While a student at Vassar College, Sally Matsuishi attended a lecture on equality by Betty Shabazz, the civil rights activist and widow of Malcolm X. Sally spoke with Shabazz afterward—and their conversation was a game changer. "She challenged me to use my education to create a new generation of people who could lift up their communities," Sally recalls. "I went back to my dorm and came up with a plan that night."
Sally, now 43, wanted to create a nurturing, all-inclusive after-school program for promising but underserved kids that went beyond homework help. After moving back to her hometown of San Rafael, California, she launched Next Generation Scholars (NGS) in 2003 with four kids around her kitchen table. Since then, the number of middle- and high-school students has increased steadily thanks to grants and donations. In January 2013, NGS moved into Scholar House—a century-old building with four lecture rooms, computer labs, a kitchen and a 4,700-volume library.
"We offer social services that address the whole child—not just their education but also their physical and mental health," Sally says. Vision-care centers donate glasses, while the local community contributes textbooks, supplies and clothing. Students prepare sit-down meals in the house kitchen with food provided by grocers and bakeries. "It gives these kids a chance to talk about what's going on in their lives," Sally says. "Many of them have witnessed violence, and their parents have to work two or three jobs just to scrape by. The weight of poverty can be crushing."
All in the Family
NGS is also an after-school venue for Sally's daughter, Miya, 13, who studies alongside the students. Sally's husband, Rob, helps with financial aid applications. Her father tends the vegetable garden that provides NGS kids and their families with fresh produce, while her psychologist mom serves as counselor. Assisted by four paid staffers, one part- time employee and dozens of multilingual volunteers, Sally calls the 65 students who attend NGS daily her "kids," and they, in turn, see her as a surrogate mom. "I want this place to feel like a second home," she says.
Challenged with year-round college-prep classes, NGS students are reaping the dividends: All of the center's 93 graduates have gone on to attend top-tier four-year colleges. NGS has been so successful that it has become a model for several other programs throughout the country. "Sally is always there for you, and the students know it," says Vinney Le, an alum who graduated from Stanford University in 2011. "Building a community is the goal, and Sally lives and breathes it."
Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Family Circle magazine.