Madison Payton – Community Service Award 2015 Gala Speech

My legs dangled over the edge of snake rock. I watched daddy long leg spiders waltz on the pond’s surface and pondered how a Harlem kid from The Academy of Environmental Science ended up in such a beautiful place. It was 1999 and I was spending three days at Christodora’s Manice Education Center in the Berkshires. I still did not understand my place in the world. My exposure to nature was limited to visits to Central Park but this was different. For the first time, I felt like I was a part of something larger than me; I felt responsible for my surroundings.

My curiosity led me to several summers up in Massachusetts where I developed leadership skills and the ability to collaborate with my peers on various projects. When the school year began again, I found nature in the city with Christodora by doing service learning at Inwood Park. I studied screech owls and their nesting habits. I learned to be reflective about my role in the environment, as I examined the impact of human disruption of natural habitats due to overbuilding and removing old trees that many species call home.

I wanted to do more and understand the world in which I lived. I wanted to make a difference by gaining more knowledge. In steps Christodora, once again, provided another opportunity for me. Christodora staff encouraged me to apply for the Elliman Scholarship, which would fund my studies in the summer. I was accepted into the prestigious Environmental Studies Summer Youth Institute (ESSYI) at Hobart and William Colleges. I learned the importance of procedures and impact that humans have on the environment. Christodora was there for me during the college process as well, assisting me with procuring recommendations and writing the dreaded personal statement. I attended DePauw University, in Indiana, a college in the middle of nowhere, with a 500-acre nature park in the middle of nowhere; a college that as a city kid, I never would have considered without Christodora.

The skills I gained enabled me to be a very effective educator at my school. I now work in professional development at Eagle Academy For Young Men in Brownsville Brooklyn, which graduated our first class last June. I am launching my own writing center at the school. I remember that first summer at Manice when I was exposed to kids who looked like me but whose thinking challenged me. These were very motivated people of color. I learned not to put limits on self-expression but to keep mindful of what you say it and how you say it. I learned the power of language.

Christodora taught me to be proactive and make a difference no matter what. It taught me that it is important to love yourself and care for those around you. When I think of my whole ongoing experience. I realize Christodora creates a space where students like myself, from Harlem, and of color can gain the exposure to the world.  In 2015, 16 years after that first summer in the Berkshires, dangling my feet over the edge of my desk, peering out the window, I see a promising future for my students as I return the favor and get them involved with Christodora. I understand that is what life is about, giving back and making change. Thank you.

Madison Payton, Alumni Honoree & Community Service Award Recipient