Literacy, life skills, and more at Newburgh Armory Unity Center

August 19, 2019

Sandy Bastien, a volunteer educator at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, opens children’s minds and hearts to reading every Saturday.

Sandy Bastien, a volunteer educator at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, opens children’s minds and hearts to reading every Saturday.


It’s just after 8 a.m. Dozens of classrooms buzz with children proudly reading their own stories aloud to classmates and parents. Educators are imparting the joys of the written word to youths of all ages, and teachers in training from area colleges are working one-on-one with them to unlock their full academic potential. In the gym, children are practicing their free-throws and layups, and downstairs, young scholars are learning computer programming.
It sounds like a dream school, but it’s happening every Saturday morning and weekday afternoons at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center in the City of Newburgh, N.Y.
The Newburgh Armory has been changing young lives since 2010. From accessible literacy courses to helping children explore career paths, the Armory hosts a variety of educational programs intended to help end poverty and eliminate the need for educational remediation. More than 500 students a week and their parents receive instruction on a variety of topics.
In the Armory’s signature Saturday Morning Enrichment Program, children from kindergarten to sixth grade participate in reading, writing, math, natural science, and computer science programs with the goal of developing their scholastic ability, as well as their life skills and emotional intelligence.
The K Thru Career initiative, an elaborate effort to introduce young students to a number of career opportunities, focuses on three career-path programs: nursing and healthcare, coding and computer science, and criminal justice. By 2020, there will be 750 students enrolled in the fifth through eighth grade programs. Affiliations for this project include the Newburgh Enlarged City School District, Montefiore St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital, Mount Saint Mary College, Crystal Run Healthcare, and Access: Supports for Living.
“We’re not only preparing them for future employment, we’re preparing them for life,” notes Armory founder and board chair William Kaplan, an entrepreneur and philanthropist from Newburgh, N.Y. As a successful businessman, Kaplan has provided employment for thousands: at the Regal Bag Corporation, which he started in Newburgh shortly after World War II, and then at A.C. Moore arts and crafts, which he co-founded and grew from a single store to more than 100 outlets.
It might seem improbable that students enjoy spending their Saturday mornings in a classroom. But thanks to volunteers from the local community, local kids are doing just that.
Sandy Bastien of New Windsor, N.Y. teaches the “Dare to Be a Wild Reader” program on Saturday mornings. In her classroom, children from the ages of 4 to about 12 strive to become more engaged in literature. They team up with community volunteers, including Education students from Mount Saint Mary College, and select a book that resonates with them from the Armory’s extensive library of children’s and young adult literature. As a team, the children and their mentors discover new words, stories, and worlds together.
“Once you inspire a child to read, you will never have to force them,” Bastien explained. “When you start to love to read, you’re going to love the development that’s happening to you. But we’ve got to get kids to read because it’s an inspiration, not because it’s a requirement.”
Bastien’s approach to this is simple and effective.
“Pick up the book and have a goal, have an aim,” Bastien said. “No matter what book it is, let’s find out what the characters are like. How do you relate to it? We start creating those habits early, and we start telling the kids, ‘There’s something in there for you.’”
The volunteers provide Bastien’s students with one-on-one attention to supplement Bastien’s lessons. It’s a great way to make sure all students are getting the most out of the program, she said.
“The Mount students have been a very important component to ‘Wild Readers,’” Bastien explained. “They sit with the kids and help them fill in their journals. Some of the kids might not understand the theme of a book, or the message of the story. The Mount students help to break it down in a way they can understand.”
Education professor Janine Bixler (center) and a Mount Saint Mary College graduate student work with youngsters at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, as part of the Literacy Education Advocacy Program (LEAP).

Education professor Janine Bixler (center) and a Mount Saint Mary College graduate student work with youngsters at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, as part of the Literacy Education Advocacy Program (LEAP).


