WHEELS Fundraises for Student Access to Higher Education

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COURTESY OF COREY DEWEESE

Friends of WHEELS aid students in the Washington Heights area by providing opportunities and information to prepare for college and beyond.

By MIA AGOSTINELLI, Contributing Writer

Cory DeWeese’s daughter graduated from Fordham in 2015. In the years since, he has been helping to make dreams of college for other students a reality. One way DeWeese realizes this goal is through rousing volunteers in the Washington Heights area, and partnering with local organizations like Friends of the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning Schools (WHEELS).

WHEELS is a public charter school in upper Manhattan serving students from pre-K to 12th grade. One of the many goals of the school organization Friends of WHEELS is “to make sure that every student in our school has the information, counseling, and extracurricular experiences they need to get into and succeed in college and beyond.”

In order to help with finances, they hold a number of community events throughout the year, of which the largest is the WHEELSUP annual benefit. DeWeese was so moved by the work Friends of WHEELS did last year that he decided to return to help again this year.

As a result of the organization’s efforts, 78% of WHEELS graduates have chosen to attend college, enrolling in universities in New York City and all across the country. Since 2012, the percentage of WHEELS graduates enrolled in college is greater than that of the city-wide average of high school students seeking higher education, which is at 22%.

Despite this hard work, everything changed when the novel coronavirus — which causes COVID-19 — spread to New York City, provoking unforeseen challenges in the entire community. This, however, has not stopped WHEELS from pursuing their mission. The WHEELSUP benefit is now being held virtually on Wednesday, June 17, from 7-8 p.m. and the organization has formed the Forward Together Campaign, which is aimed at supporting the residents through this difficult time.

The mental health (effects) and stress for students (are) profound and, while teachers have worked tirelessly and creatively to support students, online learning doesn’t feel as important as social emotional wellbeing.”

— Cory DeWeese

There are many concerns students have over the unknowns of the future. “Washington Heights is one of the most disproportionately impacted NYC communities, with a large Latinx community, in line with what we are experiencing as a nation,” DeWeese said. “COVID-19 is twice as deadly (in) black and Latinx communities (and) NYC’s Latinx residents are being hit hardest by Coronavirus. Many families are still working on the frontlines or are out of work, so food insecurity and loss of income is especially challenging for many in our community.”

According to data from the New York City Government, the hardest-hit communities have been largely in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens along with parts of Staten Island and northern Manhattan. The map shows that these areas have seen upwards of 1,500 cases in each neighborhood.

According to U.S. census data from 2018, the percentage of people who identify as of Hispanic or Latino origin with a high school diploma in New York City is 67.7%, and the percentage of those with a bachelor’s degree is 17.9%. Among black residents, those numbers are 83.0% and 24.2%, respectively. Friends of WHEELS is actively trying to change those numbers and get more of their students through school. “While they don’t know for sure what college will look like in the fall, we can make a promise to students and families: we will be with you every step of the way,” DeWeese said.

In the Washington Heights neighborhood, there are many students struggling with loss as well. Over the past few months, there have been more than 60 deaths that have directly impacted the WHEELS community, including the grandfather of a current WHEELS student.

Educators, too, have found it difficult to make the transition. “Some students and families had technology issues, but WHEELS was able to distribute Google Chrome books to Upper-Grade students right before school closed,” DeWeese said. “The mental health (effects) and stress for students (are) profound and, while teachers have worked tirelessly and creatively to support students, online learning doesn’t feel as important as social emotional wellbeing.”

As a result of the efforts of many, the community is grateful for the tireless work of teachers and staff who continue to support students and families. Both the school and organization administrations have been trying to give back as much as they can by helping students continue to make college decisions and even by assisting with food delivery for those who need it.

In response to how WHEELS is adapting these days, DeWeese said, “Being able to help this organization out has provided myself and the entire team working with me a tangible way to move a community forward in these very uncertain times.”