Update: ‘I Have a Dream’

Elinor Relles


Two Decades Of Helping Hands

Corrections or additions?

This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the December 22, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Helping Hands — 2004-’05

Over the years U.S. 1 has dedicated its last issue before the holidays to volunteers, people who work full time but donate their spare hours to help others. One of our very first volunteers was John Rubalcava, who at that time was a mortgage banker at United Jersey Bank, now Bank of America. Rubalcava played Santa Claus to hundreds of children and old people during the Christmas season. Often he was accompanied by his reindoor Rudolph, personified by Joanne Young. Young’s photo, as Rudolph, thumbing a ride on Route 1, was on our cover in tk year and is in the 2005 U.S. 1 Calendar and Datebook — under the month of December, naturally — that is being delivered with this issue.

For this, our 20th anniversary year, we reached out to several of the people whom we had profiled as Helping Hands, and were able to find the Rubalcava household in Lakewood. John Rubalcava’s widow, Gillian, says that her husband died two years ago but that her daughter (Jackie Lawler) and her children carry on their father’s work, buying gifts and giving shows. Her granddaughter, Kristina Stevens, is a professional singer.

The Rubalcava Santa Claus operation “started as a small operation from our home,” she says. “It ended up that a lot of the bank’s big customers — Johnson & Johnson and Russ Berrie toys — contributed.

Rubalcava was doing his Ho Ho Ho routine when he had a silent heart attack, complicated by diabetes. He had angioplasty at Deborah Hospital in 1992, and in 1998 he had stents, and he was 67 years old when he died.

Three other people we contacted are doing well. In 1988 we talked to Sandra Persichetti Rothe about her vision of inner city school kids getting a college education with the help of the I Have a Dream Foundation. In 1989, Elinor Relles (now Elinor Relles Tappe) was leading an unusual group, the Charitable Nights, which raised money for the Stony Brook Millstone Watershed. In 1991 we focused on high school students who were peer group educators for sexuality, HiTOPS. All these volunteers profess that their volunteer experiences have changed their lives. Try it, they urge, you’ll like it.

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Update: ‘I Have a Dream’

Sandra Persichetti Rothe has made some pretty big deals in her life time. She developed Montgomery Knoll, Bloomberg Business Park, and 231 Clarksville Road. But the biggest “deal” of her career was her project for the I Have a Dream Foundation. In 1988 she raised $400,000 to pay college tuition for the entire sixth grade class at the Stokes School in Trenton, and she was featured in U.S. 1 in the “Helping Hands” issue that year.

At that point Persichetti was a real estate developer at DKM and single. Now she is project manager for the Princeton Community Housing expansion at Elm Court and is married to architect Edward N. Rothe. After seven years of mentoring 45 inner city children, her “kids” are grown up and many of them are among her adult friends.

“I have seen such tremendous growth — these kids came from very troubled households,” says Rothe. “They have a college degree, a job, and they are just very responsible. They are realizing they can love their parents but they are not responsible for what their parents are doing.”

The I Have a Dream Foundation started in 1981 in New York City when Eugene Lang made an impromptu promise to a sixth grade graduating class at his inner city alma mater. He promised that, if the children in that grade would graduate from high school, he would pay college tuition. In two decades, this plan — adopting an entire age group cohort and providing long-term mentoring and supplemental education — grew to serve more than 13,500 students in 64 cities across 27 states.

Rothe’s “Dreamer children” came from families living in drug-infested neighborhoods, many on welfare, and even for them to finish high school without having babies would have been a major achievement. At first Rothe enlisted volunteer student tutors, but then she hired tutors to work with the children three nights a week. “It raised the grade level by a couple of grades, but when you are four grades behind and move up two, you are still moving the rock up the hill.”

Rothe hired an administrator (Cynt Armstrong Lewis) to run the program, but she also mentored her class of “Dreamers” through middle school and high school. At first she visited the class weekly, but soon she cut back her work schedule so she could go to Trenton at least twice a week — tutoring, mentoring, and taking the children on field trips to expose them to jobs that required a college degree and those that didn’t.

