Written by Nhi Tong in March 2014
Teenagers refer to her as the best adult they have ever met. Co-workers applaud her wisdom, talent and inspiration. Delia Kim Sorto – the Founder and Director of the Young Governors Program – has no idea how priceless her dedication to empowering youth is.
Founding the Young Governors in 2011, Delia has provided teenagers with endless opportunities to elevate their self-esteem, pursue dreams and develop leadership skills. Tala Haider, the eighteen-year-old facilitator for Young Governors who aspires to become a social worker, recalled how Delia had trained and encouraged him to talk to businesses, interact with team members or plan curriculum. “She is simply amazing at what she does and has inspired me to follow her as a role model. If the world had more Delias, it would be a much better place,” he said.
Before starting the youth-led program, Delia had been through a long life journey where she discovered her dream of working with teenagers. With parents who emigrated from Korea, Delia found little support and structure in life from her family. It was this experience that later inspired her to help teenagers who faced the same difficulties. During adolescence, she took on leadership roles and joined youth groups in high school. The community activities helped her look outside of her own situation and witness what others had been through. “I knew I wanted to work with youth, becoming a teacher or ministry,” she shared.
After graduating from college as a Social work/ Biblical studies double major, she continued to earn her master degree by attending Silberman School of Social Work in Hunter College. A smile spread across her face when remembering the experience from this time when she met many passionate people who thrilled her with inspiration for social work.
“The best way of empowering communities is by empowering youth,” she declared. With this firm belief, she worked for over ten years as an active social worker, running youth programs in low-income locations. Indeed, she was in awe to realize the resilience and enormous potential that teenagers possessed. Labeling them “loyal and passionate”, Delia found it a disturbing reality when many youths did not have access to opportunities that channeled their energy into something positive and ended up undervaluing themselves. This sparked in her a desire to develop a program that concentrated on developing youth strength that later would become Young Governors.
However, founding a program independently was not an easy task. To prepare for this endeavor, Delia decided to earn another master degree in Public Administration in Baruch College. Having staunch supporters and great professors who affirmed her vision, she ultimately developed a business plan. Delia remembered feeling the fear of disappointing people that believed in her, yet she told herself: “If it only lasts for a year, so be it.”
Setting out to build everything from scratch, she sought advice from numerous people. “I probably talked to more people than I needed to,” she recalled. Partnering with Redd Sevilla, the Executive Director at New Life Community Development Corporation and an old high school friend, Delia found the location and funding for her program.
In the spring of 2011, she embarked on recruiting teenagers who lived in Elmhurst/Corona area. It was not a memory to be forgotten: going to the parks, malls, McDonalds, food courts and presenting the program to strangers. “Most were like: ‘We are eating,’ ” she said. Yet, Delia was delightful to find teenagers who were hooked by the idea of becoming community organizers; two of whom were Annie Wang and Tala Haider – the future crucial builders of Young Governors. Annie, currently the program’s administrator, shared: “Delia has been very supportive not just of our work but us personally too…She has always been there like a friend, sister and mother.” (Click on Annie’s (Amy’s) Story to witness how much she has changed over the years in Young Governors.)
With hands gesticulating, Delia recounted her inspiring story. “It is something I want to do. Just to be around teens is a privilege,” she said. In the first three years of the program, she worked as a consultant and picked up part-time jobs to work around Young Governors, so she could focus her energy on building the program. It was a financially unstable period, but it was worth it to be able to give Young Governors the time and attention.
Contrasted to Delia’s prior anxiety, her program prevails and thrives. From the first year with only seven members, Young Governors has expanded to currently train and hire eighteen high school students, form another group called Young Volunteers, organize many events and start the Elmhurst Community Garden.
In 2014, the cycle of leadership began when Annie and Tala took on more leadership roles of the program, planning and leading the meeting, or Chaochi Lee (a Young Governors veteran) became Young Volunteers Coordinator. Expressing her trust in the teenagers, Delia shared: “This is how it should be. I feel like I should not take away from them chance to step up.” This gave Delia the freedom to seek fulltime work and trust for the teen leaders to run the program.
Melissa Villodas, an intern in New Life Community Development Corporation, after working with Young Governors for seven months, described Delia as someone who had “natural talent”. She has learned much from observing how Delia brings herself to different situations. Brenda Vazquez, the After School Program Director at New Life Community Development Corporation, also mentioned Delia as a “knowledgeable and resourceful person who knows about many different things”. Brenda appreciated how Delia was always willing to help others and so passionate about young people. “I feel sad because she is not around that much anymore,” Brenda said when talking about Delia’s new schedule with her full-time job.
Delia loves food and travelling. She is also passionate about adventures and a big fan of jazz. “Delia is really fun to be around,” Perry Chu, a third year Young Governor, said. She prepared breakfasts on Saturday meetings for all the Young Governors and would occasionally bake healthy cookies. Delia also recommends books for the teenagers to dwell on, offers advice for their lives or simply listens to teenagers’ jokes.
One time, when a Young Governor curiously asked her how she remained so happy and youthful, Delia answered: “Don’t stay up late. Don’t smoke. And do something you love.”