Helping girls gives rewards corporate world never did

[media-credit name=” Photo by Sam Spokony ” align=”aligncenter” width=”600″][/media-credit]

Mariana Salem is a mentor and board member at the Lower Eastside Girls Club.

BY SAM SPOKONY  |  Mariana Salem knows what it’s like to be forgotten: to be used, taken for granted and then dropped, without any sense of direction. But luckily — for both her and the many young people who have been positively affected by her presence — she was given another chance to find a sense of purpose that was once snatched away by the most uncaring keeper of all.

Salem, 30, who is now a board member and mentor for the Lower Eastside Girls Club, took the opportunity to volunteer and never looked back.

“Oh, it was miserable,” she said, recalling her former career as a call center manager and recruiter for Bank of America. “Even though I was making all that money, life just wasn’t fun.”

But, as Salem will now admit, that work had become her life. She’d been plucked up by the corporate world immediately after graduating from the University of Delaware, and several years later found herself in Manhattan, driven only by the need to boost profits and please the manager ranked above her.

Then came the financial crisis. Early one morning in December 2008, without any warning, she was laid off — and realized she was completely alone.

“It was a very poignant moment,” said Salem, “because all I could think was: ‘That’s it? After all that I’ve done for you?’ And once I’d been laid off I had this period of eight months during which I was forced to reflect on what my interests were in life. I felt that there was nothing.”

While she was still coping with the stress of sudden unemployment, Salem happened to read an article about the Lower Eastside Girls Club. The volunteer organization, based in a humble office at First St. and First Ave., was founded in 1996 to address a lack of services to the girls of the surrounding area — a lack that had become even more apparent when The Boys Club of New York (which for more than a century had operated a large facility on the Lower East Side) chose not to merge with the agency now known as Boys & Girls Clubs of America in 1986.

The thought of volunteering at the Girls Club immediately struck Salem as something worth pursuing, she recalled, resonating not only because she had been an L.E.S. resident for years but because the organization catered so readily to the ethnic diversity of the neighborhood. Above all, Salem — a Mexican-American — understood the difficulty of growing up without the close companionship of a mentor outside of home.

But it wasn’t her initial choice to contact the Girls Club that has remained most vivid in Salem’s memory — it was the moment she first walked in the door in 2009.

“I’ll always remember the spirit of the volunteer coordinator who led that first meeting we had,” Salem said. “And when she showed me an introductory video about the girls the club was working with, and especially the programs they were involved in, I realized that I could see myself in those girls.”

That’s no surprise, considering the fact that the programming at the Girls Club remains just as diverse as the neighborhood it serves. In its 16 years, the organization has offered girls and young women from ages 8 to 23 the chance to receive additional academic tutelage; explore the arts, with courses in areas like music, literature and filmmaking; learn necessary life skills through workshops on leadership and financial planning; and gain entrepreneurial experience at the Sweet Things Bake Shop, La Tiendita and Celebrate Café, all of which are locally run businesses in the community that provide job training to Girls Club members.

Following some initial tasks that immediately revealed Salem’s new passion for volunteering — including her work raising $2,000 in only several months as part of the Girls Club’s first annual walkathon in May 2009 — she quickly moved on to larger fundraising projects, as well as providing vital help in other areas. This, along with her past experience and skills acquired in the corporate world, led to her nomination as a Girls Club board member in September 2010, less than two years after joining the organization. But rather than losing touch with the spirit of individual involvement that brought her there in the first place, Salem felt that her new presence allowed that sense of purpose to grow even stronger.

“The board does an amazing job of responding to diversity and staying in touch with the L.E.S. and its needs,” she said. “They all have a really special love for the neighborhood, because they recognize that that neighborhood is and always will be what grounds them.”

Salem’s role as a board member even drove her to train for and run the New York Half-Marathon this past March, single-handedly raising almost $1,700 for the Girls Club in the process. As she fondly remembered putting together a humorous fundraising video that she admitted was just as much fun as actually completing the race, Salem acknowledged that it’s experiences like the half-marathon that have reminded her of her own personal growth, since taking a path that was first sparked by the pain of being laid off in 2008.

“In the end, it’s been the simplest things that have helped me to find myself,” she reflected.

And through it all, Salem has remained active as a mentor, primarily as part of the organization’s museum club — which ties closely into the new day job she’s had since 2011, as the senior events manager at the New Museum, at 235 Bowery, between Stanton and Prince Sts. The museum trips, which take place once a month, offer girls and their mentors a chance to find interesting new exhibits and engage in real dialogue about various types of art. But, as Salem added, going to lunch afterward to chat about life can be just as important to building a strong relationship, with a more personal connection.

“It becomes natural,” she said, “just like a friend.”

Now, as the Girls Club moves forward on the construction of a new, 30,000-square-foot headquarters at Seventh St. and Avenue D, Salem and the rest of the board, under the leadership of Executive Director Lyn Pentecost, will be working to ensure that all of those close relationships remain intact amidst a larger staff and breadth of services.

The $20 million building, which will open early next year, will include a domed planetarium, art studios, a science and environmental education center and an Internet radio station, among many other features, while also tripling the organization’s program capacity to more than 1,500 girls per week. It’s an exciting transition, with new challenges and new ways to reaffirm the organization’s underlying community spirit, all alongside that sense of individual purpose that brought Salem there in the first place. And, thinking back to the struggles of her first career, Salem knows that Pentecost’s vision will be key.

“Lyn has an incredible mind,” Salem said. “She just thinks of the possibilities, and then goes for them. I remember that there were always limitations in the corporate environment — you can’t do this because of expenses, you can’t do this because of the hierarchy. With the Girls Club, it’s like, Why not? Why not try it?”

That change in perspective — that search for something greater than profit — may have saved Salem just as much as it has guided the girls she mentors.

Since first being paired with her in 2009, Salem has developed a particularly close relationship with one of her mentees, Pnyessa, who is now 16. Salem continues to meet with her for a lunchtime chat every month, and it’s certainly never become a chore. The two have talked about everything — school, art, boys, the dating scene — but last Saturday, Salem was helping Pnyessa build a résumé for an application to a summer job.

“As I did it I could remember how overwhelming that felt for me when I did it years ago, when I was first looking for a job,” Salem said. “And at this point, today, I’m sitting there thinking that there’s no place I’d rather be right now than here, helping her.”

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