Edafe Okporo founded a homeless shelter for those seeking asylum in the United States, remembering how he had lived at Newark’s Pennsylvania Station, showered at a YMCA and bounced between shelters when he arrived from Nigeria four years ago.
Cielo Villa started a nonprofit to help students apply to college, recalling how so many of her peers had been left behind as she excelled after obtaining a scholarship to Wellesley College.
Mr. Okporo and Ms. Villa will now get big help — $200,000 apiece — to help finance their endeavors. They are among the first five winners of the David Prize, a new philanthropic award envisioned as a sort of MacArthur Grant specifically for New York City residents.
As with the MacArthur Foundation’s well-known “genius” grants, the David prizes come with no conditions. That differentiates the new grants from other New York philanthropic efforts, said Jed Walentas, who runs the real estate company Two Trees Management.
“We’re picking these people for a reason,” Mr. Walentas said. “If we have confidence in these picks, then we should have confidence that they’re going to spend the money that’s going to better them and their work in the right way.”
In addition to Mr. Okporo, the director of the RDJ Refugee Shelter, and Ms. Villa, the founder of Road to Uni, the initial prize recipients are: Dr. Suzette Brown, a pediatrician who was born in Brooklyn and founded Strong Children Wellness, a social service and mental health program for families; Manuel Castro, the leader of New Immigrant Community Empowerment, which provides support to day laborers and new immigrants; and Domingo Morales, who plans to start a compost education initiative, Compost Power.
The David Prize is named for Mr. Walentas’s father, David C. Walentas, a billionaire real estate developer known for transforming Dumbo, a former industrial area in Brooklyn between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, into one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods.
The Walentas family has been criticized for helping to accelerate the city’s gentrification and pushing people out. The David prizes, financed by the Walentas Family Foundation, are meant to highlight the elder Mr. Walentas’s role as a benefactor.
David Walentas, his son said, is “deeply loving of people, especially young people who are passionate about their thing.”
More than 6,500 New Yorkers applied for the prize, and the field was then narrowed to 22 finalists who were announced over the summer. In addition to the $200,000 for each of the five winners, which will be paid out over two years, the foundation will award $10,000 to $25,000 to each of the other finalists.
Erika Boll, the executive director of the prize program, said that a board of advisers had sought applicants who could benefit from increased visibility. “We hope that this prize will catalyze their work in a real way,” she said.
Mr. Okporo, 30, immigrated to the United States after his home country banned same-sex marriage. The process of seeking asylum lasted five months, during which he was held in a detention center in New Jersey. When he was released, he had nowhere to go, leading him to shelters because he could not afford to pay rent.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many people arriving in New York and seeking asylum tried to avoid shelters, for fear of violence or the threat of deportation, Mr. Okporo said.
His group provides 10 asylum-seekers at a time with housing and other services for an average of six months. Mr. Okporo said he operated the only full-time shelter in New York that is specifically for immigrants.
He said he intended to use some of the prize money on education the community about the issue of refugee housing. Currently, RDJ Shelter is funded mostly through private foundations and individual donations. If more people knew about the crisis, he said, more municipal resources might be allotted to the addressing it.
“Most of the refugees aren’t eligible to vote until they become U.S. citizens, and politicians don’t care about people who aren’t in their voting bloc,” he said.
His larger goal is pressure the city into providing housing for refugees and asylum-seekers by 2025.
As a child, Ms. Villa, 29, knew two things: that she wanted to go to college, and that she needed a scholarship to get there.
Ms. Villa, who moved to the United States from Peru when she was 7, said she had dedicated herself to her dream early on. She asked teachers for advice and researched funding opportunities.
During her sophomore year, she was accepted to Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America, or LEDA, a nonprofit organization that targets high achieving students across the country. There, she received AP classes, SAT prep and help with college essays — all things that her high school could not offer her.
But none of that help was extended to her peers. She remembers seeing many of them struggling and asking one another about scholarships and what colleges they should apply to. With LEDA’s help, she already had a list of colleges in hand.
“A lot of my peers were also smart and dedicated,” she said. “I felt really awful about having that privilege.”
She started her organization Road to Un in 2018.
Dr. Suzette Brown
Born in Brooklyn to Jamaican parents, Dr. Brown, 42, had long known that she wanted to serve marginalized communities, especially after watching her mother run a Long Island preschool for Black and Hispanic children.
“I grew up in that preschool, helping her with those kids,” she said. “I just knew that’s where my heart was, working with kids and trying to help them fulfill their potential.”
In July 2019, she started Strong Children Wellness, a program led by doctors that works with community-based organizations to bring primary care services to families with children.
Dr. Brown said she hoped to use the prize money to hire what she called a family navigator, a point person for families who need help navigating social services, like fighting eviction and handling their finances.
Mr. Castro, 36, saw the pandemic’s impact on the city early on. His organization, New Immigrant Community Empowerment, is based in Jackson Heights, Queens, an area that was ravaged by the virus.
“People were afraid of going to work,” he said, “so we started to distribute food and information about the virus.”
Through this work, he contracted Covid-19 himself.
Mr. Castro said Jackson Heights had also been walloped by the economic crisis that the pandemic touched off. That led him to spend recent months thinking about the future of work, especially how reopening the city economy would depend on the labor of immigrants.
Many undocumented immigrants, he said, are targeted by disreputable employment agencies that often fail to return on promises of work, or take significant cuts of a person’s paycheck. His prizewinning idea: build a cooperative model for day laborers that would allow them to bargain for fairer pay and better working conditions.
“Undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for unemployment or Covid-related cash assistance,” Mr. Castro said. “In terms of a social safety net, undocumented workers have nothing. They can only depend on their labor.”
After landing a job with Green City Force, an AmeriCorps program that trains public housing residents in New York for jobs in environmentally friendly industries, Mr. Morales began working at a composting farm in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.
That is where he met his mentor, David Buckel, who was the site’s manager at the time, Mr. Buckel stoked Mr. Morales’s interest in sustainability. Mr. Buckel eventually showed Mr. Morales what he needed to know so that he could run the site himself someday.
In 2018, Mr. Buckel burned himself to death in Prospect Park to make a political statement. Devastated, Mr. Morales took over the position, running the composting site until this past spring, when he was laid off because of the pandemic.
Like many of his fellow prizewinners, Mr. Morales, 28, was already thinking about his big idea before he knew about the grant that will now help him pay for it.
Compost Power, he said, would support and improve community compost sites and encourage residents to compost.
“I want New York City to create the domino effect that spreads sustainability and composting to every city and every state, and for the U.S. to become a leader in composting,” he said.