One of our mottos here at Aunt Bertha is a quote by Margaret Mead:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

In that spirit and in honor of the New Year, we’re highlighting six of our direct service providers’ powerful missions and showcasing how they were there for their communities in 2017. These are the people whose work fuels ours, and we hope their stories inspire you as we begin 2018 with this special series.

“The ultimate objective — beyond the measurable goals — is to help participants rebuild their sense of self-worth, dignity, and self-confidence.” —Austin Morreale, NeighborCorps Re-Entry Services (Highland Park, NJ)

Created by the youth pastor at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, NeighborCorps Re-Entry Services’ mission is to work with individuals who are/were incarcerated in Middlesex County Adult Correctional Center (MCACC), helping them successfully transition back to their communities, thereby helping lower the rate of recidivism.

“In addition to the NeighborCorps staff, we utilize volunteers (called Navigators) to work with our participants. They both provide support and guidance to participants and their supportive relatives/friends along their re-entry journey, connecting them with community resources and helping them in the areas of gainful employment, personal development, and social integration,” according to Morreale.

The two biggest challenges NeighborCorps faces in their work: connecting participants to housing and employment. As Morreale explained, “unless a participant has supportive friends or family in the area with whom they can stay, it is incredibly difficult to find housing for participants given the lack of shelters in the area and the long waiting lists for those shelters.”

Additionally, “finding employers who will hire individuals with criminal histories is difficult, and when such an employer is found, securing a livable wage can be challenging. A large percentage of our participants are dependent on public transportation, but often the employers who hire ex-offenders aren’t easily accessible via public transportation. Or, if they are accessible, the participants find the cost of public transportation to their place of employment quickly eats up their hourly wage.”

After adding more staff members in 2017, Morreale said, “I think one of the things I’m proudest of [this year] is the steps we’ve taken on initiatives outside of the relationships with participants.”

One such initiative, a backpack drive for NeighborCorps participants, will extend to all individuals in the jail if successful.

As Morreale explained, “when an individual is released from MCACC, the belongings they had with them when they arrived at the jail are given back to them in a clear plastic bag. If that individual doesn’t have someone picking them up from jail on their release day, then they have to walk along Route 130 with the plastic bag clearly signaling they’ve just left incarceration to anyone who passes them. The backpack drive is a way to remove the stigma of the plastic bag for recently released individuals and hopefully give them a little bit of their dignity back as they take their first steps (literally) in their re-entry journey.”

How You Can Help

  • Become a Navigator! Learn more here.
  • Support efforts with a financial donation.
  • Educate yourself about criminal justice and re-entry issues and how their effects have an impact that reaches far beyond just the incarcerated individual.

By Emily Storozuk, Community Engagement Manager