Introduced in December 2002 by Volvo Cars of North America (VNCA), the Volvo for life Awards became the largest-ever national search for and celebration of everyday heroes. Since 2002, VCNA received more than 10,000 nominations from all 50 states, provided more than $1 million in awards and contributions in honor of heroes, and more than $5 million to help hometown heroes continue their extraordinary work in their communities.
Throughout the summer, we will re-tell six heroes’ amazing stories of inspiration and fill you in on what they’ve been up to since Volvo named them America’s Greatest Hometown Heroes. Here is the second of six Volvo for life Award winners that we will be checking in with this summer.
In 2004, Earnestine Russell-Drumgold, a 62-year-old New Yorker who for nearly 30 years has improved the lives of thousands in crime-ridden northeast Bronx, was named “America’s Greatest Hometown Hero” in the second annual Volvo for life Awards.
Russell-Drumgold, the winner in the quality of life category, was honored for her work founding and running the Bronx-based Baychester Youth Council, or BYC. From its 21st Century community learning centers to its highly lauded Burch Summer Camp, Russell-Drumgold’s organization provides at-risk young people and adults in the Bronx with the programs and resources they need to lead healthy, successful lives.
More than two decades ago, a young man from the Bronx asked Russell-Drumgold why he should work for minimum wage when he could make good money selling drugs. Realizing her community was in crisis, Russell-Drumgold, a mother of four, marched into the principal’s office of the local middle school and convinced the principal to donate space for an after-school program she called the Baychester Youth Council.
The school sent Russell-Drumgold its toughest kids, and she set about to change their lives. She has since taught the classes without compensation, relying upon the odd gift, subsidized housing and a check from Social Security to pay her bills. What little money she does earn goes back to her programs, allowing her to purchase art supplies and sports equipment.
To recognize Russell-Drumgold’s efforts, Volvo presented her with a new Volvo car every three years for the rest of her life and a $50,000 donation to the Baychester Youth Council.
“Every day, I am thankful for the Volvo for life Award. It has let us shine doing the work we’ve done in our community for nearly 30 years,” said Russell-Drumgold. “Helping the young and the old get to where they want to be in life is important. We’re so grateful for Volvo’s gift; with it, we’ve impacted more lives and created powerful change in the Bronx.”
In addition to her Volvo for life Award, in 2005 Russell-Drumgold and BYC were selected by Martin’s Volvo of Manhattan to receive funds raised by the retailer during Volvo Drive for life Days – a weekend-long effort by nearly 300 Volvo retailers in cities nationwide to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for their local charities.
“On behalf of BYC’s board, staff and especially our kids, we offer our heartfelt thanks to Martin’s Volvo and to Volvo Cars of North America for their support of local programs like ours,” Russell-Drumgold has said.
For her first Volvo, Russell-Drumgold tried out the C70. She later chose the XC60 for more space. “I have loved both my Volvos! They’ve been great,” said Russell-Drumgold. “My community just loves them, too. They’re always asking for rides!”
Today, BYC has grown to become one of the most successful programs in the Bronx, focusing on the needs of young people between the ages of 5 and 19, their parents and young adults who never received their high school degree. The organization’s mission is to work in collaboration with parents, local schools, councils, civil service providers, healthcare facilities and neighborhood volunteers to provide the academic, behavioral, occupational and health service resources and referrals that economically-challenged families need to become healthy and successful. Since its founding, thousands of community members and at-risk youth have passed through BYC programs held at the Baychester Community Center and two local schools.
Russell-Drumgold tells hundreds of success stories about how her students have never had an unplanned pregnancy and how they have completed college, technology courses or apprenticeships. Today, the young boy who inspired Russell-Drumgold is employed as a professional within a Fortune 500 company. A young girl who began taking BYC’s dance classes at age five has since earned her Master’s degree in dance. “It comes full circle,” said Russell-Drumgold. “Now, she teaches dance here – the same classes she took as a child – to continue the cycle of helping youth in her community.”
With the charitable gift from Volvo, many programs have been expanded or added to better serve the community.
Approximately 53% of the adult population in the greater Notheast Bronx have low or limited literacy skills, and more than 48 percent of this population lacks a high school diploma. Baychester Youth Adult Literacy Programs serves approximately 500 students a year through its tuition-free adult literacy program, which pairs adult learners with teachers in small-group settings. Sessions cover reading and writing, as well as basic mathematics skills, and are guided by the adult learner’s personal goals. People who graduate from her GED program have outscored the state every year since it started in 2007.
After-school care offers students grades 9-12 a multitude of activities to fit their interests in a productive and healthy way. Activities and programs include martial arts, basketball, dance, archery, drama, chess, algebra, arts and crafts and cooking. An IT program is currently in development, and programs are also available for students with special needs.
To serve more people, a second site one block away from the original location opened in 2006. A third site is being planned for South Bronx. When asked how she’s managing the sheer growth, Russell-Drumgold replies, “Well, I bite off a lot, but I’m chewing.”
Her autobiography, A journey of a lifetime, is also in the works, which sheds light on the power of transforming kids’ lives through positive community activation.
“When you’re working with God, everything is possible,” she said.
To learn more and to support Russell-Drumgold and the Baychester Youth Council, visit www.BaychesterYouth.org.