The saying "It takes a village to raise a child" is not just idle talk for residents of Wheatley Heights.
In 1980, African-American families in that community, particularly mothers, worried about the impact that the closing of a neighborhood school would have on their children. They feared that the students would be isolated from their peers and neighbors and lose a sense of their common heritage.
Despite strong public opposition, the Half Hollow Hills Central School District shut down Taukomas Elementary School in Wyandanch to address racial imbalances and declining enrollments at other elementary schools in the district. African-American students — most of whom lived in Wheatley Heights — comprised 23 percent of the Taukomas school body.
Responding to the closing, a handful of women formed The Mothers Club of Wheatley Heights, which for more than 30 years now has organized enrichment activities to ensure that the community's African-American children retain a sense of identity.
"They wanted the children to see teachers who looked like them, to play together and come together for social and educational programs," said club president Leslie Vaughan-Wilson, who is a senior finance manager for a Fortune 500 company and a mother of two students in the school district.
Beginning with trips, picnics, ballgames, horseback riding, parades and social activities for their own children, The Mothers Club expanded outreach to all children in Dix Hills, Wyandanch and other communities. Over the years, African-American history programs were developed for the Half Hollow Hills Library, and annual Kwanzaa, Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Black History Month celebrations were instituted.
The club sponsors and conducts workshops for children on such topics as sexuality, responsibility, commitment and decision-making. Academic excellence and social responsibility are encouraged. Children give back to the community through civic activities like delivering food baskets to the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and by Christmas caroling for shut-ins and nursing home patients.
"We look to affirm all children from the neighborhoods and our school district," said Terry Tucker, a mother of three school-age children. She said The Mothers Club members support one another in carpooling children to events. Members also organize study groups and bring in tutors to help children prepare for tests.
Birth of The Mothers Club
Indeed, The Mothers Club has come a long way since Joyce Mathis, a teacher, mother and Girl Scout leader, met with nine other women in her Wheatley Heights kitchen in 1980 to plan strategies to keep Taukomas open. Forty-five residents boarded a chartered bus and rode to Albany to petition legislators, but they were unsuccessful.
"We wanted our children to have a sense of community, a sense of neighborhood and a sense of friendship," said Sandy Thomas, a retired social worker and one of the group's pioneers. "We decided we were going to become real active and visible in the school district."
Mothers began advocating for their children, "questioning minority hiring, if black history was being taught in the schools, if black children were being referred to special ed," Thomas recalled. Club members joined the PTA and special committees and became class mothers. Their efforts made a difference.
"We have an excellent relationship with the administrative team in Half Hollow Hills," Vaughan-Wilson said. "They're very attentive to our needs."
Kelly Fallon, the district's superintendent, said The Mothers Club "is an active community group who works collaboratively with the district in the best interest of students, parents and all education programs."
The group has done even more. Since its founding, The Mothers Club has awarded more than $50,000 in scholarships to college-bound seniors — excluding their own children — at the district's two high schools and three high schools in Deer Park, Wyandanch and North Babylon, Vaughan-Wilson said.
"Everything we do does not benefit our group directly," she said, "it benefits the community."
Club's lasting impact
Although 40 percent of the mothers no longer have children in the school district, "they're very interested in the club and are active members," Vaughan-Wilson added.
The group, which now has 62 members, meets on the first Tuesday of every month at the Wyandanch/Wheatley Heights Ambulance Corps. Their Black History Month program, starting at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Dix Hills Library, will highlight African-Americans in journalism.
By all accounts, The Mothers Club's impact on children has been positive. Many who are adults are professionals. Those in school are "confident, because of the time and effort we invest in them," Vaughan-Wilson said. "They feel loved, and there are expectations of them. Not just the parents, but the whole community."
Delfina Hennet, a member of the club's Black history committee, said, "Our job is to raise our children not just by the biological parents but by the pride and joy of the community celebrating together. I'm very proud of the organization."
Get in touch
For more info about the Mothers Club of Wheatley Heights, contact the group at:
Mothers Club of
Wheatley Heights Inc.
P.O. Box 820
Wheatley Heights, NY 11798