In this 2015 photo, Executive Director Linda Saris looks over the shoulders of 18-year-olds Allen Hernando, left, and Kevin Melo, of Salem, as they work at computer stations at LEAP for Education.
SALEM — LEAP for Education is turning 20, and it’s celebrating with those who leapt with the organization over the past two decades.
LEAP, launched as Salem CyberSpace in 2002 as part of North Shore Community Action Programs, will hold its annual Great Expectations fundraiser on Wednesday, April 6, at Danversport.
The event typically honors a “distinguished leader” with an annual award by that name. As they honor Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll this year, the organization will also spotlight those whose post-LEAP lives were on a higher trajectory after graduation.
“I was part of the second cohort of students who graduated through the high school,” said Manny Cruz, the School Committee’s vice chairperson who is also running for Salem’s state representative seat. “I had a couple friends who told me about this awesome program they were going to for homework activities, and they even had some summer programming, and the place sounded amazing… and the other hook was they had snacks.”
One of the first people to greet the now 30-year-old Cruz was the program’s founder: Linda Saris.
“Linda was just so interested in getting kids through the door, and as a sixth-grader, you can tell when someone’s heart is in the right place,” Cruz said. “One of the first questions she asked when I got there was, ‘Do you have any homework?’”
Saris, who founded Salem Cyberspace, still runs the organization as executive director. A timeline of their history shows that in 2002, NSCAP “hired” Saris (as a volunteer) to set up a drop-in, free, internet cafe in a low-income neighborhood. But it soon became clear the community needed more than just computers and internet to make a difference in closing the “Digital Divide.”
Since then, LEAP has grown from fewer than a dozen children in the first year to 550 today across four cities. LEAP adopted its new name in 2014 when it incorporated as its own entity, and left the NSCAP umbrella in 2015. After expanding into Gloucester and Peabody, Lynn was added early in the COVID-19 pandemic and represents 150 of the students being served today, Saris explained.
“That’s a middle school program. We’re hoping to open up a high school program,” she said. “There’s a lot of need.”
The school is also working on an expansion in Salem, with efforts to add career services support at the high school, which is also undergoing a programmatic redesign, according to Saris.
Of course, LEAP isn’t just in the schools. After all, it was called Salem Cyberspace for a reason.
“Google didn’t even start until 1999. That was really at the beginning of the digital explosion,” Saris said of the program’s launch in 2002. “We were doing things… just helping people set up email, teaching them how to search on the internet. Then, it turned into the (Microsoft) Office suite — Word, Excel.”
This year’s Great Expectations event will take time to celebrate Driscoll, who just started her fifth four-year term as mayor, as this year’s Distinguished Leader.
It was an easy way to celebrate LEAP’s platinum anniversary, according to Saris.
“Kim was mayor for 16 out of those 20 years, and she’s been an absolutely steadfast supporter of LEAP, and Salem Cyberspace before that,” Saris said. “She always went out of her way to check in and see how we were doing.”
Driscoll, who is also making a bid for the state’s lieutenant governor, said she recalled walking into Salem Cyberspace’s Lafayette Street “storefront” as a young mayor.
“From those humble beginnings, they’ve been such a key partner for serving youth, adolescents, college students and see them grow and thrive in Salem,” Driscoll said. “They brought a skillset that we really hadn’t well honed in our community, in terms of communications with students — especially our English language learners. They had academic support, social capital and equal access to opportunity.”
Cruz recalled going through high school with poor grades, until Saris began to work her magic.
“I was a 2.0-GPA student. College wasn’t in the cards for me, but she found something I was really passionate about,” Cruz said. “During the 2008 election, I got really interested in politics for the first time, listening to then Senator Obama’s campaign for president.
“Linda was the one who pushed me and said, ‘You know you can study this when you get to college, right?’” Cruz recalled. “Eventually I went on to study political science at Salem State University, and then I transferred to Northeastern with the support of LEAP. I graduated with honors.”
And Cruz is hardly an exception, according to Driscoll. While he was able to accomplish a lot, it was thanks to Saris’ accomplishments working in the background.
“Linda was driving kids to college visits, filling out FAFSA forms, getting them connected with opportunities they could have,” Driscoll said.
“The way they connect with youth and build empowerment, engagement and academic support is special.”
For more on the event, including donation and auction portals, visit leap4ed-greatexpectations.org.
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