Queens-based Philanthropist Helps to Modernize Guyana Police with $1M

The Jay and Sylvia Sobhraj Foundation, a Queens-based philanthropist that has invested in key public safety and educational needs in Guyana and New York City, recently donated state-of-the-art computer technology equipment and training to help modernize Guyana’s national police force.

 The charity, founded by Jay Sobhraj, a principal and founder of Zara Realty, based in Jamaica, Queens, is a native of Guyana and has donated more than $1 million in technology to the police force over the past decade.

On June 24, the foundation celebrated its latest donation of more than 200 computers, printers, tablets, and other equipment, along with the Co-operative Republic of Guyana’s President Mohamed Irfaan Ali.

Members of the foundation, including Mr. Sobhraj, toured police facilities in different parts of the South American nation and met with top officials to discuss ongoing and future technology needs.

The foundation provided more than 200 hours of consulting and training on the new equipment and to help the police force transition from a manual to a digital case management operation.

The 6,000-member Guyana Police Force (GPF) had been operating with limited information technology, seriously impeding its ability to manage information flows, solve crimes, organize their forces and deploy resources across different regions, where they could most effectively and efficiently protect the citizens of Guyana.

“Like any other profession today, police officers need access to the latest technology to do their jobs to the best of their ability,” said Jay Sobhraj. “To confront the problems of the 21st Century, police in Guyana must have the equipment of the 21st Century. Our foundation has long been dedicated to helping modernize the Guyana Police Force, and the Guyana educational system, because we know that a society thrives when public safety is assured and when children believe they have a bright future. We will continue to support the brave men and women of the Guyana Police Force.”

The latest donation furnishes two entire police headquarters with all new technology. 

Since 2012, the Jay and Sylvia Sobhraj Foundation has donated over $1 million in technology equipment and technical assistance.  The foundation donated three computer centers, one for each of the country’s three Police Colleges, and a Cybercrime Center at the Guyana Police Force Headquarters.  

In addition, the foundation partnered with the GPF to distribute sports gear and school supplies to various communities across  Guyana. 

The overall goal is to help police better solve crime, protect lives and property, and contribute meaningfully to the country’s economic development.

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, the country is eager to build back its tourism industry and encourage foreign investment.

 Born in Guyana in 1948, Mr. Sobhraj was one of 10 children and the son of a rice farmer. Along with two of his brothers, George and Ken, he co-founded Zara Realty in 1982 in Jamaica, Queens. The firm, one of the city’s top providers of affordable housing, also owns and manages more than 3.1 million square feet of commercial real estate in the New York region.

 In 2007, after years of independent charitable giving, he officially founded the Jay and Sylvia Sobhraj Foundation with his wife. In addition to its work with the GPF, the foundation created the first-ever psychology degree program at the University of Guyana to help address the lack of mental healthcare in the country. 

 In Queens, the foundation, in partnership with the America Sevashram Sangha Temple, runs free preparatory classes for students to take the Specialized High School Admittance Test (SHSAT), which allows entry into the city’s top academic high schools.

The foundation also donated a computer lab to Richmond Hill High School in Queens.

Felicia Wilson named as David Prize finalist for work with NYC’s foster care youth

The David Prize is an annual award of $1 million that recognizes some of New York City’s brightest visionaries and individuals who do extraordinary work in bettering the five boroughs.

While its five prizewinners won’t be announced until this fall, the Walentas Family Foundation recently released their selection of 22 finalists.

These people, who epitomize the motto of “only in New York”, showcase a sense of grit and flair in their humanitarian efforts. They focus on issues such as homeless advocacy and criminal justice but also include broader initiatives like sustainability and uplifting the local community with creative expression.

Felicia Wilson is the executive director and founder of What About Us Inc. – a nonprofit organization that helps New York City’s foster care youth ages 16-25 through multi-faceted mentorship programs. She is a finalist for the David Prize and was inspired to create the organization based her own experiences growing up in the foster care system.