It was a tough but rewarding seven years, she admits, and the dividends are still coming in. There were 59 students in the graduating class at Stokes, and 45 of them participated in the Dreamers program. All but three went to Trenton High, and only a half dozen of them dropped out of high school. Twenty two students applied to colleges and 10 graduated from four-year colleges: Trenton State, Rutgers, Douglass, Bloomfield, Rowan, North Carolina Wesleyan, and Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina. Another six or seven “Dreamers” had at least a couple of semesters at Mercer County College.

Disappointments were to be expected but were never easy. “I did not celebrate the pregnancies,” she says. “But one girl who is a fourth-generation welfare child, has three children, and had to drop out of college, has now finally committed to herself to break that cycle and is now working two jobs. She is doing the best she can.”

If Rothe was sad about the early babies, she is correspondingly glad about those having babies at an appropriate age “with a husband in tow.” She keeps in touch with a dozen of the former students. Last week she drove to Delaware to have lunch with a Dreamer who is now a state trooper, and she and her husband have been to four weddings. “The most recent, the woman was the first person in the entire family to have graduated. She met a nice man, got married, and then at age 24 had a baby. That is a remarkable accomplishment, to break the early maternity cycle.”

Her financial commitment was to raise a total of $400,000 from people who contributed $15,000 or $30,000 over a six year period. “The commitment was to pay for tuition, but given the circumstances, we encouraged them to go away to school. We got grants and in some cases, loans, so they could be boarders. At the end we did have extra money and I divvied it up and helped pay off some loans.”

One Dreamer is now a Marine who has traveled all over the world and wants to go into law enforcement. Another who had joined the Army now works for the prestigious consulting firm, McKinsey. Many are in a “giving” career: One works for the state in the family services department, and another is a probation officer.

One woman is a counselor at the Anchorage. “Her father told her that, with her college degree, she could be making more money,” Rothe reports. “She said ‘Somebody reached out to help me, and I reach out to help somebody else.’”

And then there was the Dreamer who “made a bad decision” and was arrested. “I’ve raised money for a lot of good causes,” she says, “but that was the first time I raised money to make bail.”

The racial issue was, she admits, a big obstacle: “Some can see past it and some can’t. Some teachers were very enthusiastic, supportive, and cooperative. Others saw me as another do-gooder coming down to fix things. It takes a long time to develop trust. They have been disappointed by white folks for so long.”

“The sad thing, I realize, was the lack of basic educational foundation, how much they had to struggle and do remedial work to get up to speed at a college level. It is sad to expect college professors to have to do the work of schoolteachers. I think James Lytle (the Trenton superintendent who is reforming the schools) is making many improvements, but it is too late for us.”

“What would I do differently? I would reverse it. I would put them all in private high schools and let college take care of itself.”

Rothe’s current job is as a project manager for Princeton Community Housing’s Elm Court, designed by Moran Avenue-based Steven Cohen. Approvals and HUD funding are in place and construction will start in the spring. “I feel like I have come full circle, having had 20 years of real estate experience, and working 10 years for nonprofits,” she says. Among her nonprofit jobs were doing fundraising for St. Francis Medical Center and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. “Now I am back in real estate for a nonprofit.”

How has she been changed by this experience? “I have broadened enormously and become more compassionate and more tolerant. I have grown to like them as adults, just to have fun with, communicate with, and hear their ideas and opinions. It was wonderful to watch them grow and see them choose a path that might not have been available to them 15 years ago.”

Rothe has earned her stripes in the African American community as a white person who — if she had prejudice 20 years ago, has worked through it. “They certainly opened my eyes, when you grow up in that environment, to the blatant prejudice they face every day. When we go into restaurants, I get one table when I’m with a white person. When I’m with a Dreamer, I’m at some table back in a corner. I would say, ‘I would like to be seated here,’ and we would talk about it.”

She is on the board of the Metropolitan African American Chamber of Commerce. “I still look at people hanging out on the street and want to take them by the collar and say ‘You should be at school or at work,’” says Rothe. “If I see a white person hanging out on the stoop, I want to shake him and give him a lecture.”

