Today, many children are faced with obstacles that impede daily living and dim their aspirations for the future, but "we must make a difference," retired U.S. Secretary of State General Colin L. Powell told those gathered September 12 to honor his work with America’s Promise and recognize the 175th anniversary of Episcopal Social Services (ESS).
"It is said that to nurture a child is to bless the future, and I believe that wholeheartedly," he told more than 300 business and religious leaders and philanthropists in attendance at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York City.
Powell is the founding chairman of America's Promise, a collaborative network that facilitates volunteer action for children and youth, founded after the Presidents' Summit for America's Future in 1997. Its partnerships with government, nonprofits, business and communities work to ensure that all children can have access to five essential resources: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, effective education and opportunities to help others.
Through humorous yet poignant stories of growing up in a close-knit South Bronx neighborhood, and serving as an acolyte at St. Margaret’s Church, Powell shared the sense of purpose his family instilled in him as a child.
"ESS and America's Promise are doing important work in our communities – both here in New York City and across the country," Powell said. "I am delighted to be here tonight with this significant organization on its 175th anniversary and hope that we continue to invest in our youth, challenge them and provide opportunities for them to succeed."
"General Powell's passion to help children is providing them with the tools and resources they need to become leaders and healers of the future," said Robert Gutheil, executive director of ESS. "We salute him and are delighted to honor him for his work on behalf of the youth of this nation."
Gutheil said ESS strives to create permanent improvement in the lives of children and adults as they battle the effects of poverty – illness, illiteracy and abuse.
Bishop Mark S. Sisk of the Diocese of New York, who delivered the invocation, said that although the New York of 1831 is not the New York of 2006, the need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit those in prison, and protect the young and defenseless has "remained constant."
"Over these many years ESS has changed its name more than once, but its purpose has remained steadfast, and its work has remained effective," he said. "I am pleased to celebrate ESS's 175 years of Christian service to the great City we love so deeply."
Episcopal Social Services, founded in 1831 as the "good works arm" of the Diocese of New York, reaches out to New Yorkers in need through programs in foster care and adoption, early childhood education, after-school programs, group homes for developmentally disabled adults, and community re-integration of former prisoners. Throughout changing times, its mission has remained unchanged: to help the disadvantaged build community and achieve self-sufficiency.
Phoebe Griswold, wife of Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, said social service agencies that support the well-being of children and families sustain the bedrock of society.
"Faith-based social service agencies like Episcopal Social Services rest on the infinite energy and wisdom of God’s plan for humanity," she said.
Gloria Pergola, an ESS foster parent for 12 years, considers her work a calling.
"I keep most of the kids long term and I really enjoy it," Pergola said. "I love being a good influence on children and giving them standards to live by and a place to come home to at night. This evening makes me feel proud."
Yuhanna Buggs, 16, of the Bronx, has been a recipient of ESS services for nearly 10 months. He credits the organization with keeping him motivated.
"I receive a lot of support from people in this agency, people who are on my side to help me do well," he said.
Bishop Orris Walker of the Diocese of Long Island said the longevity of the organization "is a blessing that God has bestowed upon us."
Other guests included Dennis Wolcott, deputy mayor of the City of New York, who on behalf of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, presented ESS with a proclamation declaring September 12 "ESS Day"; and John C. Whitehead, chairman of the Goldman Sachs Foundation and former chair of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation.