A quarter of a century working with homeless and vulnerable families in Central New Jersey gives Liz Murray’s message in her inspirational book, “Breaking Night: My Journey from Homeless to Harvard,” a special meaning to me and to the other people of HomeFront. We started out as a group of volunteers collecting and delivering food to families living in the “welfare motels” on the Route 1 corridor. We moved to providing shelter—and, eventually, affordable housing. We developed a network of programs that help both adults and children from vulnerable families complete their education, develop employment skills and get jobs. In short, we moved from providing food and shelter to helping people change their lives, as Murray changed hers (U.S. 1, April 6).
Murray will speak to the members of HomeFront’s Women’s Initiative on Sunday, May 15, at 12:30 p.m. at the Nassau Inn. Cost: $25. Call 609-989-9417.
The Women’s Initiative is a group of more than 500 women who support our homeless families in their path to self-sufficiency. In some cases, their entire family is involved. It is an energetic, positive group of women, young and old, committed to helping others.
I have learned a series of lessons from the thousands of people who have passed through our front door. Everyone has potential. It is never entirely too late to turn your life around. And, finally, nobody makes it alone. We all need a strong, supportive community to realize our dreams. We have worked hard, for many years, to provide that community.
Not that everyone can graduate from Harvard, write a bestselling book and have a movie made about their life. We are not all Liz Murray. HomeFront has thousands of stories of ordinary people who have emerged from the same desolation Murray experienced to build healthy, positive, productive lives for themselves and their families.
HomeFront found Angel Bey in one of the welfare motels. She had missed three years of school following her mentally ill mother around the country. HomeFront arranged treatment for her mother. Supported by a volunteer tutor form Mathematica Policy Research who stuck with her for 10 years, she earned her high school degree and, eventually, an MA in nursing from Walden University. She is currently working at Lincoln Technical Institute training the next generation of nurses — and planning to continue her education and get her PhD. She will also be honored at the Women’s Initiative meeting.
Emily Lewis, another former client, came to us when she was 20 years old. She had not graduated from high school. She was in rehabilitation for drugs and alcohol. She was on welfare and in an abusive relationship. She had a baby.
The death of a friend from a drug overdose and the encouragement of her mother motivated her to change her life. She got her GED through HomeFront’s WorkFirst program. Her participation in the ArtSpace program revealed her natural artistic talent. She eventually became a Bonner volunteer at ArtSpace.
Emily took her SAT in 2009 and is currently on full scholarship at Parsons School of Design at the New School, one of the most prestigious art programs in the country. HomeFront stays in touch with her and her daughter, offering continuing support. Last week she delighted us with news that she had aced her first year.
We have so many of these stories—young people completing their education successfully, getting jobs, excelling at sports, building careers. I would ask you to take a moment to consider what a tragedy it would be if they had failed to achieve their potential.
We see potential in each individual who passes through our door. Efforts such as our Women’s Initiative, with strong leadership from Lisa Smukler, Amy Vogel, and other WI Advisory Board members, help us nurture talent, push for higher education, and improve job skills. The WI efforts, those of other committed HomeFront volunteers, and the hard work of our staff come together to create these powerful stories of success. It is, I think, what motivates all of us. Nobody does it alone.
If you would like to join hands with us, visit www.homefrontnj.org.
Connie Mercer is the founder and executive director of HomeFront, a Trenton-based nonprofit that has assisted homeless families and children since 1989