Each day, Dorothy Gokey lets them know they matter. They are immigrants, refugees, and struggling families steeped in diverse cultures, who have come to Utica, N.Y., in search of the American dream of a better life.
“We have the largest refugee center along the eastern coast,” says Gokey of Utica, a city of 62,000 residents. “Utica has over 18,000 immigrants and refugees, 88 different cultures, 42 languages, and 16 religions.”
Recognizing the everyday pressures these families face just to learn the language, educate their children, and make a living, Gokey knew she could make a difference.
“I have always enjoyed working with kids and people—it’s just something that evolved. When I see a need, I help,” says Gokey, who has been a real estate practitioner for 41 years.
For more than 10 years, Gokey has devoted her volunteer time and talent to The Business Training Institute, a nonprofit that provides resources and educational opportunities to low-income children and their parents.
“Dorothy is known for her spirit of giving. She’s so active in the community that she can find us resources that we would never have without her,” says Patricia Laino, founder and executive director of The Business Training Institute, who recruited Gokey to become board president in 2009. “We’ve grown so much since she has taken over leadership.”
As president, Gokey has worked in partnership with the school system to establish and expand educational programs that help students and their families. One important effort led by Gokey is the parent liaison program. The seven parent liaisons serve as the link between families and the schools, helping parents address challenges that might be getting in the way of student learning—and referring parents to resources like GED classes, ESL classes, tutoring, or even providing needed food or clothing.
Parent liaison Carmen DeJesus says the key to making an impact is getting the families to work together. “We help parents find strategies to promote student achievement, so they can be a part in helping their children succeed.”
Each year parent liaisons visit the homes of 250 high school students who are at risk of dropping out. “Dorothy had the insight to recommend parent liaisons go into the homes of students who were not coming to school and meet with their parents,” says Laino. The liaisons—who speak English, Spanish, Bosnian, Bantu, Russian, and Vietnamese—gently help parents address virtually any problem—whether the kids need tutoring or transportation. In the last three years, the parent liaisons have convinced 612 students to come back to school.
Strengthening the school-family connection even further, Gokey found a grant that helped establish parent resource centers in three high schools. The parent resource centers—conference rooms with coffee, computers, newspapers, books, and a friendly face—serve as a safety net for parents to seek help without fear of embarrassment.” Families need a place where they feel comfortable and know they have support,” Gokey says.
With the support of the schools, Gokey also launched the Family Learning Series, workshops that parents and children attend together. Once a month, more than 100 families gather to have dinner and listen to a speaker talk about subjects such as bullying, violence prevention, or the importance of respect and a positive attitude.
One recent speaker, Matthew “The Hammer” Hamill, an amateur wrestler and ultimate fighting champion, spoke about his experience as a deaf child who was bullied and how he overcame it. “The children and families learned that it’s possible to overcome obstacles and still become successful,” says Gokey. “The children loved it.”
DeJesus says Gokey’s leadership is the key. “Ms. Gokey knows how to round off the edges and make parents open up to want to learn,” says DeJesus. “She is the reason they’re coming to the programs, because they know they can trust her and she’ll help them with whatever they need.”
Gokey also leads an after-school program for 550 children, night school for those who need extra credits to graduate, and online classes for the students who can’t come to school because they need to care for their families. As a result of the online program, 72 students graduated from high school last year; 22 of them have gone to college.
“We have one student enrolled in nursing, one young man in the military who was homeless, and others who got jobs with the county,” says Laino. “These kinds of results show us that the programs are very effective.”
Gokey is always looking to find more ways to help. This winter she sought out clothing donations during the extremely cold weather—collecting hundreds of coats, hats, mittens, and pairs of boots. “No child or parent was left without warm clothes during this harsh winter,” says Carol Longo, executive officer of the Mohawk Valley Association of REALTORS®.
Gokey even has a barn at her home called the “The Food Bank Drop-Off” where people donate food, clothing, and furniture that she distributes to those in need, often people who were identified by the parent liaisons.
Her focus remains on ensuring that children and their parents develop the life skills that can help them find greater economic opportunities.
“What really motivates me is helping these kids,” says Gokey, “because without an education, where are they going to be?”
Contact Gokey at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on The Business Training Institute, call 315-733-9848.