Sonia Reese

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Executive Director, Community Impact Columbia University, New York City

A bright, promising student in Harlem, Sonia Reese was an early beneficiary of A Better Chance, a program that places and supports academically gifted minorities in the country’s top public and private high schools. She attended The Putney School, a private boarding school in Putney, Vt., where, she says, status and wealth mattered little as each student performed chores on the school’s dairy farm before classes. To Reese, who missed the open spaces of her native Bahamas, the 500-acre farm meant freedom from the dangers and restrictions of Harlem’s housing projects. “It was my first awareness of the difference between those who have access to resources and those who do not. Because of these experiences, I resolved to work on what I felt was an unnecessary disparity,” she says.

True to this resolve, in 1990 she returned to Harlem to head Community Impact, one of Columbia University’s largest community service organizations, which sends student volunteers from Columbia and Barnard College into the underserved New York City communities of Harlem, Morningside Heights and Washington Heights. The work of the volunteers ranges from tutoring elementary and middle-school students to serving as companions to elderly shut-ins, or to those suffering from HIV/AIDS. The program helps nearly 9,000 people a year. It partners with and receives referrals from local community organizations, including social service agencies, schools and senior centers. For those who need help, the red tape, though minimal, often is daunting. “There’s not a lot of paper work involved, or a lot of hoops to jump through to receive our assistance. But we do work with them to get them the help they need,” says Reese.

Reese graduated from Sarah Lawrence College and is a trustee of the school. She has a master’s in educational administration from Columbia University Teachers College and a master’s in public administration from Baruch College. Prior to Community Impact, she headed a cross-cultural exchange program at Operations Crossroads Africa and an overseas scholarship program. Reese is passionate about volunteerism and she tries to make as many “converts” as possible. “I’ll make you a volunteer by the end of the conversation,” she promises.