‘Humans of New York’ photog turns controversy into cash for Bed-Stuy YMCA

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Photographer Brandon Stanton visits a summer camp open house at the Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA on Saturday.

When New York street photographer Brandon Stanton was tipped off last week that clothing retailer DKNY had used his photos without his permission, everyone he asked gave him the same advice: “Lawyer up.”

“But I imagined all the bad energy that would come into my life if I did,” said Stanton, whose popular “Humans of New York” blog has more than half a million followers on social media. “Creating enemies, depositions, meeting with lawyers.”

So he chose to turn the incident into a positive thing for a cause very close to his heart. He publicly asked DKNY to donate $100,000 to the YMCA in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Humans of New York’s devoted followers spread the word across the Internet. Within hours, the retailer had apologized for what it said was a mistake and promised to donate $25,000 in Stanton’s name.

As marketing director for the YMCA, Sonia Atherly-Meertins was thrilled and assumed that would be the end of it. But the next morning, the phone rang. It was Stanton.

“He told me, ‘I couldn’t sleep last night.’ I asked him if he was all right and he said, ‘I want to do more.’”

Over the next 72 hours, $103,710 in donations poured in via a crowdfunding website Stanton set up titled “Let’s Send Kids to YMCA Summer Camp.”

“It’s just such a blessing,” Atherly-Meertins said at the YMCA on Saturday. “We’re set to make this a really cool summer for a lot of kids who might not have been able to come otherwise.”

Weekends are usually busy at the facility, which staff, parents and kids alike describe as a second home—one that performs double—and even triple-duty, serving as combination school, fitness center and child care provider.

“I’ve come here almost every day for the last two and a half years,” said Stanton, who is himself a member. “It’s a shelter, it’s a haven, it’s a school. I’ve seen the same kids every day coming out of karate lessons, learning to dance.”

Saturday also happened to be an open house for parents considering sending their children to camp. Brightly colored balloons with the YMCA’s distinctive “Y” decorated a hallway lined with tables where interested parents could learn about Sports Camp, Creative Camp, or Swim Camp.

Cynthia Cummings, a mother of three, had just heard about the fundraiser and smiled as she anticipated sending her 13-year-old daughter to sleepaway camp for the first time.

“My children have never been to summer camp because I’ve never been able to afford it,” she said. “So I’m really looking forward to filling out the application.”

In light of the amount of money raised, Stanton is thrilled at the chance to send more children to camp outside the city.

“A lot of the kids, their mobility is very limited which makes it difficult to expand your horizons,” he said. “Let ‘em see some grass for a week.”

But even the campers who plan on staying local will get a taste of the world beyond the five boroughs. This summer’s theme will be “Around the World in 62 Days,” with each two-week session focusing on a different hemisphere of the globe. The windfall means that more children will be granted scholarships to attend and will enable more field trips to places like Little Italy, the Statue of Liberty and various museums.

“We’d like to thank Brandon for thinking that we’re worthy of this, and thank DKNY for their donation,” YMCA Executive Director Dordy Jourdain said. “And thanks to the thousands of people who thought kids deserved the chance to be kids.”


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