When I was growing up in Fulton, N.Y., there was a 16-year-old kid who lived on his own. His parents had divorced, and when his mother split for Boston with his two younger siblings, he was standing in front of their rented home trying to figure out how much he could earn by selling the furniture.
I thought about that kid yesterday when CBS News did a segment on the NewBridge 70001 JobsPlus program that helps high school dropouts get their lives back in order so they can complete their degree, get jobs and work toward having successful lives.
This in an outstanding program that gives hope to kids who for whatever reason can’t get both feet on the ground. Their stories are ones of new-found confidence, recovered abilities and overcoming self-doubt brought on by any number of circumstances.
I have been at these graduation ceremonies. Seen the mothers with tears in their eyes, the fathers standing emotionally proud, and felt the joy and relief explode in a thousand directions from their graduating children because they know they earned something special, the freedom that comes from struggle.
They are stories of hope and fulfillment. Stories of success.
Stories of forgiveness.
Further, the program recognizes one unspoken truth about modern American life, as if it is only now being discovered when in fact it has always been a truth: There are broken lives in our society, people who hurt for any number of reasons, self-inflicted or not.
We can choose to find ways to help, or we can choose to find ways to blame.
Fortunately for the NewBridge graduates, someone chose to help.
In the CBS story, NewBridge chief executive officer Robert Parker said, “These young adults are the ones that we pushed aside. But that’s very shortsighted. They’re going to collect food stamps and they’re not going to be taxpayers. In a sense, we’re investing in these people in order for them to pay back.”
What a concept. A life as an investment.
Parker, as he always does, thanked those organizations who also invested: Morris County Board of Freeholders, M/S/W Workforce Investment Board, United Way of Northern New Jersey, Novartis, Verizon, NewBridge Fund, Inc. ( fund raising arm of NewBridge Services), and individual donors.
Look at that list: Private corporations, government boards and non-profit agencies and regular people, united in a single cause.
That is how we get better as a society.
But this concept is something that a collection of politicians and their supporters fail to acknowledge. To them this program is only some number on a piece of paper that represents the amount taxes they pay.
Those people need to listen to what retiring Freeholder John Murphy told a recent business audience: That Morris County is a AAA county not just because of its careful financial management, but because of the way resources are allocated to help the county’s less fortunate.
A recent national survey released by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University supports by its findings the importance of alternative programs such as NewBridge 70001 JobsPlus.
High school graduates from 2006 to 2011were surveyed and they reported:
• Only 27 percent have full-time jobs;
• Nearly one in three are unemployed and another 15 percent are employed part time but looking for full-time jobs;
• The annual earnings of those working full time are barely sufficient to keep them out of poverty;
• Ninety percent are paid hourly; the current median wage for those employed full time is only $9.25 — just $2.00 above the federal minimum wage; and
• Seven in 10 say that their current job is temporary.
Fewer than 1 in 10 say that their high school education prepared them “extremely well” to get their first job or to be successful at it. Seven in 10 believe they will need more education in order to have a successful career, but recent high school graduates are finding it difficult to achieve their goals.
They report that economic issues bar them from additional education. Most who were unable to attend college or who dropped out either say they could not afford it or they had to work to support themselves and their family.
This report is a sign of what happens when members of society get full of themselves and forget to push on and upward so that new opportunities for all are created; when societies focus only on short-term goals and make selfish choices again and again; when self-empowerment becomes such a goal that those who espouse it are left standing in a circle of mirrors that only reflect on themselves; when the Me Generation grows up and thinks their life should be like an American Express ad.
What happened to that 16-year-old kid?
He survived. His mother, even in her panic to leave Fulton, rented a single room for him in the home of an elderly couple, where he traded some care for the older man for part of the rent.
The interesting irony is that had a NewBridge 70001 JobsPlus program existed then, the kid would not have been referred there. The local school never knew he was living alone.
No one knew. When you are 16 you don’t think about being in desperate straits. You think about being cool.
The waitress at a local diner where he ate once a week suspected, as did a few of his friends. But when you go to school everyday and act normal, no one questions anything.
When you are 16 and you know the entire world is hanging over your shoulder waiting to cave in, you shut down.
You survive. And worry about the rest of it later.
So he lived on, filched cookies from the old lady’s cookie jar (which she silently refilled) and got lucky.
His step-mother, once she found out about his condition, slapped her new husband (the kid’s father) upside the head and said, “you don’t abandon your kids.”
He graduated high school, went to college, raised a family and had a good career.
That is the chance NewBridge offers its young charges.
Some who read the story of that program might offer the old prayer, “Except for the grace of God, go I.”
That 16-year-old kid I knew wouldn’t do that. There was too much surviving to get done to look back.
That 16-year-old kid was me.
Michael Stephen Daigle