Get to know... Brendan and Megan McCarthy
DARIEN — Newburgh, N.Y., is about an hour from Fairfield County, yet it is also a world away.
Whereas Darien has not seen a murder in decades, Newburgh was dubbed by New York Magazine as “the murder capital of New York state.” Graduation rates in Darien are near 100 percent, but less than three out of 10 low-income boys graduate from the public high school in Newburgh.
Yet few have heard of this community, despite it being one of the most impoverished and crime-ridden cities in the United States.
Brendan and Megan McCarthy of Darien also had not thought much of Newburgh when in 2004 their family friend, Father Mark Connell, invited them to help in starting a middle school for boys there. The goal was to get the boys while they were young and offer the school as a refuge and a way out of Newburgh.
“For him, he had a connection to Newburgh, because he taught (out there) and knew how rough it was,” Brendan McCarthy said. “He said it was a place we should think about trying to help.”
“The key is getting kids while they’re young to know they have a place to feel safe,” Brendan McCarthy said. “It’s all about shaping and protecting a kid and giving them a family environment.”
In the 10 years since San Miguel has opened, the McCarthys have stayed heavily involved. In 2007, the family moved to Asia for Brendan McCarthy’s finance job. While living in Hong Kong and Tokyo and having their three children, the family continued to raise money and awareness for the school. When they returned to the United States four years ago, Brendan McCarthy joined the board of the school.
For more on San Miguel Academy of Newburgh, visit newburghsanmiguel.org
The evolving mission of the school to serve its graduates (the first of which are now finishing college) is one of the many things that appealed to the McCarthys and has compelled them to support it for so long.
“The school is shaping them to become productive members of society,” Brendan McCarthy said. “It’s a family. They keep track of all these kids through the whole process.”
San Miguel aims to send its students to private high schools and colleges outside Newburgh, in order to get the boys away from the crime and violence that haunts the city. Many San Miguel graduates have gone on to the Canterbury School, a boarding school in Canterbury, Conn., and on to college at schools like Fairfield University. Most of the boys are the first in their families to attend college.
As members of the Founders’ Councils, the McCarthys work to help raise money for the school, which runs mostly off recurring contributions from a small — yet strong — donor network. They said a huge part of the challenge is raising interest for a community so far removed for many people in Fairfield County.
“No one knows where Newburgh is,” Brendan McCarthy said. “Newburgh has no obvious benefactor group. No one has a connection to it. We need to get the word out about this community in need, because if not us, then who?”
“We’re sandwiched between a lot of poverty,” Megan McCarthy added. “People here are charitable, but your instinct is to give to what’s close to you.”
Through fundraising events and local promotions, word about San Miguel is trickling down to Fairfield County. The owner of Family Britches in New Canaan is donating 5 percent of the store’s December proceeds to the school and the school is holding educational events to spread word about the academy throughout Fairfield County. The school is also part of the Nativity Network, which is made up of middle schools providing to low-income students throughout the country.
But many donors get involved beyond just donating money. Brendan McCarthy said part of making people care about what’s going on in Newburgh is by making the cause personal.
“People don’t want to just give a check,” Brendan McCarthy said. “They want to make a difference in kids’ lives. You can write a check to any big organization, but can you really join and make a difference?”
Many San Miguel donors volunteer in school programs and summer camps, as well as visit the school to get to know the kids personally. The school holds fundraisers like a Walk-a-thon around Newburgh and a Thanksgiving dinner for students and alumni.
But the support goes beyond just providing financial aid and meals. It also involves volunteers and staff being there for the San Miguel students. Brendan McCarthy himself has done things like take students to tour his alma mater, Holy Cross , in Worcester, Mass., to help students reach their goal of attending college. He also once accompanied Connell, now the school’s executive director, as they looked for a student who had been reported repeatedly absent from his high school. The fact that the student’s principal first contacted the student’s former school — and that McCarthy and Connell took the boy out for lunch after finding him and just listened to him talk about his problems—is telling of the vision set for San Miguel.
“The community doesn’t end when they leave,” Megan McCarthy said. “It’s unique in that it has a powerful and lasting influence on these kids.”
The McCarthys said the influence is evident every time they are with the San Miguel boys. At the last graduation ceremony the family attended, the church where it was held was packed with not just immediate but extended family members — cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents — all to see the boys graduate middle school.
“You could see how proud these parents were,” Brendan McCarthy said. “They were so proud their kids were set up for the next step. You can see how grateful they are that this small group brought this school to Newburgh. You don’t just go for four years. You’re a San Miguel man for life.”