“What I react to is sheer laziness. Talk to my husband. He thought he was very productive until he met me. I see what needs to be done and I make it happen,” says Rothe, who said in 1988 that she was born and bred to be a wife and mother but turned away from that path.

The oldest of two, her father was a sheet metal worker in the heating and air conditioning business. After graduating from the first class at Notre Dame High School, she went to a two-year college, Immaculata, in Washington D.C. She worked for a venture capital firm and then, in an usual move for someone of her background, took an apartment in New York and worked for the Rockefeller Foundation. It was heady stuff, hobnobbing with millionaires. Her next job was in San Francisco, where her boss at a real estate firm gave her an important project, developing Color Tile stores.

“It was the first time I had felt challenged by what I was doing,” she said in 1988. “I had finally found something that I wanted to do.” In 1980 she pioneered the concept of office condominiums in New Jersey with her development on Route 206, Montgomery Knoll. Her second project, Route 518 Business Park (now occupied by Bloomberg) suffered a setback when the financiers withdrew. DKM offered to buy the property if she joined the team. After she left DKM, she did some more development, such as 325 Princeton Avenue along with Benedict and Charlie Yedlin, and she also wrote grants for nonprofits.

“My father used to say — and I would tell the Dreamers — “the harder you work the luckier you get. They kind of laughed but some picked up on it. ‘Walk with purpose,’ I would tell them, when they were slouching around with a bebop walk. ‘Walk as if you have some place to go because you have some place to go.”

She keeps in touch with some who did not take advantage of the opportunity. One was “very bright, and I was so disappointed that he did not go on to college. He is married and is now a counselor at the Mercer County youth house, and he told me, ‘You know, Ms. Persichetti, my older son is just like me, but I am not going to let him get away with it.’ Yes! You may not hit the first generation but it trickles down.”

“The best you can hope for is, you take somebody by the hand and they become a productive citizen and become responsible. They have become responsible.”

— Barbara Fox

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Elinor Relles

Professional fundraisers know it. Recruiters know it. But those in the nonprofit world sometimes don’t believe that “all you have to do is ask.”

“Everybody has time if they want to make time,” says Elinor Relles Tappe. Back in 1987 she and her friends, all single, were raising money for Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association. The group: the Charitable Knights. The method: Throw parties — big, fun, outrageous parties.

Now Relles is married, has two children, lives in Rumson, and works full-time. But when she was asked to do an important job, to start a marketing and communications committee for the Hun School Alumni Board, she said yes. “It was great when they reached out to me,” she says. “I was so grateful when they reached out to me. I had such a great experience at that school. The closest friends that I have are from there.” The requirement to come to Princeton, once or twice a month, is a welcome one. “I’m happy to have a reason to get in the car and go over there.”

Relles has recruited five people, so far, and their first job is to draft and send out a survey to Hun alumni and report the results to the board. “My personal objective is to serve the board in a greater way, to interface with the other committees and with the school’s marketing department as well,” she says. “It is exciting to be on a new thing.”

After graduating from the Hun School, Relles had gone to college and into business. When U.S. 1 wrote about her Charitable Knights endeavors, she was 25 years old and working in the family business, Central Paper. Her father, David Relles, merged that business and, except for the Pick Quick Papers division that he heads, the business moved to Newark.

At one point, after her first child was born, Relles was working full-time as a single mother. “My time was really constrained,” she remembers. “I really wasn’t able to do any volunteer work. Especially when they are younger, they physically need you a lot.”

In 1996 Relles remarried. She and Alexander Tappe (accent on the e) live in Rumson; he has a food service equipment business, Shore Trade, and she is regional sales manager for Appleton Coated, a Wisconsin-based company that sells coated papers. “With 20 years in the business, I have a lot of great customers and a flexible lifestyle that allows me to spend a lot of time with my children,” she says.

Relles hasn’t stopped giving parties. “I moved six times in the last eight years and for almost every move there was some sort of major party,” she says. “I learned from my mother and my grandmother — they always threw parties. I come from a long line of social people.”

