In honor of National Volunteer Week, we're putting a spotlight on one of the many wonderful individuals who dedicate time and care to our communities.
A photo encapsulates a moment in time that is layered with meaning, both physical and emotional. Photos connect us with our past and help us measure our growth and development. Deb Wasser says she has captured so many moving images of Children’s Aid youth – each with his or her own unique and layered back story – because photography is a key aspect of every event she produces.
“After every Children’s Aid event,” Deb said, “I make each child a photo book so they have something concrete so they will always remember that day.”
Deb has been throwing weekly parties for the youth at Dunlevy Milbank Community Center for five years. Each party celebrates the accomplishment of one young person who realized a goal, big or small. “Some of the young people have not been celebrated with a party where they are the center of attention,” Deb said. “Seeing them so happy for that time makes it all worthwhile.”
Prior to her work with Children’s Aid, Deb had run a successful event planning business for 10 years. “I did very, very fancy parties for rich people, celebrities, and bar mitzvahs and stuff with all the bells and whistles,” she said. “And I really wanted to change my life. I hit age 50 and felt like, now's the time to do what you've always wanted to do.”
Deb closed her business and met with Eddie Britt and Casper Lassiter, Children’s Aid staff who run the Dunlevy Milbank Community Center in Harlem. She told them, “So I have this whole party company. I have a DJ, MCs, phenomenal hip-hop dancers, costumes, disco ball lights, cotton candy machines, and cases and cases of party favors. Let's get this going for kids who haven't been celebrated." From that day, until February of 2020, they hosted Harlem youth at parties nearly every Saturday.
Deb said she learned a lot about the youth and some of the challenges they face. She found ways to use that learning to create events that were specific for each young person. “If your family lives in a shelter, parents may not be able to bake a cake or invite people over,” she said. “Or sometimes there were kids who were on the autism spectrum who would be very uncomfortable having the spotlight on them and yet we were able to draw them out and do something that would be nice for them.”
Deb covers all of the expenses of the events. She meets with Eddie to go over the budget for each, and a significant portion of it goes to photography. Deb says staff initially didn't understand why photography was such a priority.
“One child, their dad got out of prison for the day to come to the party,” she said. “They've never had this experience before, and they're really happy. They can remember that day: ‘I was really there, and my dad was there, and he was hugging me, and everybody was around me.’ It makes a difference.”
Through Deb’s efforts, more than 50 children have had birthday celebrations at Milbank. One of the most memorable for Casper was a birthday celebration for a child who lived in a homeless shelter a few blocks away from Milbank. “We have a partnership with this shelter and thought it would be nice to have a party for one of the young people who lived there with his family,” Casper said. “The kid didn’t really have any friends to invite, so we invited kids from the program who were the same age.”
Deb showed up one Saturday to find all of the kids she had thrown parties for, alongside the staff, and her very own family. “We wanted to express our appreciation so we surprised her with a party,” said Eddie Britt. “She is just so dedicated to the kids we wanted to thank her.”
Weekly celebrations have been canceled because of the pandemic, but Deb continues to find ways to engage the youth by working on creative projects with them. “I was really blue, stuck at home and being idle,” she said. But she set up a project to create custom-scented sanitizer and got together on a recent Saturday to teach the youth. “It's such great therapy do something a little useful. Who wouldn't enjoy doing creative projects with kids? It is truly joyous. When I came back on Saturday, I had a whole new outlook.”
And the kids are glad to see Deb back at Milbank. “They are lining up at the door waiting for her,” Eddie said.
Recently, Deb got a welcome reminder of just how much her photos have meant to some of our families. While serving food at the annual Thanksgiving community dinner, she ran into a mother of a child with autism. Deb had thrown a party for him years before.
“She said, ‘We don't have a single picture of him smiling for years and years and years, and he keeps that picture by his bed and looks at it all the time.’”
Check out a photo gallery from Deb's parties.