Serve Here CT targets twin evils - unemployment and high student debt

Each year, Alva Greenberg hosts a pool party and cookout for the children served by Child & Family Agency of Southeastern
Connecticut. 'It's their favorite thing. They love it,' said Karen Gillis, a 14-year staffer at the agency. Taking a break from swimming to join Alva are, top row from left Alexa Gutierrez, Elkin Garcia, Maria Serrano, Emily Lopez and Natalie Acosta; and sitting, Ximena Amaya, Jeanique Turner, Jahliek Turner and Dante Henry.
Each year, Alva Greenberg hosts a pool party and cookout for the children served by Child & Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut. "It's their favorite thing. They love it," said Karen Gillis, a 14-year staffer at the agency. Taking a break from swimming to join Alva are, top row from left Alexa Gutierrez, Elkin Garcia, Maria Serrano, Emily Lopez and Natalie Acosta; and sitting, Ximena Amaya, Jeanique Turner, Jahliek Turner and Dante Henry.

There’s no other way to say it: the American dream has taken a hit in recent years. The narrative that hard work equals success is compelling — when jobs are plentiful. But to the generation of Americans leaving college and entering the workforce on the heels of the Great Recession, that dream can be hard to come by.

In findings released in March, the independent, non-partisan Pew Research Center reported that the “Millennial” generation — those born in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s — is the most racially diverse, politically independent and most educated group of young people this country has seen so far, with “fully a third” of those ages 26-33 holding a four-year degree or more.

Sounds promising. But what is happening to them?

The unemployment rate for 18-29 year olds stands at 15% (more than twice the national average), with higher rates among Black (22.4%) and Hispanic (15.8%) Americans, according to a report released in August by Generation Opportunity, a national, non-partisan advocacy organization.

In September, CNN reported that 40 million Americans have at least one outstanding college loan, and that the nationwide student loan debt stands at all-time record of $1.2 trillion. The Project on Student Debt, a program out of the nonprofit research Institute for College Access & Success, ranked Connecticut 21st in the country in student loan debt burden in 2012, with 61% of four-year college graduates carrying debt at an average of $28,000 per student. The Center for American Progress estimates that in the past three decades, the cost of attaining a college degree has increased more than 1,000%.

The situation has attracted the concern of prominent lawmakers. Earlier this summer, President Obama signed an executive order that as of December, expands a 2010 program which lets borrowers cap their monthly education loan payments at 10 percent of their income. He also urged Congress to pass a bill sponsored by Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would let student borrowers refinance when interest rates go down (like home, automobile and business borrowers do). The bill has been blocked twice, with support split along party lines.

The political scene is contentious. The twin specters of high debt and high unemployment are casting dismal shadows over the earning potential of a generation of workers, and the general health of our local and national economy.

One Connecticut philanthropist is pushing back.

“This is like a lost generation — how are they going to dig out?”

A strong society is a place where children and culture thrive, and for decades, Alva Greenberg has worked tenaciously for both.

She has been a driving force behind the scenes at some of the region’s major nonprofits: the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, the Pequot Foundation, the Garde Arts Center in New London, Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut in New London and the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme.

In the latter half of the 1990s, she turned her attention to downtown New London, rehabilitating four buildings and operating the ALVA Gallery, which showcased contemporary artists from around the world. (The exhibits live in online archives.) She co-owned a weekly newspaper, The Old Lyme Gazette; and serves on the board of directors of Read to Grow in Brandford, and the Gund Art Gallery at Kenyon College, her alma mater.

No one would bat an eye if Greenberg chose to devote the latter decades of her life to putting her feet up and enjoying her grandchildren (Her first was born in July.)

Instead, she is throwing her seemingly limitless energy into developing a pilot service/employment program that has the potential to mobilize a variety of community partners — businesses, nonprofits and job seekers — around common interests and common goals. Movements like this need to happen, she said, because the climate of our national discourse — coupled with economic hardship — is creating an atmosphere of disconnect and powerlessness among the incoming generations of workers.

“I hear it constantly now from all strata — people can’t afford to move forward with their lives because of this debt burden,” Greenberg said. “And when you try to talk about that [at the political level] — we’ve become very fractured in how we view each other. That’s not real, actually, and it’s not good for the state, never mind our country,” she said.