The Charitable Knights never repeated themselves. The first event, the one Relles says was most memorable, had a Great Gatsby theme, and, of course, the location was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dining club, the Cottage Club. “It was such a spectacular event,” she says. Three hundred people all obliged us by dressing in appropriate attire. The venue lent itself. You really couldn’t miss — it was such a beautiful place.”

Competing for top honors was the Destination Unknown Party. “Everybody had to come with a passport and a suitcase and be prepared to go to a place where they didn’t know where they were going.” The lucky winner of this fabulous raffle was whisked off to the airport. “The couple who won had just been married but had not had a honeymoon, and they got this all-expense paid three-day trip to Bermuda. Everybody else partied all night and had a great time.”

Though charitable groups still vie with each other to stage festive events, no just-for-singles group is following in the tradition of the Charitable Knights. “Maybe they are just working too hard,” says Relles. “It’s still a great way to meet new people, to generate new acquaintances. It makes you feel good, and you can see your efforts.”

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Though U.S. 1 usually features adults with full-time jobs who are volunteering in their spare time, on occasion we have featured students doing important work. In 1991 we put 12 “peer educators” of high school age on the cover as volunteers for HiTOPS.

HiTOPS (Health-interested Teens’ Own Program on Sexuality) was founded in 1987 to educate area youth to the need for healthy decision-making regarding their sexual behavior as well as to provide access to teen-friendly clinical services. Associated with FamilyBorn, a birthing clinic, HiTOPS trained peer educators to be trained to provide sexual health workshops to area schools and youth-serving agencies.

From that group formed in 1991, many students have gone on to health-related career, and none charted a course more direct than Erin Kerry.

In September Kerry went to Liberia, where she works with sexual violence survivors and does advocacy for HIV. For the Christian Children’s Fund (CCF), a non-religious, non-governmental organization, she runs a USAID-funded social reintegration program for children associated with the fighting forces (CAFF) and women affected by the fighting forces (WAFF) in the most war-torn regions of the country.

“CCF has been in Liberia since the cease fire providing relief assistance and is slowing moving into developmental work,” writes Kerry. “I had been working as a consultant with CCF and other relief agencies for the past year and a half throughout Africa and had spent considerable time in Liberia before deciding to move here permanently to run this program.

“The program is fairly multi-faceted. I’m doing a lot of work with sexual violence survivors as well as setting up systems to prevent future incidents (it was and remains rampant here). HIV is on the rise (attributed to the amount of sexual violence during the war), so sensitization and advocacy on HIV are also part of my portfolio.

“As the project’s primary beneficiaries are children and youth, I’m also running life skills courses and parenting classes for young mothers, many of whom have ‘bush babies’ due to years of repeated forced sex. I’m training social workers and community animators as counselors and working with tribal elders and traditional societies to develop culturally-appropriate psychosocial responses for war-affected individuals (ex-combatants, ‘wives,’ etc.) to assist in the reintegration process.

“I’ve just begun to set up kickball clubs for young mothers, other war-affected girls, and young WAFF, and am training coaches in a variety of things, including counseling and communication skills, life skills, conflict resolution, preventing HIV, preventing and responding to sexual violence, etc.

“I’m also engaged in advocacy activities around child protection issues and sexual violence, trying to get laws changed or strengthened to better respond to the needs of children, with an emphasis on girls. There’s so much more. I’ve got an amazingly brave and dedicated team of Liberians working with me on this. It’s by far the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I love it.

“HiTOPS is in many ways directly responsible for my being here and doing what I am doing. Although it took me several years post-HiTOPS to realize that I wanted to go into public health, and specifically reproductive health and HIV, once I made the decision, it felt unbelievably right. I studied English and journalism as an undergraduate, and then moved to Eastern Europe (southern Hungary and western Macedonia) for two years as an English teacher. I moved back to New York City to work for the Soros Foundation/Open Society Institute running two grant programs for refugees from the former Yugoslavia and Burma.

