At the end of the film Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart has a great line: “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
George Weiss could have hand-picked that line when he founded Say Yes to Education and pledged a free college education for a group of inner-city kids from Philadelphia in 1987. Nearly 20 years later, Philippe Jean-Louis ’06 paid high compliment to that friendship when, robed in his black graduation gown and fighting a case of clammy palms, he rose to introduce Weiss at graduation in May and to personally thank him for sponsoring his education.
Weiss calls education the great equalizer. During his Commencement address as the recipient of this year’s honorary degree, he talked about the beautiful partnership between Say Yes and Saint Joseph’s College. “You’ve given my kids a chance to succeed,” he said.
He calls them “his kids.” Although he’s given $32 million to help these 750 children succeed, he doesn’t just give money. He gets emotionally involved, and once had an 800 number installed in his office so they could call for personal advice, financial help or just to say hello.
George Weiss grew up in Brookline, Mass., where at age 11 he started bussing tables at the coffee shop in the Kenmore Hotel. He attended the University of Pennsylvania after one of his customers at the coffee shop recommended it for studying business. After his fraternity at the College gave a Christmas party for kids from the streets of South Philly, Weiss began to play pool and basketball with them.
He ended up their friend and mentor. When they all graduated from high school, Weiss told them he was proud. One answered, “George, we couldn’t look you in the eye if we dropped out.”
At that point, Weiss decided that if he ever had the money, he would do something caring that involved education. He started his own company in Hartford, Conn., and eventually became a wealthy money manager. In 1987, he founded the Say Yes to Education Foundation, which promised 112 elementary school students in Philadelphia a free college education – if they completed high school.
The Say Yes program works with students who are confronting enormous educational and social challenges by pledging educational, emotional, social and medical support to enable every child to achieve their educational potential. It is built upon the belief that inner-city children are resilient, and that, with support and encouragement, high expectations can be achieved. It has now grown to include more than 750 students in four cities.
One of the cities Say Yes expanded into was Cambridge, Mass., specifically the streets of East Cambridge where the city’s high school dropout rate is highest.
Mike Pereira ’05 grew up there, the son of Portuguese immigrants. “I was making bagels all night at age 9,” he says of working at his parents’ Italian/Jewish/Portuguese bakery. Once he could drive, he was “putting up bread and making deliveries from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m.” His dad would fire him occasionally for bad behavior, “which just meant I’d have to work for free,” he says.
Pereira played hooky a lot and failed four classes his freshman year at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School. But by his senior year he was on the honor roll. Out of the original 69 second-graders at Harrington Elementary School, he is one of only four who graduated from college in the normal four-year cycle.
Now a residential counselor at a treatment center in Saco, Maine, Pereira works with troubled children. As the counselor closest to their age, he can relate to them – and how they got in trouble. He loves his work. “But they have to know you’re in charge, not their friend,” he says.
“The lack of motivation in these kids kills me … even though I was one,” Pereira adds.
Say Yes kept in touch with Pereira, even when he didn’t want them to. Sometimes he admits to being overwhelmed by the “you have to go to college” message. But he says the best thing they did was “not leave me alone when I asked them to.” He still stays in touch: their numbers are stored on his cell phone.
Pereira had a 1.78 GPA after his freshman year at Saint Joseph’s. He switched who he was hanging out with, and he got help from faculty members and staff at Saint Joseph’s. While some of his Cambridge buddies are in jail or dead from overdoses or car crashes, Pereira recently bought his first house.
Friendly and self-confident, Jean-Louis started a job as a radiographer this summer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Born in Haiti, he speaks both French and Creole, in addition to English. Although he spent just one year in the United States, it was the year Say Yes came to his second-grade classroom at the Harrington School in Cambridge.
When Jean-Louis’ parents split up later that year, he moved away to Montreal and grew up there with his mother. “Where I lived … the majority of us don’t go to college. You know, it was a lot of government housing,” he says.
But Say Yes stayed in touch and his mom pushed him. “She was my motivation, she believed in me. She was ‘the whip,’” he says laughing.
Though school wasn’t a priority for him, Jean-Louis’ girlfriend was. A very focused and good student, she also inspired him, he says.
Because Say Yes operates only at colleges in the United States, he spent a year at a prep school in Canada trying to polish his English before entering Saint Joseph’s.
In all those years since second grade, Jean-Louis had never met George Weiss. When President David House heard that, he invited him to have dinner with Weiss and senior administrators the night before graduation. Everyone laughed when Weiss handed Jean-Louis the check for dinner.
Say Yes students receive a lot of support to fight the obstacles in their way. Associate academic dean Joyce Coburn is the facilitator on campus for Say Yes, an organization she says is remarkable, yet appropriate, in the level of support it provides. “There’s no silver platter, just identifiable needs that they meet them halfway with. They hold them accountable.”
For her part, Coburn tries to provide “a safe place to come no matter what.” They can come in any time for help, which can even mean making sure they have a summer job on campus so they won’t have to go back to their neighborhood between semesters.
Program coordinator José Ribeiro and program director Anne Larkin of Lesley University have been with Say Yes since 1991, when Lesley University partnered with the program to provide follow-through from Grade 2 onward.
“Say Yes is like a family,” according to Stephen Tavares ’05. “You grow up with them.”
Some people have criticized Weiss, saying he didn’t get much for his investment. Just 68 of the 112 original children in Philadelphia graduated from high school and more are felons than have college degrees. Two-thirds of the females became teen mothers. Four died violently.
Of the Cambridge group, 61 of the 69 original students have completed high school and 29 of the 69 have completed some amount of of post-secondary education. (Students still have two more years to attain their degrees, and Larkin is optimistic that several more will succeed.)
Dino DeSousa ’06 does not have a job as of this writing. Tavares, though gainfully employed, seems unsure of what he wants to do. But when asked if Weiss should have given the money toward something more systematic, like funding for school computers, DeSousa is quick to point out that computers die, but people keep going. He says his life without George Weiss “wouldn’t be a good situation.”
One of the things that makes Weiss happiest is the example set by Harold Shields, one of “his kids.” Shields, who went to Penn and then on to graduate school in social work, started his own scholarship fund by putting down $10,000.
But mostly Weiss doesn’t look at the bottom line when he’s dealing with his kids. He sees the lives he has helped to save. “I’d like you to make a difference,” he told all of the Saint Joseph’s graduates. “It’s what’s in your heart that matters.”
While this story was being written, George Weiss donated $50,000 for a scholarship in Sr. Mary George O’Toole’s name to be called the Say Yes to Education/Sr. Mary George O’Toole Scholarship. Sr. Mary George, the Vice President for Sponsorship and Mission Integration at Saint Joseph’s, met Weiss when she and other senior administrators took him to dinner the night before graduation.