Camden Adults Get a Fresh Start Thanks to Innovative Workforce Development Initiative

By Tom McLaughlin

In July 2015, 21-year-old Faith Monroe packed up what little she owned, said goodbye to her mom – promising to call her – and set out from her home in Canarsie, Brooklyn, to live with her aunt in Cherry Hill.

Camden Corps Plus graduates turn their tassels during graduation ceremonies on July 19.

She didn’t know what was in store for her, she recalls, but she did know that she needed “a change from everything.”

“I was a high school dropout,” says Monroe. “I was so done with New York. There was just no room for me to grow.”

A year later, Monroe wasn’t faring much better. While balancing adult basic skills courses at Camden County College and a full-time job at Five Guys in Marlton, she was forced to leave her home. She then rented an apartment in Camden for a short time – until she was evicted for circumstances beyond her control and found herself homeless.

Little could she know, however, things were just about to look up.

As Monroe recalls, she heard about educational and career assistance offered through a new program called Camden Corps Plus and decided to take advantage of the opportunity. Just a month after enrolling, she took the HiSET exam, the high school equivalency credential used in Camden County, and passed – surprising, first and foremost, herself.

“I never saw myself passing that test – not in a million years – and that was the one thing holding me back,” says Monroe. “But it was the support of Camden Corps Plus that really pushed me to follow through with my goals. They made me feel like I could make it happen, that I could really do it.”

Today, Monroe is among more than 80 Camden residents whose educational and career prospects have gotten a fresh start via the innovative workforce development initiative, run jointly by the Office of Civic Engagement at Rutgers University–Camden and the Center for Family Services, a non-profit organization in Camden.

She is also the first Camden Corps Plus member bound for college. This fall, Monroe will attend Camden County College full-time on a New Jersey Association for Lifelong Learning Scholarship.

Participants in the program – based at 500 Pine Street – earn a stipend while receiving career planning, adult education instruction toward completing the HiSET exam, occupational training, internships, mentoring services provided by professionals working in their fields of interest, and case management support services.

Operating under a U.S. Department of Labor demonstration grant through the State of New Jersey, Camden Corps Plus aims to identify best practices for helping “opportunity youth” – identified as unemployed or underemployed 16- to 24-year-olds who did not graduate from high school – earn their credentials and embark on a career pathway.

“With the rising unemployment rate, this population often needs access to the education, training, and 21st-century skills necessary to compete in today’s workforce,” says Stephanie Korber, director of Camden Corps Plus. “We are addressing these needs for city residents who are looking to build a pathway to a career, whether that means securing a sustainable job or pursuing higher education.”

Rutgers–Camden oversees the education and occupational training aspects of the program. Throughout every phase, notes Korber, serving older, at-risk individuals requires a keen understanding of the complex social challenges that they may have experienced – often without proper role models or a supportive environment.

“Part of this program is helping them to learn new norms and make that transition to adulthood,” says Korber. “In some instances, they are parents or will soon be parents themselves, so the life lessons that we impart can truly make a generational change.”

From day one, success coach Nicole Singleton regularly meets with participants to help them chart a career path and set future goals, while addressing any barriers that have hindered their success. For instance, she notes, she recently found that two students were exhibiting fears of success despite advancing academically – and she needed to work with them to find out why.

“We needed to address why they are running and help build that confidence,” says Singleton. “I tell them, ‘Nothing beats a failure but a try.’ It’s a challenge getting them past that, but I live for those moments when they begin to see the possibilities.”

To date, ten students have earned their high school equivalency credentials, while many more are preparing to complete the HiSet and/or have transitioned into occupational training.

Ultimately, Monroe hopes to earn bachelor’s degrees in psychology and social work and work as a marriage and relationship specialist.

“I have always had that objective,” she says. “The difference now is that I am 20 steps closer to achieving it.”

Posted in: Community Outreach

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