"From the day I learned how to read the only thing I ever wanted to do was help someone else. That's what I live for every day."
-Rev. Leroy Ricksy
Rev. Ricksy's remarkable journey from foster child in rural Virginia to community leader in East Harlem has instilled in him a powerful and unwavering belief that "all things are possible."
For the past 45 years, Rev. Ricksy chose to dedicate his life to the families of East Harlem. He worked part-time in the community while earning both his undergraduate degree in urbanology and his master's degree in social work from Columbia University in a five-year period. After completing his master's, he worked at the Children's Aid Society for 14 years, seven as a psychiatric consultant and then seven as director of the East Harlem branch of the agency. From 1985-November 2006, Rev. Ricksy was the Executive Director of the East Harlem Urban Center.
Twenty years ago, he founded the Booker T. Washington Learning Center. Inspired by Booker T. Washington's autobiography Up From Slavery and Washington's philosophy of self-help and self-reliance and his ability to build a "majestic and lasting institution"-Tuskegee Institute-Rev. Ricksy built the Learning Center on these same principles. His long-term goal was to build a school.
Rev. Ricksy's dedication, commitment, and passion was fueled by his own difficult past. Born in Virginia, he was given away as an infant and spent his childhood in foster care with four different families. Treated cruelly, he was forced to leave school in the fifth grade and work on a farm. He ran away at the age of sixteen and attempted to resume his education. Constant battles with other students led to his expulsion and an admonition from the school principal that he "would die in the electric chair" before he turned 21.
A stint in the Air Force, missed opportunities, and years of substance abuse, sleeping in alleys, time in jail, and a near deadly stabbing followed. In 1960, suffering with a severe case of delirium tremens, he was told that he was beyond medical cure. In Saratoga Springs, NY, with nothing left to live for, he attempted suicide by driving his car through the front window of a bar.
Miraculously, he was stopped by a fire hydrant. More miraculously, the judge saw "something in this young man" worth saving and gave him 60 days to see what he could make of his life.
A chance encounter with a minister led to his conversion, reluctantly at first, to Christianity. Taken in by the minister's extended family, Leroy learned to read in Bible study classes. Once sober, his goal became "to go back and tell the people who were living the lifestyle I had lived that there was another way."
He traveled to Toledo to continue his Christian education and spoke regularly about his conversion in local churches. It was there that he met his wife and life partner, Fay, a UCLA student from a very religious, middle class family. Within a year, they eloped and arrived homeless in New York City.
Again, another chance encounter, this time with Rev. Norman Eddy, Founder and at the time Director of the East Harlem Urban Center, led them to a Hispanic church in the Bronx where they were given a room which to Leroy and Fay was "a mansion."
A few months later, at the age of 28, with little more than a fifth grade education, Leroy was given an opportunity to attend a theological school in Puerto Rico. While Fay and their daughter stayed in New York, Leroy spent the next three years studying in Spanish. With total immersion in the language and the kindness and support of his fellow students, Leroy became fluent in Spanish. Because of the interruption of his education as a child, he felt "more comfortable speaking Spanish than English" during his life.
Over the years, Rev. Ricksy, senior pastor of the United Church of Christ for 21 years, continued his professional development participating in Grundtvig Institute programs in Denmark and Italy and as a guest scholar at the Aspen Institute. He also attended training workshops at Columbia University.
With his own journey as a lesson in miracles, Rev. Ricksy saw his purpose as finding and nurturing the potential in the children and adults in his care, even when they themselves didn't know or don't believe in their ability to live another life.