“Rebecca’s attitude was the thing that was really most appealing about her,” said QCH chief strategies officer Dennis Redmond, who taught Lew’s computer class that year. “She just had this wonderful attitude and this openness toward learning.”
Redmond recalls that Lew’s self-deprecating sense of humor helped ease tensions for other students. She was not shy about admitting she struggled with computers as a technology that felt foreign to her, and this quickly fostered a sense of camaraderie within the class.
After her initial course at QCH, Lew returned to volunteer as a teaching assistant for the incoming computer class. From then on, she became a familiar face around the community house and the Forest Hills neighborhood.
One day, Redmond ran into Lew outside the community house in Forest Hills and discovered that her brother is former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew, whom QCH was looking to honor at a gala.
Rebecca Lew encouraged her brother to accept the honor, and spoke with Redmond at length about their childhood in an apartment lined “floor-to-ceiling with books.”
“It was very clear that in her home this love of books and love of learning was omnipresent and formed their life,” he explained.
Lew had been making arrangements to reconnect with QCH and volunteer as a Friendly Visitor to homebound seniors when she passed away unexpectedly in November 2018.
In tribute to her, QCH launched the Rebecca Lew Family Literacy Initiative, a program with the goal of engaging families in the development of their children’s enjoyment of reading.
The program will be funded by matching donations from former Secretary Lew and his current employer, private equity firm Linsday Goldberg, totaling $200,000 over the course of two years.
According to Redmond, QCH had long been looking into a model for family literacy to embed in its 14 afterschool programs for young students. When former Secretary Lew approached the community house about a donation in his sister’s honor, an initiative based on literacy seemed like the perfect fit.
This is especially appropriate given Lew’s eternal love of reading and her desire to share that with the next generations of her family. Throughout the years, she gifted her nieces and nephews - and later, great-nieces and nephews - with books to celebrate occasions.
Bounds of research indicates that early literacy development is a strong predictor of a child’s future academic success. QCH serves nearly 2,800 students a year in its afterschool enrichment programs, but their impact is limited to only a few hours a week.
That is why the new initiative is focused on family literacy, which constitutes creating a home environment that nourishes a child’s interest in reading and writing.
“Literacy is key to lifelong learning and the key to lifelong opportunities,” Redmond said. “It’s a way of interacting with the world, learning to communicate in many different forms and being confident in your ability to express yourself.
“If we’re not giving kids those essential tools, we’re denying them access to a lot of possibilities,” he added.
Last month, QCH hired a literacy specialist to work with the staff in its afterschool programs and develop curriculums that will be reflective of the communities served by each respective site.
“We’re taking it in the format of also providing a holistic approach,” said Helena Ku, associate executive director for Youth Services, who is supervising the Rebecca Lew Family Literacy Initiative.
Ku explained that while the specific methodologies and programs are right now in the informative process, the idea behind the initiative is to give parents, guardians and family members the skills to support their child’s learning through interactive activities. But that isn’t always easy.
For immigrant families, the language barrier between the English used in a student’s school setting and what is spoken at home can discourage parental figures from feeling they can contribute to their child’s academics.
However, Ku and Redmond pointed to storytelling, which can be done in a parent’s native language, as a means to support literacy. This method comprises both relaying stories to children and asking kids to develop or express their own stories in return.
Parents can also ask students at home about what they are reading in school, focusing on questions that bridge a connection between characters and messages in the book with the child’s own environment.
“We understand a lot of our parents are working, sometimes two jobs,” Redmond said. “So giving them something simple they can start to do at home during dinner gives them the chance to engage.”
Other potential ideas for the program include an essay-writing contest and a “Dr. Seuss Day” to get families excited about literacy.
“Part of it is increasing the parents’ understanding of literacy and appreciating that their kids are enjoying reading,” said Ku. “Then if they find they may need some supports, we can provide them with other resources for their own lives.”
QCH is a multi-service agency that offers ESOL classes, housing support, immigrant services and connection to other programs geared toward adult learning.
The community house is developing partnerships through the Rebecca Lew Family Literacy Initiative as well. A few weeks ago, the literacy coordinator for the program brought vans full of books from the Queens Library to one of QCH’s school-based sites.
Overall, Redmond believes the new program is one that fittingly celebrates Lew’s life and legacy.
“Rebecca was a very giving person, so the fact that we would be doing something in her name that would be helping young kids to develop that same love of literacy, she would be very pleased,” he said.