Triston Griffith, a 20-year-old from Jamaica, wears a Barry Manilow Broadway play pin on his tie and someday hopes to sing just like him.
“I want to go to college and work on my singing more to make sure I don’t make a fool of myself,” Griffith said.
He sits calmly in the lounge area at the Mental Health Association of New York City. His hair is neatly braided and his suit is fancier than anyone’s dress in the multiroom school. Before he makes that leap into college he wants to earn his General Educational Development certificate and he’s on the brink of taking the test.
The MHA, whose free program funded by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, cut the ribbon on its Long Island City facility last Thursday. The program helps Queens students who dropped out of high school get their GED — with a 100 percent success rate.
Twenty-three students attend MHA — about 30 per year — in the building above Outward Bound on Northern Boulevard just steps away from the Queensboro Bridge.The MHA moved from a building in Astoria in search of a place to stretch out.
“The last location was really small,” Program Director Carleton Archer said. “It’s hard to teach in a cramped location, especially with the population we serve.”
The students live with a variety of mental health issues, from mild anxiety to dysthymia — depression that comes and goes — to bipolar disorder.
The halls of the about six-room school are covered with information about colleges and jobs. Students have to pick careers they want to pursue and give a PowerPoint presentation to their peers about the vocations. The MHA teaches interview skills and how to write resumes to help achieve those goals.
Also in the halls is a chart listing everyone’s name, with stars for punctuality, attendance and turning in assignments.
“An incentive to do what they are supposed to already be doing,” Archer said, adding that these skills are important for holding down a job.
Students, aged 16 to 21, enter the program with literacy levels from a third-grade level and up. Individuals set their own goals, which gives them a sense of control, Archer said.
Griffith most appreciates the one-on-one attention and smaller classes. In traditional high school, he struggled with being distracted by the other students.
The students attend biweekly group counseling sessions and interns trained in social work and staffers help them with other basic needs such as finding healthcare and, for some who are on the verge of homelessness, shelter.
“If you don’t have food and shelter, the GED isn’t going to matter,” Archer said.