“We have to find a way to reintroduce the different strata of society to each other and form bonds between them, so that people really understand that we are all Americans,” she added. “Life is not ‘blue states’ and ‘red states’ and 99% and 1% and liberals and whatever. That’s not how things actually are, and it doesn’t build social capital. People’s ideas are grey, usually, and their backgrounds are astonishingly similar when we take the time to examine them. We’ve certainly lost sight of what is going to make this country a good place to live going forward.”

Greenberg wants to bring that vision back. Last fall, in collaboration with Child and Family’s executive director Tom Gullotta, she launched Serve Here CT, a program that matches qualified applicants between the ages of 18 and 29 with jobs at area nonprofit organizations, schools and municipalities. Employers receive a $10,000 grant toward the participant’s salary for one year. Upon completing the first year of employment, the participant receives $10,000 toward either reducing their college loans, or completing or furthering their academic or technical education. To attain their award, participants must also complete the curriculum component, which is designed to build lasting connections between the emerging professionals. Participants attend biweekly “learning roundtables” where they “explore entrepreneurial approaches to solving community problems” and delve into meaningful conversations about their communities and one another.

Greenberg expects Serve Here CT, now in its fundraising phase, to be able to support 15 participants its first year. Applications will open in late February, and anyone interested can sign up to receive updates at The program is paid for through private donations, which are administered through the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut. Organizers are also working to secure state funding, and have received positive indications from the current administration.

The program also is designed to be replicable in other states. Toward that end, organizers are collaborating on a book due out next fall, “Social Capital: A Blueprint for Engaging Citizens to Promote the Social and Civic Health of Communities.” Contributors include experts from the fields of health policy; sociology; social development; community, and child and family psychology; mental health and addiction; prevention science and criminal justice. You can read more about it, including the preface, on the website.

“Alva is a remarkably good soul...”

It is difficult to pinpoint what drives Greenberg. She is calm and self-possessed, but never quite still even when sitting. There is a hum in the air around her of something about to happen. She acknowledges this restlessness, saying her mind has always permitted her “a short window between conception and execution.”

“I’ve known her for 30 years and she is a person who, when she sets her mind to something she accomplishes it. She will give it her very best to bring it to fruition,” Tom Gullotta said.

She is descended from ambitious, singular personalities.

Her grandfather, Bernard Gimbel, oversaw Gimbel Bros. department stores during their period of greatest growth, from 1920s-50s. It was his idea to locate a store in Manhattan, and directly compete with Macy’s. By 1965, the family company included 53 stores throughout the country; 22 Gimbels, 27 Saks Fifth Avenue stores, and four Saks 34th St.

Her father was Hank Greenberg, first baseman for the Detroit Tigers, the famous slugger who nearly broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home-run record; who enlisted to serve in World War II at the height of his career; and one of two Jewish Americans today enshrined into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

These were not people who waited on anyone’s permission to do what should be done. Like Alva, they saw the moment, and knew.

“Alva brings an incredible sense of vision to any project she undertakes. She compels people,” said Lynn Fairfield-Sonn, director of development at Child & Family and a friend of Greenberg for more than 20 years. “We’ll talk about something and the next thing you know, it’s happening. She makes things happen. That’s what sets her apart.”

Gullotta echoed his colleague’s remarks. “Alva is a remarkably good soul and there aren’t enough good souls left in the world. When you find one, you want to keep them as a friend, keep them as a colleague, and work beside them.”

Greenberg is healthy and lithe. Her mind is quick. She practices yoga. But her sense of urgency seems informed by something deeper; an intimate awareness that the fabric of this cherished life is one we smooth, and then release.

Her three children are successful, and grown. Her second marriage was to Anthony Collins — a Brit, a successful international business entrepreneur “with tremendous energy” and a gifted, quirky painter. He had a “love of people — especially children — and a spirited sense of humor,” Greenberg said. He died in 2011, 17 months after being diagnosed with cancer.

Photos of their travels, of children and grandchildren are clustered on a living room table in the Old Saybrook home they made together. Wide windows look out upon tall marsh grasses; sailboats pass in the water beyond. Herons and egrets rise unexpectedly into the air.

“If this movement really goes someplace — catches on everywhere — will I see that in my lifetime? Probably not. It took 100 years for women to get the right to vote,” Greenberg observed, matter-of-factly. “But I will be happy whatever happens, because we will have changed things for 15 people. And I know and I have seen, that helping a single person,” she said, spreads good tidings and growth across the sea of our intertwined existence.

“This is my one life. And I want it to make a difference.”

Alva Greenberg is shown at her home in Old Saybrook.
Alva Greenberg is shown at her home in Old Saybrook.

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