By David Brand
Gun violence is on the rise in Queens this year, disproportionately affecting low income communities of color. Inspired by past violent tragedies, the TEAK Fellowship, a nonprofit education organization, is taking action to uplift young people from neighborhoods plagued by shootings.
TEAK connects with students in sixth grade and continues to work with them until they reach adulthood. In October, the organization celebrated its 20th anniversary.
Justine Stamen Arrillaga, 47, started the TEAK Fellowship program after several people
In her life were killed by gun violence, particularly, her friend Teak Dyer. The organization’s namesake, Dyer, 18, was brutally murdered inside a bathroom in Pacific Palisades, California the day before graduation in 1988.
So when a student, DeWitt White, from a Bronx non-profit where she worked was shot and killed in Staten Island, Stamen Arrillaga quit her job, moved into a friend's living room and started TEAK to mentor students from low-income neighborhoods.
TEAK has reached hundreds of students in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx and more than 90 percent have gone on to attend college, including various Ivy League schools. Student members are also required to complete community service hours, which have totaled nearly 40,000 hours over the past twenty years.
This year, TEAK will expand its cohort to include 45 students, with a specific focus on teens from Queens.
TEAK is based in Manhattan, but as part of its 2019 growth plan, the organization will add a third location in Forest Hills to reduce travel time for and increase engagement among Queens participants, said TEAK Fellowship Executive Director John Green.
"Recognizing that the gentrification process has pushed Queens families further from our offices and classrooms in Manhattan, TEAK will seek to bring its weekday programming to the borough by teaching its Queens students in the Forest Hills area thereby providing Queens families with greater access to our Fellowship,” Green said.