Before addressing the summer day-campers from Kingsbridge Heights gathered to hear her speak, Justice Sonia Sotomayor voiced a modest request.
Instead of talking from a high-backed executive leather chair behind a table on a proscenium perched above her audience, the Bronx native kindly asked to be seated in a metal folding chair placed on the ground near the youthful assembly.
In other words, the woman who holds one of the nine seats on the U.S. Supreme Court – the highest court in arguably the most powerful country in the world – just wanted to sit as close to her wide-eyed charges as possible.
“The most important thing to her was to connect with the kids,” said Lamont Jackson, 42, director of the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center Summer Program who was in attendance with his campers. “She didn’t care about her own comfort. To me, it was quite a humble and impressive act on her part.”
The 62 children from the community center’s summer camp were among the participants in the Bronx Children’s Museum’s “Dream Big for our Rivers Environmental Day.” Justice Sotomayor joined them at the event which included a musical performance by The Voice contestant Cáthia and a series of workshops exploring the ecology of the Bronx River at Fordham University’s McGinley Center.
The annual “Dream Big” program encourages students throughout the borough to set high goals and work hard towards achieving them.
The Supreme Court justice’s appearance was revealed to the day-campers just moments before their arrival.
“It was very surprising,” said 10-year-old Ifechi Amasiani, who attends St. Margaret of Cortona and hopes to study pediatrics in the future. “We had no idea she was going to be there.”
Ifechi’s admiration for Justice Sotomayor extends beyond the esteemed judge’s professional achievements to her voracious reading habits. “She’s read a lot of books and I love to read too, especially fiction,” said Ifechi, whose favorite author is the children’s and young adult writer Judy Blume.
The justice’s message was clear to all of those listening: Set high goals, work hard, never quit, and you can achieve anything, no matter who you are or where you are from.
And as someone who was born and grew up in public housing in the Bronx, was Valedictorian at her Cardinal Spellman High School graduation, went to Princeton and earned a law degree from Yale before joining the Supreme Court as its first Latino member, Justice Sotomayor is a living example of that message.
For Anthony Caldwell, 18, a camp counselor, Justice Sotomayor’s remarks were inspiring and applicable.
“I know what she means when she says you have to keep pushing, keep fighting, never give up – I’ve experienced that,” said Mr. Caldwell who studies at Bronx Community College and plans to earn a degree in physical education. “What she says is true and it’s motivating.”
Understandably, not all the young attendees were initially aware of Justice Sotomayor’s identity and status.
Nicholas Vega, who is 7-years-old and attends P.S. 81, admitted he wasn’t familiar with the Supreme Court justice until her recent visit. Still, Nicholas was impressed after hearing her speak. “It was very exciting because she’s from the Bronx and I’ve never seen her before,” he said.
Justice Sotomayor also expressed a personal wish to her young audience saying, “My dream is that all of you find your dream and it comes true.”
The Kingsbridge Heights Community Center summer day camp program serves students ages 6-to-14-years-old .
The Bronx Children’s Museum conducts programs at community centers and schools throughout the Bronx and operates the “Museum on the Go,” a hands-on environmental exhibit in a converted school.
It has scheduled its Kids’ Powerhouse Discovery Center near Yankee Stadium in 2015.