Urban Ellis: Battling to give kids the chances he never had


A Press profile

By Maria Clark

Two years ago, Urban Ellis trekked up the steep hill from Broadway to Manhattan College on a mission: to start up a college prep program for kids in Marble Hill.

Despite his age — he was 76 at the time — and a bad hip, Mr. Ellis was determined to enlist help from the college for his program.

“The dean walked him upstairs to my office that day. His ambition for the betterment of the kids in the Bronx really has energized me,” said Corine Fitzpatrick, who helped Mr. Ellis successfully apply for a $400,000 Optimal College Readiness grant.

The money helped Mr. Ellis set up two centers, one at St. Stephen’s Methodist Church and another on the ground floor of his building at the Marble Hill Houses. The walls in the small center have a fresh coat of paint, the Internet has been hooked up and Mr. Ellis is expecting approximately 25 students to join the program as soon as this weekend.

“Because of my life circumstances, I didn’t have the education I needed to be as successful as some of the people I met along the way,” said Mr. Ellis. “I wanted to find a way the kids here could at least have an option to do something great with their lives.”

Ms. Fitzpatrick recruited graduate students at Manhattan College to help students learn how to write resumes, organize their college applications and apply for scholarship and grant money.

They are currently doing outreach at IN-Tech Academy, MS/HS 368, where Manhattan College has been developing a college advisory program, along with the Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy on the John F. Kennedy Campus and St. Raymond’s Academy.

“He is so energetic and enthusiastic. He wanted to stand outside of the center in his building and hand out flyers to students when they walk home from school,” said Ms. Fitzpatrick who runs a graduate program in mental health counseling at Manhattan College and also helps writes grants.

Mr. Ellis is a fixture in Marble Hill, whether he is attending service at St. Stephen’s Methodist Church, sitting in on a tenant’s association meeting, or advising the children in his art and journalism programs at the Marble Hill Community Center.

He’s living proof that life doesn’t have to end after retirement.

The college prep program is only his latest brainchild.

He retired when he was 65- years-old after 30 years working as recruiter and salesman at various companies, and 20 years driving a yellow cab at night to supplement his income.

Mr. Ellis’ desire “to find something to do,” post-retirement led him to create Students and Teachers Organized With Parents Against Guns, Violence and Drugs (S.T.O.P.), which offered kids a productive alternative to getting involved in criminal activity.

Through S.T.O.P, he helped create a music program, a newsletter called The Marble Hill Voice, and a computer literacy program at the Marble Hill Community Center.

In the premier issue of the newsletter, kids as young as 12 wrote and reported on topics like violence in video games and a fashion piece on sneakers. Kids also went out to interview Marble Hill residents about violence in the community.

“Words are the vehicles that transport your thoughts to actions,” said Mr. Ellis. “That’s how I thought up the newsletter.”

He moved to the Marble Hill Houses in 1958 when he married his wife Gloria, now 85, and joined the congregation at St. Stephen’s Church. He has been an active member ever since, most recently heading the church’s restoration committee.

“It’s people like him who keep a community alive and going,” said St. Stephen’s leader, the Rev. Nathaniel Dixon.

Mr. Ellis points to his wife as his own source of inspiration.

“My life has been a series of coincidences. Because of Gloria, I moved to Marble Hill and joined St. Stephen’s,” said Mr. Ellis. “There’s always a way to make things happen if you are looking to do something for other people.