Susanne Veder Berger
Susanne Veder Berger has parlayed her passion for inspiring others into life-changing mentoring work at Brooklyn's Freedom Academy, a struggling inner-city high school.
Meet Susanne Veder Berger, a hero to the students of a struggling Brooklyn high school, and no stranger to challenges herself. This author, executive, mother, mentor spent decades literally hiding her face from the world because of a large “port wine stain” birthmark that covered half her face. (The mark was eventually removed through laser surgery). After enduring a bitter divorce, she reinvented herself and supported her children by becoming a successful marketing executive for a number of companies and organizations. Berger did find love again, but lost her husband to heart disease in 2010. She channeled her grief into writing and soon discovered how fulfilling it can be to share words of encouragement and inspiration with others. Berger now writes a popular blog, “Create a New Life with Susanne,” and her memoir, Getting Naked, is scheduled for publication in 2012.
In fall 2011, Berger parlayed her passion for inspiring others into life-changing mentoring work at Brooklyn's Freedom Academy, an inner-city high school that most would agree has been forgotten by the city. On her own time and using money out of her own pocket, she is encouraging and preparing students to graduate and go to college, and taking them on field trips to meet successful entrepreneurs in New York. Berger spoke with JW about providing disadvantaged students with first-ever guidance for taking the SATs, exploring career paths, and learning about business in the real world.
How did you wind up working with kids in this inner-city school?
Last summer, Joyce Freeling, director of the New York City chapter of Communities in Schools (CIS), asked me to speak to teenagers in the CIS program—to offer them inspiration and let them know that they can believe in themselves and create an empowering future. Freedom Academy students attend Advisory Class—a half hour, three times a week—that prepares them for college and SATs and covers home economics and a little bit of dating and socialization. I was asked to be a guest speaker for the 9th grade class on the topic of self-esteem. I walked into this classroom with no windows, in this school that’s in an old warehouse building in front of the off-ramp for the Manhattan Bridge. I was ready to give my Power Point presentation to the 80 kids in the room, but they started shooting questions at me, like, “What is self-esteem?” and “How do you get it?” and I quickly realized I had to change everything. It was a difficult class, but I captured their attention for 15 minutes, which is something most of their teachers couldn’t do.
Most of the 250 students at Freedom Academy are from the projects in Brooklyn and Bedford Stuyvesant. One out of every five of my students does not have a home. If the school closes, these students will disappear; they will be lost in the system. I asked to go back after that first day. I saw that somebody caring for these kids could make a difference. So I stepped up and adopted this school.
Are there any moments with these kids that stick out in your memory?
One day I had a small group of 12 young men, all 9th graders. We were discussing “The Moment,” an article I had written for my blog, about sudden changes in our lives and how we deal with them. We read the essay out loud and the boys and I discussed. After we read one particular sentence—“In that one instant, I could see what was right and what was wrong, and I knew with a certainty I had never known before that I didn’t feel good inside”—one of my students said, “When you have a gun pointed to your head, there is no moment. All you can think about is how terrified you are. You are never the same. How many of you have had a gun to your head?”
I don’t know the details of what happened to that boy or why. But I do know that four boys out of the 12 in that class—9th graders, 14 years old—raised their hands. Four of those children had experienced moments where they thought they were going to die. They trusted me and were able to talk openly and freely. It reminded me how much they need to feel safe and able to talk.
When did you realize the depth of your commitment to this school?
Just before last Christmas I started working with the 11th graders. As I was speaking to them, I realized that everyone I knew who had a child in 11th grade, including myself, was having that seasonal conversation about college. But many of these kids had parents who didn’t even graduate from high school, let alone college, and for a lot of them college wasn’t part of the dialogue at home. As I handed out folders to the class, I heard myself say, “Part of your Christmas gift will be me,” and I promised then and there that I would work with them until graduation—helping them find colleges, apply and prepare to go.
How are you engaging these kids in building their futures?
Over that Christmas vacation I designed “internships”: I set up a blog as a real company, with departments—marketing, IT, human resources… They had to select a job and write a description of what they would do: writing articles, making videos, bringing in guest speakers and preparing to interview. These students are not necessarily used to working as a team. When they do, it brings out certain skills and everyone gets involved. It was hard to get the blog off the ground, but we have several postings now, and my students wrote them all.
As for other activities, I arranged a school trip to Palo Santo Restaurant in Brooklyn to have a lesson with Chef Jacques Gautier. These kids don’t have a gym of any kind so I am working on opportunities for them to play tennis. And I started taking dance classes with the 11th grade students, which creates good bonding time.
I wish I could tell you I had financial backing for all this, but it’s just me.
Are you seeing the impact of your work?
This is changing the dynamics of the entire school: Not only are the kids more engaged, the teachers are becoming more creative. I don’t know what their lives are really like; I’m the “skinny white Jewish lady”—not even a teacher—who came from the outside. Writing and teaching corporations how to talk to customers, and being a mom of two successful children is all the training I have. But the fact that the entire school has accepted me, listens to me and has embraced me is amazing.
Other children have opportunities but these children do not. They have never been given the tools to succeed. I want to prove that if we give them some, it will make a difference. I see my students changing. They want to graduate. Most of these kids never have any follow-through, but I made a promise to them, and I would like to be remembered as the person who didn’t give up on them. I know that I have already made a difference.