BY WENDY CARLSON
It's early August 2020, and Kevin Ervin '04, executive director of Charge for Kids (CFK), has a little more than a month to raise $1 million for an educational outreach program he has designed for New York City schoolchildren.
His enthusiasm is irrepressible. He is absolutely confident he can raise the money, though he concedes his ambitious staff thinks he is crazy for taking on such a tough challenge under a tight deadline in the midst of pandemic. But Ervin is a bit like the Energizer Bunny, that iconic battery mascot who just “keeps going and going and going.” Once he gets an idea in his head, he is unstoppable.
Ervin grew up in a Red Hook housing project in Brooklyn, which explains, in part, why he is so passionate about leveling the playing field for public school students in the city’s underserved communities. He wants to ensure they can reach their full potential, much as he has done. In 2018, after more than a decade in youth leadership and working in educational and administrative positions in the city’s department of education, he joined Change for Kids (CFK). The 25-year-old non-profit partners with 13 city schools, providing enrichment and educational programs, resources, opportunities, mentors, and support to prepare students for middle school and beyond.
Last March, when COVID-19 struck and students were sent home for online learning, Ervin and his staff set up one of the city’s first digital educational platforms; it included a “social emotional learning” art program taught by professional artists from a variety of disciplines.
The idea behind the art program was not to single out a handful of talented kids or to “discover the next Beyoncé or Basquiat,” Ervin says. “It’s about helping kids grow socially and emotionally as they work collaboratively in group activities.”
Then, in August, when he learned that students might be splitting the week between remote learning and in-person classes, he saw a pressing need for a similar collaborative learning experience. Many schoolchildren, especially those with working parents or single parent homes, lacked a space where they could go on their remote-learning days –– a place where they would be safe, among peers, and have adult support with schoolwork.
He learned about a newly-shuttered Catholic school in the Bronx and figured he could lease it and staff it if he raised $1 million by early September. By October, he had raised $1.8 million and was finalizing leasing plans. “If we can get into this building, it would be a game-changer; we could change the proposed trajectory of students in this community,” he explains.
Much of Ervin’s can-do attitude and boundless enthusiasm were formed by his experiences at summer camp in New Jersey and later at Hotchkiss, where he learned firsthand the power of education to create options and opportunity.
Ervin is the youngest of five siblings and the son of a working single mother; she was one of the first healthcare administrators in the country to establish HIV programs in the city. She also was a member of one of the city’s largest medical unions, which covered almost the entire cost of a summer camp that Ervin attended as a kid in New Jersey.
Those summers spent with other kids from all around the world had a profound influence on Ervin’s life. “The amalgamation of camp and my Hotchkiss experiences literally created the person I am today — not only my outlook on youth development, but on the entire world,” he says.
“My first year at camp, I had a white counselor from South Africa and a Black counselor from England, which threw me for a loop as a five-year-old Black kid from Brooklyn, that there were white people from Africa and Black people from England. I experienced that level of growth every summer.”
At 15, Ervin began honing his leadership skills by working as a camp counselor. But he didn’t want to be just a counselor, he wanted to be a great counselor. As he often says, he has a big ego.
“I wanted to be the best counselor ever. So, I tried really hard. You can’t be great at youth development without really enjoying being around kids. So, in an effort to be the best, I fell in love with working with young people,” he says.
He could have easily taken a different path. As a teenager he wanted to travel the world performing, “kind of like P. Diddy,” he says. But he realized making a career in music would be financially challenging.
Instead, after a few starts and stops, he realized his true calling was in leadership, and he went on to earn a bachelor’s of science degree in leadership from Northeastern University. After graduating, he was hired to head a youth program in the South Bronx. Two years later, when the city stripped funding for the program, he plowed ahead and raised $135,000 in a month to start another youth program. Nine years later, he had students enrolled in 16 programs across New York City and New Jersey.
Ervin, who also holds an executive master of public administration degree from NYU, often tells people that the only difference between him and some of his childhood friends, who ended up in prison or worse, was that he was afforded opportunities to help himself.
Hotchkiss, for one, opened a whole new world of possibilities. Although when he first arrived on campus and saw the imposing brick buildings and columned Main Building entrance, his jaw dropped. He thought he had arrived at Hogwarts.
“I remember my mother purchased a very expensive Hotchkiss blazer because she thought every student had to wear one. I showed up on the first day of class and was the only male student wearing a blazer with the Hotchkiss Minerva on it. I went back to my room and ripped the patch off. The blazer was like $250, and at the time I didn’t have a piece of clothing that expensive. And my mom was so angry that I cut off the patch; she didn’t understand that I didn’t want to stick out from the rest of the kids.”
As a student of color at Hotchkiss he felt alienated at first. “I had been in classrooms with only people of color for most of my life, but actually it turned out not to be such a huge shock because I had gone to camp with kids of all different races and from around the world.”
“And I was extremely comfortable with who I was,” he reflects. “My proctor in Coy was Charlie Ebersol ’01. He was super cool, and he thought I was super cool, which made me feel amazing. He was making movies then, and he knew I was a musician; he enlisted me to create some music for him. And there was Raúly Ramirez ’03, a Dominican from Yonkers, NY, who kept his hair in braids and wore Jordans. He and his family sort of adopted me and brought me food whenever they came to campus. We had this interracial group of friends, and we all gravitated towards each other, which created a safety net for me and other students of color.”
At Hotchkiss, he also took a stab at playing ice hockey. “I am a Black kid from the Red Hook projects in Brooklyn; we don’t play hockey. But, again partly because of my ego, I wanted to be the first Black hockey player at Hotchkiss,” he says. “Mr. Cooper gave me my first pair of skates (still got them), Burchy (Chris Burchfield) taught me how to check, and Torrey Mitchell and Pat McLaughlin taught me how to shoot,” he recalls.
Academically, Hotchkiss was a huge shift for Ervin. “New York City public schools teach you what to think. Hotchkiss taught me how to think, which is vastly different,” he says. “Hotchkiss helped me learn how to be critical, how to be intuitive and inquisitive around every subject, and to be far more analytical and strategic in my everyday life.”
Ervin plays seven instruments and has been writing music since he was seven. During his time at Hotchkiss, he jumped at the chance to study jazz, classical, and vocal arrangements and to continue his own interest in R&B, rap, and pop. Working with Fabio Witkowski, head of the visual and performing arts department, the two built the School’s first recording studio.
“Fabio played a huge role in my musicality and in my career; he was one of the first to encourage me to go against the grain, away from playing purely traditional music.
“We created the soundtrack for Hotchkiss for several years, and we got Head of School Skip Mattoon to rap for us on the ‘Fair Hotchkiss’ remix.”
Today, Ervin conducts his organization’s citywide chorus. CFK just released a cartoon for kids that he wrote, directed, and scored (featuring voiceovers from Lorenzo Castillo ’05). He also continues to work on his own music, which can be found on all major platforms and at KErvMusic.com.
Because Hotchkiss opened so many doors for Ervin, he feels compelled to pay it forward. He remembers what his Mom told him the day he arrived at Hotchkiss. “I don’t know if the grass is greener on the other side,” she said. “But, if it is, don’t stay there. Learn how to plant it, and plant it back here.”
“So now,” says Ervin, “I am planting.”