New Yorkers rising up together to meet unprecedented challenges is in the fabric of this great city.
Through the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve seen countless examples of the community-minded selflessness and resilience associated with New York City and we’ve been inspired by those who have raised a hand and stepped up to help their fellow citizens.
In this spirit, we are setting out to reflect what’s truly undeNYable about our city and the people who make up our extended NYCFC family, all doing whatever it takes today to be back together again tomorrow through the sport we love.
undeNYable is a series of stories here on NYCFC.com, holding up members of the NYCFC family who’ve shown the meaning of "For The City", coming through for their fellow New Yorkers when it has mattered most.
More than 30 years ago, City in the Community Youth Leadership Council member Gwen Hernandez’s family immigrated to New York City from El Salvador. Her parents came to the United States separately, later meeting at a local church in Williamsburg and eventually making the Brooklyn neighborhood their home. Gwen has spent her whole life in Williamsburg with her parents and two older sisters.
The 21-year-old recently graduated from Farmingdale State College with a bachelor’s degree in Sports Management. While her final semester might not have gone as she anticipated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s kept a positive outlook and has tried to make the best of it. “Graduating during a pandemic was not how I expected it,” Gwen reflected, “I just keep on thinking as long as I have my health then that's all that matters. I want to help people. I want to have my career straightened out. I'll worry about having fun later once I kind of accomplished everything I want to accomplish now.”
Gwen’s mother and older sister are both nurses, so when COVID-19 hit New York City, it was an anxious time for the whole family. “My mom's a nurse and so is my sister and it's scary,” she remembered, “We pray every day. Every time they go to work. We just keep hoping that this isn't the day they get sick.” A shortage of personal protective equipment in New York City hospitals heightened the worries for the Hernandez family. “We kept hoping that they have the right equipment. In the beginning, they didn’t it and that was the hardest time for us. We didn't know if they were being protected correctly.”
While concerns at home were a constant worry due to the pandemic, Gwen also quickly began experiencing changes in her role within the YLC. Instead of canceling programming and leaving students across the city without a sense of connection through CITC and football, Gwen and team took the programming from the physical space to the virtual.
“It changed dramatically. I went from really just doing behind the scenes, administrative work to now supervising our virtual classes.”
Since going virtual, Gwen and CITC have been able to bring their programs to even more students than they normally could. With school schedules changing, they’ve been able to offer more flexibility than ever and have even been able to add additional sessions. Parents, kids, and schools alike have responded positively to the virtual shift, even requesting more programs. Gwen reflected: “We’re able to still teach them the fundamentals of soccer and healthy eating in a fun way. And obviously with everything happening in the world, they really, really appreciate that.
She continued: “They know they can have fun. They can ask questions. They can be curious. They can learn new things. And whether it's over the computer or whether it's in person, they're still getting the same experience. It might be a little less personal now because we can't really be with them, but we're still there for them. They still crave that no matter what's going on in their life and it's great that we're able to do that virtually.”
Gwen has been a member of the YLC since January 2019 after meeting the Club’s Youth Leadership Coordinator (+ gameday Instagram host) Kwame King in a previous gameday position. It’s a role that she credits for a lot of her personal development in the past 18 months. “It helps you know your place in society and what you can do,” she said. “It leads you to your most capable self. I learned so many things and honestly, it’s the best way to figure out who you are as a person and who you are as a young adult.”
Previously anxious towards public speaking, CITC has provided Gwen with opportunities to become more outgoing and develop her professional skills. “I've had so many opportunities to do public speaking, to present in front of not only my young leaders, but also in front of other workers in the NYCFC office. We were able to go to SAP to talk about Soccer Bloc. We also have the opportunity to go to other companies to talk about the Youth Leadership Council so I'm getting more public speaking experience. It has really helped me grow.”
When asked what drives her to continue to help her community the answer was simple – the kids. Seeing them grow from being shy and never playing soccer, to being outgoing and in love with it are best parts of it all for Gwen. “If you're their escape for whatever is happening in their home life, whatever happened in school, they open up and that's the best thing to see and it drives you to want to help more people.”
As a first generation American, Gwen is even more grateful to be able to help kids who are currently experiencing the same things she did growing up. “I know the struggle that a lot of kids go through when their parents are not from here. Even if they're not from here, and they're growing up in America for the first time. I want to be able to help them and give them opportunities that I didn't have growing up.” She continued, “This is kind of my way of using what I know, my opportunities, to help them. I know in the future they'll probably use what they learn and then help the next generation. I just hope that that's how it keeps on going.”
In such a tough year with so many unique and complicated challenges, locally, nationally and globally, Gwen and the YLC are showing that being active and helping fellow New Yorkers can provide empathy, empowerment and hope, as well as an important sense of community. Gwen added: “I think if you want to help out, the best way to do is to go all hands in and help out as much as you can. Whether it's financially, whether it's volunteering, whether is helping your local school, helping your local food bank. I think if more people do that, they'll be able to understand what's happening and people become more compassionate because that's what happened to me. I really didn't know what was going on until I actually started.”