Graduates of A Better Chance of Andover gathered at the Andover Country Club Saturday night for an evening of remembrance and appreciation.
“We salute the courage of the founders and the bravery of the scholars, from the first in 1969 to those who have yet to be selected,” Simon McBean Yatrakis, a member of the ABC National Board of Directors, told the glittering room of 375 alumni, friends and supporters. They were gathered to celebrate the program’s 50th Anniversary at the Opening Doors Gala this past weekend. In a nod to the many host parents in the room, Yatrakis added, “We thank those who opened up their hearts to make room for one more.”
Laurin Banner, a 1972 graduate of the local program, said he wouldn't miss the event.
“I was in Nigeria working on a project," he said. "But when Julie Ireland Childs, chair of ABC’s 50th Gala, asked me to come and speak at this celebration, I knew I wanted to make the trip."
Banner was one of 57 alumni, out of 140 who've gone through the program, who returned for the gala, which was part of an alumni reunion weekend.
It was an evening of reconnection, inspiration, laughter and deep gratitude for a program that has — in the words of the alumni in attendance — not only changed lives, but sometimes saved them as well.
“Where would I be without ABC? Probably 6 feet under,” said Banner. The event raised over $75,000.00 for ABC of Andover programming.
Lakisha Williams, a 1992 graduate and the Youth and Young Adult Minister of the Antioch Baptist Church in Harlem, started the dinner off with an impassioned blessing.
“If we are to go so far, we must go together, ” she said. She noted the powerful forces shaping our current times, the challenges from both nature and fellow human beings alike, and she finished by asking attendees to breathe in the same air of their brothers and sisters in the room, and to gather their neighbors in an embrace of friendship.
Banner took the stage next, regaling the room with a remarkable story that took him from Harlem and a C- grade average to Northeastern University, MIT graduate school and eventually around the world as a consultant. He was interrupted by the friendly ribbing of fellow housemates, including Van DeBose and Ellis Rowe, class of 1970.
Felicia Reyes, class of 2013, choked up with gratitude while sharing her beginnings in foster care, of the way in which ABC provided her a stable, loving place within which to grow and learn. Reyes went on to graduate from the University of Southern California on a full scholarship, land an internship at the Children’s Defense Fund working for Marianne Wright Edelman, and win numerous academic awards. Reyes topped a dazzling four years off this past spring by appearing on stage with singer songwriter Usher as a co-presenter at the Brilliant Minds 2017 symposium in Stockholm, Sweden.
At tables around the room, alumni who had lived together but hadn’t seen each other in years, or decades, reconnected. Sheila Wright, 2004 graduate, now a pediatric-cardiac nurse, reunited with Brianna Glenn, 2006, program director for a non-profit. “I haven’t been here in 13 years!” said Wright. “It looks exactly the same; so familiar.”
Joel and Erlinda Parks, both past board members, sat like proud parents at a table filled completely by all three of their ABC host students: Henrica Bresil '11, Kirza Sanchez ‘98, and Kris Lord ’99.
Ian Dowe, ’84, and his host father Mark Jaffe toasted, insisting that each gave each other more than they got. Dowe noted that at the alumni luncheon the previous day, he was asked what was most important thing that happened to him during his time in ABC. He answered unequivocally, “Getting my host dad.” Dowe is in the process of becoming a certified wedding officiant so he can officiate his host-sister’s upcoming wedding.
At the end of the evening, alumni and guests took to the dance floor, while silent auction winner Becky Connolly tried on her winnings — a sophisticated black cocktail dress designed by alumni and fashion designer Taide Byers Broadbelt, ’94.
The Gala capped off a year of events honoring the many facets of A Better Chance of Andover and of the town that took it’s own chance on a then- radical educational experiment. As Banner noted, the “exponential positive effects” that come from helping individuals to achieve academic success was on full display at Andover Country Club.