What About Us is the first nonprofit of its kind in New York City. There are currently 2,277 children in the city’s foster care system that are older than thirteen years old, according to a recent study done by the NYC Administration for Children’s Services, and What About Us connects them with mentors who also grew up in foster care as a way to help young adults build skills in independent living, job readiness and personal development.
Wilson was born in the Bronx and spent 17 years living in foster care, from when she was 4 years old to 21 years of age. She had spent time in 63 different foster care placements and remembers when she was transitioning out of foster care that there was virtually nothing for her to rely on as a young adult or guide Wilson until her foster-mother stepped in.

“I transitioned out of foster care in 2005, where I literally was on my own – no support, no resources, I was facing homelessness – until my foster mother extended her services to allow me to stay in her home in Far Rockaway, Queens on the condition that I worked towards getting my undergraduate degree.”

At John Jay College she went on to earn a degree in criminal justice, and while attending the school she was hired at the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice in 2007. While working there she began to piece together the parts of a pipeline between juvenile detention and the foster care system.

“I told myself there has to be more than just this – more for our young people than just them lounging on the couch and watching television or playing PlayStation,” Wilson said in reference to the lack of rehabilitation or mentorship options in juvenile detention at the time. “There was nothing designed to fix these systems, and I saw how foster care and juvenile detention went hand-in-hand – literally how these systems make money off of our foster youth.”

In talking to some alumni of New York City’s foster care system, Wilson was able to get a picture of how these services weren’t progressing as she gained an awareness of how they actually work in practice. The conversations revealed that a majority of foster youth in their teens didn’t know what success in life for them could look like and that the likelihood of these people who go from foster homes to juvenile detention facing incarceration later on in life is high.

“It literally costs anywhere from $80,000 to $100,000 to send one child through the New York City education system, yet it takes millions of dollars – depending on the services they need – to house a child that goes between juvenile detention and foster homes,” Wilson said, explaining that a majority of funding set aside for foster care specifically goes to family permanency and mental health services.

And according to the ACS of NYC, preparing for a high school equivalency test, help paying for needed school supplies or activities, tutoring, and help applying for school are among the services that the city’s youth in foster care need the most. Wilson said, “I realized there has to be more than just this broken, one-way system that’s not helping our foster youth.”

It pushed her to create the first alumni-based organization in New York City that provides services to foster youth. She felt it was especially important for alumni to be a centric part of the organization because of their ability to relate to foster youth based on their own experiences.

“In the times in which we live, this is an organization that focuses on those that are literally suffering the most in black and brown communities. We are a diverse group, and it’s important to show our black and brown youth that they’re not alone and that we look like them. By connecting, we can positively affect the trajectory of how these young people are maneuvering through life. The fact that our mentors can relate to their struggles is what really makes us unique.”

She recalled one instance in which there was young woman at What About Us that really struggled with her mental health. Just like Wilson, she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression as a child. She called Wilson one night, crying over a prolonged conflict with her mom and concerns for her own safety. At the time, the girl was grappling with an increase of shootings in her local neighborhood and had nearly been struck by a stray bullet that came crashing through her bedroom window one night.

After having a conversation with Wilson, the young woman considered places to go that would be safer, eventually traveling down to Florida to live with her father’s side of the family. Wilson said, “She told me it was the best thing she’s ever done, and I told her that whatever additional support she needs I’m here for.”

“To know that I gave some clarity and a little push in the right direction to stabilize [her] mental health means everything to me. In that moment I realized I took her out of a situation where she felt stuck and gave her comfort but also hope in talking to her and guiding her.”

The David Prize would help Wilson bring in people that are outside of her expertise and pay for professional consults, in areas like civil services and mental health. If What About Us has someone that wants additional education support, those extra funds would be crucial to bringing in more mentors and educators to give foster youth the support that they need.

“It was important for me the create What About Us,” Wilson said. “I wanted young people to see that their circumstances don’t define them and that they’re the own narrator of their own life.”

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