As part of the college’s Collaborative for Equity in Literacy Learning (CELL), Mount Saint Mary College student volunteers help the young Armory students to explore books that reflect various cultural backgrounds and interests of the Newburgh community, explained professor Janine Bixler, director of CELL. Children actively share their own ideas and stories as well.
Bixler echoed Bastien’s sentiment: “The goal is to create lifelong readers, instead of those who only read because they have to for school,” she said.
In one of Bixler’s classes at the Armory, children spend the summer writing and illustrating their own stories under the tutelage of Mount teacher candidates before presenting excerpts to their friends and families. Each semester about 75 Mount teacher candidates, graduate and undergraduate, help instill a love of reading in local youth as part of their community fieldwork requirement.
The sessions afford children one-on-one tutoring and increase their literacy skills in a fun and engaging way.
“By improving their literacy, we’re giving these young students life skills, not just school skills,” Bixler explained.
Other Mount professors like Rebecca R. Norman, associate professor of Education, and Nancy Benfer ’04, adjunct Mount professor and principal of Bishop Dunn Memorial School, have teamed up with Bixler on these courses. In addition to Bixler, Norman, and Benfer, CELL is made possible by Mount professors Jane Gangi, David Gallagher, and many more college volunteers.
Elizabeth Cambronero of Wantagh, N.Y., an aspiring teacher, is one of the Mount student volunteers who lends her skills to Bastien’s “Wild Readers.” Her time at the Armory is built into one of her Mount courses, Literacy Teaching and Learning for Diverse Childhood Learners. Working with the children at the Armory has taught her new and exciting literacy techniques that she hopes to integrate into her own classroom.
“The Armory has been a great experience for me,” she said, adding that it’s “a great way to get involved in the community and make a difference in young learners’ lives.”
Cambronero says her one-on-one interactions with the young students of the Armory have really had a positive impact on them.
“The best part is seeing how involved the students are,” she revealed. “It’s great seeing the students get excited to share their work with the class.”
Like the other Armory programs, Bastien’s class provides structure and important skills for everyone involved, Cambronero explained. Bastien truly enhances the young readers’ lives, she added.
“I really enjoyed watching Sandy Bastien teach the class,” said Cambronero. “Seeing how she encourages the students to set goals is something that I believe all teachers should do.”
Setting goals is a technique Bastien not only teaches to her classes at the Newburgh Armory, but also something she has used to facilitate her own success: She earned a master’s in Public Administration and Law from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, and runs her own local business, Plumeria Bouquets. Bastien is also an author, having published her own biography, “Rejected Yet Chosen,” in 2016.
It was setting goals for success that brought Bastien and her family to the Newburgh Armory Unity Center in the first place. The family’s Armory story began in January 2018 when Bastien’s husband, an immigrant from Haiti, had just been laid off from his job. While looking for work, he decided to better himself by increasing his mastery of the English language. Soon, he was enrolled in classes at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center.
While there, he saw great educational opportunities not only for himself, but also for his wife and their five children. And so, one Saturday morning, the family came to visit the Armory.
William Kaplan was at the Armory that day – as he is every Saturday – and gave the Bastien family a tour of the facilities. He told them how volunteer instructors are the lifeblood of the Armory’s programs. It wasn’t long after that Bastien felt moved to volunteer her time and effort to the cause.
“To be honest, I never thought of teaching kids,” she said. “But it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Not only am I teaching them, but they’re teaching me.”
Bastien’s three oldest children have already benefited from Newburgh Armory programs, and the two youngest children – ages 1 and 2 – will be enrolled as soon as they’re old enough to begin.
“The Armory has really helped my family,” Bastien said. “Saturday was not a structured day for us. But now it has given us something productive to do. My kids know Saturday is Armory day. It’s helped us become more disciplined and increased my responsibility to myself, my children, and the Armory.”
If it weren’t for Kaplan’s vision and dedication, none of this would have been possible, she noted.
“Mr. Kaplan has a big heart and is a man of his word,” Bastien explained. “He really has a heart for the children, for the families, for the immigrants. He always says that he wants to eliminate poverty and he believes in being self-sufficient. He wants each child to build the confidence to allow them to be whatever they choose to be.”
Kaplan sees the Newburgh Armory Unity Center as a model for other communities throughout the country, large and small. He and his team have created a blueprint for the creation of similar service centers in interested communities, and will share it with anyone who is interested.
“We invite you to make a human investment in the welfare and education of our children,” said Kaplan.
The City of Newburgh has experienced this firsthand with excellent results. And any community could emulate that success, said Kaplan.
“Mr. Kaplan’s goal is, whoever is ready to receive, you’re welcome to it,” Bastien explained. “If you are here, and you want an opportunity to grow and become something – you and your children – this man is ready to give.”
For more information about the Newburgh Armory Unity Center, visit, email, or call 845-245-4035.Megan Torpey ’18, a Mount graduate Education student, helps a young girl increase her reading skills at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center.

Megan Torpey ’18, a Mount graduate Education student, helps a young girl increase her reading skills at the Newburgh Armory Unity Center.