better way to give back than to find a common interest, which is sports and basketball that I love. That way, I could work with kids and continue to pay it forward and make sure that not only am I happy in my own life, but I’m helping other kids achieve their dreams.”
As for what he does in his free time, Melone said there isn’t much free time.
“Even on the weekends we’re traveling to tournaments, we have training sessions, and we have college exposure things,” he said. “So I’m always kind of working, but it doesn’t feel like work and I love it.”
One thing Melone is excited about is that the Variety Boys and Girls Club of Queens will have its first baseball team since the ‘60s starting this year.
“The gym is always packed, the kids just want to be here,” he said. “I hope to be in this community for a long time, and I’m very grateful to the Variety Boys and Girls Club for giving me this opportunity. I hope I continue to make them and the community proud.”
Thirty-nine teenagers from the Variety Boys & Girls Club of Queens graduated from a summer STEM program last week in which they learned about electricity and renewable energy as part of a New York Power Authority (NYPA).
At the event, 174 Power Global presented a $15,000 check to support the program.
“The Variety Boys and Girls Club is so much more than a physical space, it’s where young minds come to grow,” said Variety CEO Costa Constantinides. “Programming like NYPA’s five-week STEM program gives kids hands-on experience with career paths and subject matter that is all around them, but not necessarily accessible.”
The middle-school students spent five weeks learning the basics of energy production and consumption through interactive and animated lesson plans. They engaged in games and hands-on learning opportunities, such as a contest to make the fastest wind turbine.
The students also investigated how different new renewable energy systems will work throughout New York State, as well as the battery storage project proposed for Astoria, which will store renwable sources of energy from upstate, and is being built by 174 Global Power.
To wrap up the program, students participated in a career panel event with subject matter experts from NYPA, 174 Power Global and Con Edison who spoke about their work and answered questions.
“Western Queens generates roughly 60 percent of the city’s power, and programs like this show our local kids opportunities to participate in the fast-growing green energy sector they may not have previously known about,” added Consantinides.
“We’re committed to supporting programs that inspire the next generation of STEM professionals,” added Henry Yun, CEO of 174 Global Power. “174 Power Global is committed to providing green economy jobs to the local community, in particular at a location that is close to our energy storage project, and this STEM program is a perfect fit with our mission of creating real change by working together.”