“After about 18 months I left to go to grad school as one of six pioneers of a new program at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health: the Program on Forced Migration and Health. While there I focused my studies on reproductive health in complex emergencies, effectively melding my interests. I graduated in 2001 and worked at EngenderHealth (a NYC-based international reproductive health agency) for two years as Senior Program Associate before venturing out on my own as a consultant. And now I’m here.”

Mark Saks is an emergency medicine resident, Temple University Hospital. “After college,” he writes, “I went out to Michigan where I got a master’s of public health in epidemiology. While I was out there, I grew tired of looking at the forest and wanted to study the trees, so I decided to go to medical school (I graduated in 2002) and returned back east. Currently, I’m a third year resident (the last!) in emergency medicine at Temple University Hospital. I got married (my wife is an ob-gyn resident), bought a dog, and recently became a homeowner — I’m even about to look for a job now that residency is almost finished. Along the way, I’ve written a couple articles and chapters, most recently a book entitled “How to Excel in Medical School.”

“Although I wandered a bit while in college, I guess HiTOPS put me on the track of medicine and public health. (Or, maybe I took part in HiTOPS because I was already on track but didn’t realize it yet). Not unlike Erin, I have also chosen to practice in a chronically underserved areas — first rural Michigan and Nebraska, now north Philly — and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Daphne Smith Gaudet, teacher and mother, is married and lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her husband and their first child, Eloise Madeleine.

“Although many of the lessons and issues discussed and taught at HiTOPS have become less relevant in my life, one thing has definitely stuck with me these past 13 years — being a teen council member helped me become more comfortable with who I am as a woman. My experiences have definitely been the solid ground I have needed to tackle some of the personal challenges I’ve encountered over the years, dealing with both sexuality and abuse. I had many of the tools I needed to overcome the fears, angst, guilt, and confusion I felt as a result of these experiences.”

“On a more positive note, HiTOPS also put me in better touch with my body and the changes that happen during pregnancy. I understood my pregnancy, felt beautiful and looked forward to giving birth. I believe that this is what helped me have a relaxed and easy labor — I felt very connected with my body and the emotions and feelings I was having.

David Wise is a consultant with the Hay Group. “It is kind of remarkable how HiTOPS affected so many of what we now do. It definitely started me on a course of wanting to do something professionally that impact people’s lives.

“I left HiTOPS for Brown University, where, looking for my college version of HiTOPS, I became very active in the national student environmental movement. After Brown, realizing there wasn’t a ton of good and young leadership in the environmental movement, I worked over the next four years as a political organizer and lobbyist.

“Right out of college, I ran all over the country to different communities to organize political campaigns — living in six different cities within two years — around issues like protecting air and water quality, cleaning up Superfund sites, and protecting our last remaining wilderness areas. After that, I spent two years as a lobbyist in Capitol Hill running a national campaign to protect the Northwest’s dwindling salmon population. It was there that I got to negotiate regularly with the White House on an issue that impacted many people’s lives in the Northwest states.

“After an exhausting four years, I married my college sweetheart and we both attended Columbia Business School — total culture shock for both of us. Looking for something that still allowed me to impact people’s lives while being a little more stable, I somehow managed to leverage my unusual background into a job at the Hay Group in New York City, where, as a consultant, I work with executives on all of their people issues. Basically, my job is to help organizations make their people happier, better motivated and more productive at work. Sometimes that means working on leadership development and training, other times it means designing compensation structures. In all, it’s a very nice place to be — but don’t think that these recent elections didn’t make me miss being in the trenches of political battles.

Susan Dolan, therapist and PhD researcher, is living in New York City, finishing her master’s degree in social work, working as a therapist in an outpatient mental health facility for underprivileged children and adolescents, and doing research in biological psychiatry.

“I am planning to continue working with adolescents, focusing on mental health issues from a biological, psychological and social perspective. I am also very interested in developing adolescent community programs that provide comprehensive youth development services including mental health services, sexual health education, and childcare programs.

