Penns newest charter trustee discovers new riches in his life by giving away his money and his heart.
Penn Trustee George Weiss (W 65) began the Say Yes to Education Foundation in 1987 with a promise to 112 fifth-graders at West Belmont Elementary School in West Philadelphia: Graduate from high school, and Ill pay for your college education.
Sixty-two percent of those Belmont students graduated from high school, as opposed to 43 percent for that census tract in 1990.
Subsequent chapters of Say Yes succeeded still further. The second West Philadelphia school, initiated in 1990, boasted a 78 percent high school graduation rate, with 58 percent of the students proceeding to college. Chapters in Hartford, Conn., and Cambridge, Mass., have fared similarly well.
Weiss, a successful money manager, has hopes that his newest crop of protégés can do even better.
Say Yes offers more services and supports to students than just the promise of college tuition. The program offers mentoring and tutorial help, enrichment field trips and courses, counseling and personal meetings with students and their families. But Weiss found some students needed more.
So the latest installment of Say Yes, which began this summer at West Philadelphias Bryant Elementary, expanded its commitments to help Say Yes students families and schoolmates by covering the cost of a G.E.D. or community college degree for parents; giving last-dollar scholarships to Say Yes students siblings, to supplement any financial aid they obtain on their own; and donating an additional reading teacher for Bryant.
Q.What prompted you to found Say Yes?
A.When I was a sophomore at Penn, our fraternity hosted a Christmas party for 12 inner-city kids. They were in a gang called the 12 Apostles, of Italian & Irish descent. There was a seven-year age difference between them and myself.
I kept friendly with these kids. We played basketball and pool together. After I graduated, Id come down for homecoming, Id give them a call, and theyd sneak into Franklin Field. They would always tell me about their problems with their siblings.
Lo and behold, all 12 of them graduated high school. I thought, how did this happen? And one of them looked at me and said, George, we couldnt have dropped out and looked you straight in the eye.
At that point, I made a pact with God. If I was ever given the financial wherewithal, I would make a difference. It would have to be hands-on. It was an inspiration that caused me to start Say Yes.
I ran into one of those 12 the other day. The one Im closest with is an Amtrak conductor. Theyre mainly in the unions laborers, carpenters. Theyre productive members of society.
Q.What made you decide to focus on education instead of employment?
A.My parents were Holocaust [survivors]. The one thing they taught to me at a very early age, that I impart to my 350 kids now, is the one thing the Nazis couldnt take away, and nobody could take away, is your brains. They can take all your possessions, but they cant take what youve got upstairs. If you can find a way to give the less fortunate an equal opportunity to learn thats what made this country great.
I feel that the family structure and education are the two most important things to help uplift the less fortunate.
Q.Have you seen that proven true so far?
A.Theres no doubt of the educational impact. As we start with younger and younger kids, its proving to be more and more successful.
The family structure, trying to improve and work with the whole family, hasnt been as much a focus as the educational component [so far].
Were trying to address the family structure even in a stronger way [with the current Bryant program]. The parent or parents have to do their share. If you raise the bar on education for yourselves, youll raise the bar for the kids.
Q.How is Penn helping with the Bryant program?
A.In the past, Penn has offered free ophthalmology, dental, medical care, psychiatric, vast tutorial help. The summer school has been domiciled at Penn. Weve had faculties and students taking these kids to athletic events.
The Bryant program is just beginning, so it may be a bit premature to answer that specific question. But I know they will be there.
Q.Whats in the future for Say Yes?
A.We had a symposium last October of former students we call them Say Yes adults and parents. Its not just about making these kids productive members of society. Our kids really want to be the next generation of leaders, and they really dont want me to fund it.
Weve given five seats on the Say Yes board to these Say Yes adults. We also set up a peer review committee of Say Yes adults, where they review applications if people need an extra course or help with rent. Theyre the decision-makers, not myself. They felt I was too easy.
Were looking into ways the Say Yes adults could start businesses in West Philly, then turn around and help the community. One concept they came up with was maybe setting up our own credit union, to show the kids the way to save, to invest. Were looking at setting up a health plan, because nobody in the inner city has health care.
All of this came out of this conference. A lot of the things we adopted for the Bryant program came from this conference.
Q.Whats been the biggest surprise for you in this journey?
A.Weve had six Say Yes adults that have died. The pain that I have felt has been absolutely overwhelming. These last-dollar scholarships, I named them after Walter Brown, an incredible young man who died at 12 or 13 years of age. Maybe he was 14. He lived in a group home. Hed been physically abused by his mother. His mother had taken a tire iron to him. He died as a passenger in a stolen car. The guy really got to me. I didnt cry from the second grade until when I delivered the eulogy. He had me find points in myself I didnt know were there. The pain of losing one of your kids is unbelievable.
You come in on your white horse to help. You never expect that pain. Sure I expected teenage pregnancies and drugs, but I didnt expect the pain.
As for positive surprises Everybody thinks the Say Yes kids have won the lottery, but I contend the people who have worked with these kids have become better human beings. These kids are so needy, so hopeful. Between being at a cocktail party and being with these kids, its night and day.
I was an education advisor to President Bush. Bush met our kids. Loved em. He was crying his eyes out. It was one of the most beautiful moments. There was no TV, no reporters present. We had the kids to the White House. He greeted them individually.
On the humorous side, my older daughter was driving on 46th and Market, you know, these kids come out and throw suds at your windshield and start cleaning. And one kid said, Oh hi, Debbie. This ones on the house. I think my daughters the only person whos ever been comped by one of the windshield cleaners.
I remember talking to one of my young ladies who was arrested for assaulting a 250-pound police officer. I said, Shamika, talk to me about your anger. She said, Mr. Weiss, you talk Spanish, and [your younger daughter] Allison took Spanish at Choate school. Wouldnt you be angry Im taking my fourth year of Spanish. Theyre teaching us to count to 10 in my fourth year in Spanish. Damn right Im angry. These kids have so many things stacked against them. If we can help neutralize the odds, they have a chance of succeeding.
Q.Whats the biggest challenge Say Yes faces?
A.The societys problems, the drug culture.
Seventeen of our original group are dealing. You can take $20 and parlay it into $2000 by the end of the week, and once you have that you can make $2000 a night.
Nine or ten of them we got off dealing. But their mothers would convince them to just do one night a month so theyd have enough.
When you have seven starving kids with no heat and no rent money its easy to play moralist when youre sitting in the suburbs.
Some of these kids are afraid to go out the door. People have seen too many people that have died. There are so many obstacles to overcome. In the inner cities, if somebody does well in school, they get beat up. But our kids have the support of the Say Yes posse, 112 brothers and sisters. Its like an extended family rooting for you.
Q.What are the rewards, for you, of this work?
A.Theyve made me a much better human being. When I take them to lunch, Ill start crying. Cause theyre very wise. Twenty-six of our original group are in there tutoring on a regular basis. A lot of people when they get out of the hood turn their back on the hood. These kids arent doing it.
Q.Whats next for this program?
A.I dont know. If people in Philadelphia want to help, I will do more. I need people to stand up and say, Ill do it with you not only financially, but rolling up sleeves and getting it done. I would like to do more programs. Id like to do last-dollar scholarships on a nationwide basis. A lot of people think Ive done a lot. I feel frustrated that I havent done enough.
Above: Weiss with with Denise Smith, one of the Say Yes students from Hartford. Smith completed two years at the University of Connecticut and now attends Howard University.
Originally published on September 28, 2000