Katherine Diaz is a program graduate of East Side House’s Bronx Haven High School and current intern. She was this year’s student keynote speaker at our 2017 New York International Auto Show Gala Preview. Read an abridged version of her speech, where she tells her ESH story:
I’m the daughter of immigrants who came to the United States in search of a better life. I was born and raised in the South Bronx, and though it was better here for my family, I learned from an early age that my life was not going to be easy— I was going to have to fight for what I want.
My father struggled with substance abuse, making very poor decisions. He eventually walked out of my life when I was four years old, leaving my mother with three kids to care for. To say that we were low-income is an understatement. My mother, on the other hand, worked 12-14 hour shifts at work, sacrificing her own happiness for us. But there were some things my mother had no control over: specifically, my educational options.
I attended over-crowded public schools where students got little individualized attention. Despite doing well in school, I began to lose interest. The hostility in the hallways and classrooms was overwhelming, yet the teachers were indifferent to it. By the time I entered high school, I was already disengaged. I later attended a charter school with a rigorous workload, and though it seemed to be what I needed, it felt like boot camp, not a place to learn or grow. I fell into peer pressure: one skipped class turned into weeks of missed classes, and even when I’d return, the thought of being judged discouraged me. But the worst part was that none of the teachers or faculty even noticed I was gone; it felt like no one cared.
Things at home were getting worse, too: one day I arrived home to find the furniture being taken out of our apartment by random men. It turns out my family was being evicted. All of a sudden, I was homeless. I went from skipping school without a care in the world to the harsh reality that I didn’t have a place to sleep. One of my mother’s friends let us sleep on their living room floor. What was supposed to be a night ended up being 3 months. My mother eventually found us another apartment, but the trauma had lasting effects. My experience with homelessness made me wake up. I realized that with no education, I’d be stuck in a cycle of poverty— it was time to break free from the chains that held me captive for so many years.
That year, I passed my Regents exams with amazing grades, yet still fell under academic standards: I was over-aged and under-credited— they expelled me. Though I wanted to get my academic career back on track, it seemed impossible to find a school that would accept me because I was just too far behind. Then friend told about East Side House, who had an amazing program that helped under-credited students like me. I soon attended an open house. The staff were on a mission to help young people, such as myself, and I felt a surge of excitement that I hadn’t felt about school in years.
From day one, ESH’s staff went out of their way for us: from home visits to monthly check-ins and conversations in the hallway, there was never a moment that I didn’t have someone who cared about me. They got on me whenever I seemed to be falling into old habits, reminding me of my goal: to graduate on time. But school wasn’t just about classroom learning: from hikes in Bear Mountain for gym credits to young women’s empowerment groups, ESH helped me fall in love with learning again. I learned what it meant to be accountable and to take responsibility for my own life— my own choices, but most importantly, I realized that I was not a failure.
The most exhilarating time in all my years of high school was an overnight ESH-hosted a college trip. College had crossed my mind, but was not a goal for someone like me, who struggled for years with staying on track. When we visited colleges in Upstate New York and saw how amazing college life could be, it became a priority instead of just a thought. With the help of East Side House and the continued support of my mother, I’m proud to say that I graduated high school in 2015.
Today I’m a full-time college student working towards a degree in Business Management and an ESH Fiscal Department intern, honing in on my passion for numbers while pursuing my degree. I’d like to use the knowledge I acquire in college to help others in need just like East Side House did for me and so many other people. Thank you, East Side house and all of you who support it: For taking a chance on the daughter of immigrants, for providing a place for a young person like me who just needed a little help, and for opportunities that I would never have had without your support.