For International House President and CEO Calvin Sims, the path to volunteering for the Harlem Educational Activities Fund, or HEAF, began when he grew up in an underprivileged Los Angeles neighborhood.
“We were not rich and were not poor but my parents were well educated and they provided some amazing opportunities for me and my brothers and sisters,” he remembers.
The opportunities he lists include finding access to free after school tutoring, college prep initiatives and other cultural and artistic enrichment programs, which his parents understood to be crucial to success in life.
“They were the Tiger Moms,” he says.
Sims credits his parents’ drive to provide educational opportunities for their kids with partly instilling in him a desire to want to help “level the playing field” for everyone hoping to succeed.
Many years ago, he attended a dinner party where he was approached by New York real estate developer Daniel Rose, the father of Sims’ college roommate (and editor of Foreign Affairs magazine) Gideon Rose. The elder Rose told Sims about his idea to provide underprivileged students in New York City with opportunities that his own children took for granted.
Sims recalls Rose telling him: “My children have all gone to the best prep schools and colleges and universities and are very successful in their lives and careers. I believe their success is due in part to the advantages that I have given them and I believe that if we were to give the same opportunities to kids in Harlem they could succeed as well.”
Rose said he was launching HEAF to assist students in Harlem in gaining access to college and graduating. “And you are going to be involved with this because you can make a difference,” Rose told Sims.
“So I started volunteering and my involvement escalated from there,” Sims says.
The former New York Times correspondent and Ford Foundation executive eventually made his way to the Board of Directors of HEAF, with a five-year stint as board chair. In October, he was honored at the annual HEAF gala in New York City. More than 400 guests attended the annual fundraiser, which raised $1.4 million for the organization.
HEAF President and CEO Ruth Rathblott says Sims exemplifies the organization’s core values of achievement, innovation, leadership and education.
“I just think Calvin is a wonderful role model for all of us,” Rathblott says. “It doesn’t matter what your background is. I think he is so kind and so passionate and so smart and he’s somebody who has a warm level head. He’s very level-headed. Having him as a HEAF board member makes my job easier and he’s a great advisor.”
HEAF now reaches the lives of approximately 600 young students from Harlem, the Bronx and the surrounding neighborhoods of upper Manhattan through after-school tutoring, counseling and college-readiness programs. It recently launched another college prep and leadership development program in Brooklyn.
Every year, Residents from International House volunteer with HEAF to tutor young students in a range of subject areas.
“The relationship with International House started when Calvin joined as President. He came to us and said they had a number of students who would be interested in tutoring. So we created a partnership,” Rathblott says.
She credits that partnership with expanding the perspectives of both I-House Residents and the students they encounter through the program.
“[I-House Residents] get a firsthand glimpse of what high school students and middle school students…how their lives can look like and feel like,” she says. “I think students get a perspective of having a volunteer who may not come from their neighborhood… and has a very different experience and upbringing and background.”
As a member of the HEAF board, Sims says he has pushed to quantify the success of the program, noting that it has a “100 percent track record of getting participants to college and graduating.” He also has pushed for the expansion of cultural enrichment programs for participants, including travel to foreign countries and “exposure to cultural and artistic undertakings.”
Sims says he’s “convinced that HEAF is the bridge across the educational divide that prevents our country and its people from reaching full potential.”
“And,” he adds, “there’s nothing more American than an equal opportunity to learn.”