Yale Bulletin and Calendar

October 3, 2003|Volume 32, Number 5















Makana Ellis (right) worked this summer as an assistant to housing specialist Kerri Kelshall-Ward at the Hill Development Corporation.

Student helped strengthen neighborhoods
as Presidential Public Service Fellow

Although she grew up in New Haven's Hill neighborhood, Yale junior Makana Ellis acknowledges that she is always discovering something new about her home city.

An advantage of attending college so close to home, she says, is that it allows her to continue learning about and being involved in her own community.

This summer, as one of 33 President's Public Service Fellows at Yale, Ellis was able to devote herself to a cause she has long supported: helping low- to moderate-income individuals realize their goal of owning their first home.

Ellis was an assistant to housing specialist Kerri Kelshall-Ward at the Hill Development Corporation (HDC), a non-profit organization in the Hill neighborhood that provides quality, affordable housing to lower-income families. The HDC, in collaboration with Yale, the City of New Haven and other institutions, has initiated several programs aimed at arresting blight in the neighborhood by rehabilitating existing homes and creating new homes on vacant properties.

"In my own neighborhood, blighted housing is a big issue, and we welcome the rehabilitation of homes in the area," says Ellis. "There is no doubt that homeownership increases a neighborhood's economic stability and decreases violence and other problems. Because I am aware of these benefits for my own community, I have had a real interest in promoting homeownership in New Haven."

At the HDC, Ellis helped conduct a four-week workshop for more than 100 potential first-time homebuyers that was designed to educate them about such issues as preparing budgets, securing mortgages, the real estate process, home inspections, the legal aspects of purchasing a home, and landlord/tenant relations.

The Yale student also met with the workshop participants in one-on-one sessions to discuss their credit reports, explain how such reports are read, advise them on how to handle a dispute or error, and how best to pay off outstanding debts.

Ellis took part in a one-week training session before beginning her work and also read two books that instructed her about much of the process of buying a first home. She then sat in on sessions led by other HDC staff to get acquainted with the procedures and process. Along the way, she became very familiar with all that is entailed in buying a home.

"One particular concern that I shared with clients is the problem of predatory lending," says Ellis. "African Americans and Latinos are the most victimized by private mortgage companies charging high rates and fees for their loans. I was able to warn my clients about it."

The HDC awarded a certificate to all the participants who completed the workshop, a requirement for HDC homebuyer grants to low-income families.

While at the New Haven agency, Ellis saw 10 families secure mortgages for their first homes, and others are well on their way to reaching that goal.

"Working there, I got very attached to the clients because I got to know them in such a personal way," says the Yale student. "It brings a lot of satisfaction to see them succeed."

In fact, Ellis has become so committed to her work at the HDC that she is continuing to offer her help at the agency -- this time as a volunteer. This fall, she will assist in upcoming workshops and one-on-one credit counseling, and will help Kelshall-Ward form an Anti-Predatory Coalition to fight predatory lending and educate buyers about the practice. In addition, Kelshall-Ward has recruited Ellis to help publicize the HDC homebuyer workshops by appearing on community television programs.

"Makana went above and beyond what was required of her," says Kelshall-Ward of the Yale student's contributions at HDC. "She is a true credit to her community -- both Yale and New Haven. Our clients were happy to know she was 'home-grown' right here in this community, that she goes to Yale, and is giving back to her community."

The HDC staff member credits Ellis with arranging much of the publicity for the homebuyer workshops and with creating computer databases that have been invaluable to HDC staff.

Ellis says that in addition to becoming familiar with HDC initiatives and the process of home buying, she learned about her home city in the weekly meetings she attended with fellow President's Public Service Fellows -- held in various New Haven restaurants -- and in talks about community issues with such local officials as New Haven Mayor John DeStefano and Hamden Mayor Carl Amento, among others.

"Although I am a New Haven native, I actually learned a great deal about the city through my participation in the fellowship program," says Ellis. "During orientation, we took a tour of city neighborhoods, and I learned about various businesses, Yale's contributions to New Haven, programs run by Yale alumni that benefit the community, and a lot of historical facts about the city I had never known."

Ellis is one of more than 300 Yale undergraduate, graduate and professional students who together have contributed more than 100,000 hours of community service to New Haven non-profit and public sector agencies since the President's Public Service Fellowships were established in 1994. President Richard C. Levin inaugurated the fellowships to provide opportunities for Yale students to spend the summer in New Haven working with city agencies and non-profit service organizations on initiatives concerned with economic and human development and neighborhood revitalization. Fellows are selected through a competitive application process.

"We are delighted that Makana served as a President's Public Service Fellow this summer in support of the University's commitment to strengthening neighborhoods and promoting homeownership," says T. Reginald Solomon, the director of the fellowship program. In addition to the popular Yale Homebuyer Program, which provides a $25,000 subsidy over a 10-year period to Yale employees who purchase a home in New Haven (to date, 570 employees have taken advantage of this program), the University has partnered with the HDC and other community agencies and groups to promote neighborhood revitalization and economic development.

Her work with the HDC is just one of the ways that Ellis has engaged in the life of her hometown. She helps ex-convicts find jobs and register to vote as a volunteer for Starting Over Inc. and is a volunteer tutor in the Math Counts program at Roberto Clemente Middle School. Her other extracurricular activities include serving as a choreographer and adviser for the Yale step (dance) team Steppin' Out, and advocating for and tutoring prisoners as a member of the Yale Student Legal Action Movement. She is also member of the Black Student Alliance at Yale.

"Originally, when deciding about college, I really thought I wanted to go away," says Ellis. "But during the summer before my senior year at Career High School I took classes at Yale as a Shaefer Scholar, and loved the atmosphere at Yale.

"I am glad I made the choice to come here," says the Yale student, who would like to volunteer for Teach for America after she graduates and aspires to become a civil or criminal attorney. "I have a great commitment to New Haven and want to continue to give back to my city in meaningful ways."

-- By Susan Gonzalez


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