For the past four years, photographer Brandon Stanton has documented people he encountered along the streets of New York City for his popular blog, "Humans of New York," but it was a photo last week of a teenager in Brooklyn that has taken the world by storm. Walking through Brownsville, Brooklyn, an area with the highest crime rate in the city and highest community of housing projects in the country, Brandon came across Vidal Chastanet, a 13-year-old who lived nearby.
Brandon took Vidal's photo, and asked the teen who the most influential person in his life was; Vidal replied it was his Principal, Nadia Lopez, at Mott Hall Bridges Academy. The interaction went viral in this touching photograph.
After a million people liked and shared the photo, Brandon went to the school to meet Nadia for himself and learn more about her goals. Nadia was in the middle of raising money to send her students on a trip to Harvard, a college she wanted them to have in the forefront of their minds. Soon thereafter, Brandon found himself joining the cause, helping to raise over $700,000 for the trip in just four days.
"Nadia's unbelievable," Brandon, 30, tells Ellen's Good News. "She's like a movie character, she just cares so much and she's tough. It's what you need in this area. She's tough and she's unbelievably committed and ambitious, but ambitious on part of the kids. She could have been CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but decided to be principal in one of toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn."
He adds, "I've done a few fundraisers on the blog, but what's so special about this one is it started with Vidal. The randomness of that encounter between two strangers, it's a very odd pairing me and him in a very strange place. The serendipity of that interaction leading to all of this good. I think the reason that people are so engaged with this is they've followed the story from the very beginning, so everybody's going on this journey."
Because they've raised so much money – their original goal was only $100,000 – the entire school will be visiting Harvard, and subsequently, the sixth-grade class will be able to go for the next ten years. Additionally, they will be able to establish a summer program to run for the next 10 years, as well as a scholarship fund named in Vidal's honor.
"When people tell you they're from Brownsville they get cringes," Nadia, 38, explains. "There's a sense of hopelessness. I want these kids to know that there are no limits or boundaries to where they can go… I also want those institutions to see the impact they can have on those children's lives."
Clearly, Nadia is making a huge impact on her students. She started the school in 2010 as a way to change the narrative of the neighborhood, and to empower students to believe they are more than their surroundings. Vidal says he began school with a "short temper" and often got in trouble, but Nadia changed his attitude.
"If you're from Brownsville, they don't expect you to be much in life," he says. "They don't expect you to have a quality education, they don't expect you to know what you're doing. They expect you to fail. They don't want you to become anything that you want to be… I realized that if I want to be anything in life, as Ms. Lopez said, I have to learn how to be better. It doesn't matter about the past and present, you must focus on the future. Your future is what you set it to be in your mind.”
If you want to donate to the school, check out their fundraising page here!