originally published April 2006
If there is anyone who should look and feel out of place in the corridors of Riker’s Island, it is Mark Goldsmith. A retired cosmetics executive who once headed up Yves St. Laurent in the United States, Goldsmith carries himself with an easy going polish and self assurance that seems more appropriate for lunch at the Four Seasons. Yet, Goldsmith has found himself a new home. A marketing man at heart, he has a new mission, a new message and a brand new target audience – young prisoners, aged 18-24 awaiting trial in jail. He also founded a new nonprofit, Getting Out and Staying Out, that is helping to save lives, one inmate at a time.
Five years ago, Goldsmith volunteered for the Department of Education’s Principal for a Day program. “I was a wise guy and asked for a tough school,” he says. “They sent me to the Horizon Academy on Riker’s Island.” Something clicked. Goldsmith came back in the same role for three years in a row and then decided to stay. He volunteered to do regular classroom lectures for the young inmates who study for their GED between court dates and a possible stretch upstate.
Goldsmith’s class could be called “Success 101:Why It Is Possible and What It Will Take to Achieve It”. “We do the old college thing,” he explains. “I tell them to look to your left and look to your right. Only one of you is going to stay out. Two of you are coming back.”
He works them through a four part program – helping them to identify their talents, emphasizing the need for passion, how to pick their own “A-Team” of supporters and learning how to get lucky. “You have to be around successful people who do what you want to do,” says Goldsmith. “That is the key. If you want to be an actor, get a job in the theater sweeping the place out. If you want to own a bodega, get a job at Duane Reade and learn what it means to handle merchandise. If you want to be in real estate, become a maintenance man and work your way up to assistant superintendent. Soon you will know all the costs – labor, fuel, repairs, utilities.”
Mentoring is at the heart of Getting Out Staying Out. “The whole thing is having a successful male figure being there for them on a consistent basis. They have never had that.” He brings in speakers ranging from Russell Simmons and Rev Run to legal aid attorneys and the president of the Jets. “Last week he brought in an Assistant District Attorney who was so impressed with one of Mark’s kids he said he wanted to do something to help,” says Gloria Ortiz, Principal and Founder of Horizon Academy.“He talked to the kids about how to conduct themselves in court, when to change your lawyer and how to write to a judge.They loved it.”
Goldsmith’s involvement quickly evolved beyond the classroom. Guys apply for the program by writing a letter explaining why they want to join. They prepare a resume and sign a contract committing to participate. Goldsmith advocates for participants in court and with other programs. He continues to work with participants even when they are sentenced to State prison.
“At any given point I am seeing between 40 and 50 guys at Riker’s, about 40 upstate and I have about 40 guys who are out,” says Goldsmith.
“He bonds with those kids,” says Kathleen Coughlin, Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Discharge Planning at the Department of Correction. “A lot of it has to do with his reputation,” says Ortiz. “They trust people who really come through for them. He has put a number of kids through culinary school. He has a kid in NYU. He has kids who are upstate participating in distance learning. They see that what he tells them he is going to do, he does.”
Over the past two years, Getting Out Staying Out (GOSO) began raising money, primarily from groups like the Pinkerton, Bodeman and Weinberg Foundations. Last year, it opened an office in East Harlem.“When kids get released, they find Getting Out Staying Out is a safe haven where they can go for assistance,” says Ortiz, who notes that the office has become almost a satellite for the Horizon Academy’s own programming. “We hold monthly young adult groups with my social workers and psychologist. We can also use it to meet with individual kids who may need to finish up a section of the GED.”
Now, Goldsmith is hoping to expand GOSO’s impact by recruiting mentors who, similar to himself, are retired and successful. “Success means anything from being a bricklayer to being an investment banker,” he says. “We are looking for men who have found a way to be successful in whatever they do.”
GOSO is working with the Community Service Society which plans to recruit 25 mentors fitting this description through its Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP).
For more information on GOSO contact Info@gosonyc.org