Excalibur Reading Program, a tutoring and education nonprofit based in Glendale, has served students in the community for more than 10 years. Now, its founder and president, Angelica Harris, worries they may have to close their doors.
Excalibur, located at 80-17 78th Ave., reopened for in-person and virtual tutoring sessions in the fall, after it was forced to close in March due to the safety risks and statewide shutdown that came with the COVID-19 pandemic. But, Harris told QNS the pandemic has taken a toll on the program, as several of the families the organization serves have been forced to leave due to their own financial troubles.
“Last January we were so busy we were planning to expand the program and create an annex on the same block, or we were thinking of moving to a bigger building,” Harris said. “Now, with a heavy heart, I fear we may close.”
Excalibur’s programs include creative writing and business, blog and essay workshops, pre-K classes, children’s readers theater, Little Pages Book Club, teen and young adult workshops, children’s and adult art classes, state testing prep and mentoring programs.
They also began to offer mental health aid to any student or parent who may need it.
“Let’s face it, within this pandemic we have all been privy to feeling quite depressed. Students lost their schools, many businesses closed, and parents lost jobs. It has been tough,” Harris said. “Our children are lost, and many teens have lost their identities’ taking classes at home. Our students have lost not only their classrooms, but special life events such as prom, graduations, sporting events and awards nights. The pain this has caused is insurmountable. Many teens are showing issues of depression, anxiety and PTSD. We need a support system in place and we at Excalibur have one to offer.”
Excalibur has a small staff including Harris, two professional teachers Thomas Schirling and James De Martini, youth leader Erin Watkins and a licensed social worker Andrea LoCascio, who is Harris’ daughter.
Tutoring sessions are set at $40 per hour and $25 per half hour.
When they reopened in July 2020 with COVID safety measures in place, Harris said things were going well as some students and parents returned. But that quickly changed as parents saw their work hours and income decrease, lost their jobs or had to leave their jobs altogether to take care of their children learning from home, Harris said.
Serving about 30 students in the fall, Excalibur has lost half of it’s clients in the past several months. Most of the students they serve live in Glendale, but they’ve also had students from Howard Beach and Brooklyn.
“I know I’m not exclusive to the damage COVID’s done. COVID’s not just killing people, it’s killing dynamics of business and families. It’s hurting us so much,” Harris said. “All Excalibur is trying to do is extend some compassion.”
The youth advocate said she was able to receive a $20,000 loan from the Small Business Administration last year that helped them sustain themselves last year, but those funds quickly depleted. They are now in the process of applying for a PPP loan.
Harris said she sent letters to several local elected officials who may be able to help with discretionary funding, but said she hasn’t received any response from most while others said they can’t help.
She said that while she understands funding from elected officials takes time, the lack of response has been “frustrating,” as she sees other larger nonprofits receive funding.
Harris said she’s also petitioned to elected officials to receive enough funding in order to offer free classes some day.
“My biggest dream would be to have enough funds to say to parents, ‘You don’t have to pay, we’re here to help,’” she said. “To me, a child’s education is much more important than the money. When the child grows up and has a good foundation, then they can attain their dreams. But I can’t do that if COVID is strapping me.”
Harris is currently fundraising in order to stay afloat. But she said it’s been particularly difficult for friends and long time supporters to donate now, as they’re all struggling to make ends meet.
“We are asking our community for the same help that we have given so many families in the past,” Harris said.
Even though times are hard for many people, Harris believes caring for each other (and getting vaccinated) will help the community bounce back from the pandemic.
“There’s been so much dogma out there with politics, hate and indifference. I want everyone to realize we must, by all means, try hard to give each other so much compassion. That’s the only way we’re going to heal from COVID,” she said. “Even if we’re disconnected […] we have to work with each other on a whole different level of compassion and have love for each other. When the masks come off, we need to have hope for each other. Otherwise, humanity ends. And we’ve seen enough of that with COVID, it’s taken too much. And go get your vaccine, everyone!”