“HiTOPS has definitely been very influential in my career choice. It has fostered my interest in working both with an adolescent population and in sexual health education. Working collaboratively in a group setting at HiTOPS helped me to learn to appreciate the balance between respect for individual contributions and maintenance of a positive group dynamic. I use this skill all the time in both professional and personal settings.

“HiTOPS also really impressed upon me the impact of peer education. Although I like to think of myself as a sage brimming with wisdom to impart on the youth that I work with, I recognize that they are much more influenced by their own peers and I have frequently tapped into this effective educational resource. I have no doubt that as I grow with my career in this field, I will continue to discover additional ways in which HiTOPS has influenced me.”

Today HiTOPS is a nonprofit clinic for adolescents and young adults through age 25, it has confidential services including contraception, STD and HIV testing, pregnancy testing, physical examinations, and smoking cessation services. It also has programs for sexual assault survivors and for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered youth and their parents; it does peer education training and outreach.

HiTOPS has scored some impressive growth. Currently HiTOPS has three peer education programs, all supported by New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. The Teen Council housed at HiTOPS has 18 students who meet every week throughout the school year. The Teen PEP program meets at Mt. Zion AME Church in Trenton with 8 peer educators. And Trenton Central High School has a class of 25 students who meet daily throughout the school year as a course for credit.

Whereas in 1991 about 800 people participated in educational programs, now more than 9,000 participate. In 1991, fewer than 250 teenagers visited the clinic annually, now the clinic has more than 1,000 patients. The staff size has quadrupled, and the budget has quintupled. Four staff members worked at HiTops then, and now there are 17 employees. The 1991 budget was just over $200,000 and now it is just under $1 million.

HiTops — Health Interested Teens Own Program on Sexuality, 21 Wiggins Street, Princeton 08540. Bonnie Parker RN, executive director. 609-683-5155; fax, 609-683-9507. Home page: www.hitops.org

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Two Decades Of Helping Hands

In 1985 our December issue covered Princeton Medical Center’s home hospice program. The following year we discussed the Princeton YWCA. In 1986 we saluted volunteers from Jobseekers, Delaware Raritan Girl Scouts, Recording for the Blind, and an unusual organization called Singles Helping Others. In 1988 our subjects were Hyacinth Foundation and the I Have a Dream Foundation, headed by Sandra Persichetti Rothe (see story above). Rothe who now works for one of our 1989 subjects, Princeton Community Housing, which at that time had just built Griggs Farm. Also in 1989 we talked to literacy tutors (now Literary Volunteers of America, the Family Service Association, and the Charitable Knights.

Homelessness was the top in 1990, with coverage of Womanspace and HomeFront. In 1991 we did the first of two articles that focused on students. That year it was HiTOPs, and in 2000 it was Kids-for-Kids, a grass roots effort by a student at Princeton High. Also in 1991 we covered the Accountants for Public Interest. Volunteers for the Plainsboro Public Library and Princeton University alumni’s Project ‘55 were the subjects in 1992. Prison counselors and an unusual organization that provided Christmas gifts, Dreams Come True, were in 1993.

In 1994: the Children’s Home Society and the Mercer County Commission on Abused, Neglected, and Missing Children. In 1995, Big Brothers and Big Sisters. In 1996, the Mercer County Child Placement Review Board and the Hub. In 1997, Habitat for Humanity and Bootstraps. The American Red Cross had the featured volunteer in 1998, along with the Princeton Granada Sister Cities project. In 1999 we profiled volunteers from the American Cancer Society. In 2000 the Helping Hands were from the Interfaith Hospitality Network, Enable, and Kids-for-Kids.

Since that time, we have covered Contact, NAMI New Jersey, Eden Family of Services, CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), the Trenton Soup Kitchen, and Angel’s Wings.

What’s next? We would like to think that 20 years from now some of the needs we have written about in the past will have been eliminated from this mostly affluent corner of the world. But we cannot be sure of that. And we are sure that our fast moving, upwardly striving society will find some new ways to leave some people behind.

We will keep an eye out for more Helping Hands to profile. And we will continue to welcome your suggestions.

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