Leslie Dangerfield '96 (formerly Channelle Gilford) recently published Fernando The Bodega Cat, a lighthearted children's book highlighting diversity and inclusion through daily encounters with a New York City bodega cat.
"I have been a freelance writer and creative consultant for years. I enjoy creating and sharing stories from lived experiences. This is my first children's book, and it has allowed me to combine my two passions," Leslie explains. Every morning, after Leslie would put her son on the school bus, she would go to the corner bodega where the resident cat would jump down from atop the ATM and always run up to Leslie. Her daily Instagram posts featuring photos of the cat became very popular among Leslie's friends. "While the book is inspired by a real bodega cat and my personal reflections growing up in New York City, it is also a tribute to my son Jonathan who is medically complex with disabilities, and his older brother Jaden, who like many other children in this era, are helping to provide care for a sibling," says Leslie. "I wanted to create a story with a character like Jonathan, and the cat was a perfect tie in. The story is really about the cat’s interactions with all the different people in a multicultural New York City neighborhood."
Leslie has always wanted to write a children's book. She recalls telling her classmates stories at the MCS Farm at night, and she is particularly grateful to Carol O'Donnell, her 7th and 8th grade English teacher who told Leslie to always keep writing. Thanks to a generous investor who loved her book project, last year Leslie founded Bristow Publishing (named after the street in the South Bronx where she grew up), a platform for sharing diverse content and stories, particularly by people of color and those from disenfranchised backgrounds that are not normally picked up by mainstream publishers. Leslie says that Bristow has a lot of great projects lined up for 2021, including a Bristow Street Kids series of spin-offs featuring the diverse characters from her debut book.
In addition to serving as founder and creative director of her new publishing company, Leslie is the vice-president of Caregivers Outreach Mentorship Empowerment, a nonprofit based in the Bronx. In this volunteer role, she lobbies for the 2 million+ and growing population of medically complex children in the United States and their families. "Caregiving and parenting are not the same thing," says Leslie. "You are a nurse, advocate, pharmacist, social worker, physical therapist and occupational therapist, not just a parent." She is also a New York State Partner in Policy Making with the Developmental Disability Planning Council. After participating in a training program in partnership with Cornell University where she learned about the history of disability rights, the disability rights movement and ADA compliance, she now serves as an advocate, speaking up for disability rights and helping shape policy.
One of the MCS experiences Leslie remembers vividly is the fifth grade class trip to Washington, D.C., her first time in the U.S. capitol, where she met Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney. Since then, she has been to D.C. numerous times to speak with U.S. senators and representatives about disability rights. She has been invited to weigh in on issues as a Parent Advocate at briefings for the Children's Congressional Healthcare Caucus. She also, attended the State of the Union Address last February with her son Jonathan as Senator Charles Schumer's guests to highlight the need to safeguard children's healthcare.
Reflecting on her years at MCS, Leslie says, "One of the best things to come from MCS is that I am really close to my classmates and those in the classes around mine. We all have a good sense of social responsibility, social consciousness and empathy. We all have a similar moral compass, even though we all come from different backgrounds and neighborhoods. MCS plays a huge factor in that."
Leslie jokingly recalled another story about the benefits of MCS connections: "Several years ago a friend set me up on a date, and we discovered that we both went to MCS. He was five years older than me, so I hadn't known him at school. During the date, we talked about the Farm and other MCS memories. It was almost a sigh of relief that he was a decent person! It's the assurance that comes with having an MCS background."