Dedicated team helps to put ‘Roselle First’

Photo By Cheryl Hehl Kelly Barber, a representative of Dish Network, meets with Colleen Mahr, Roselle director of economic development, and Donald Olivaria, the director of Roselle First, to discuss possible sponsorship opportunities for the Roselle initiative.
Photo By Cheryl Hehl
Kelly Barber, a representative of Dish Network, meets with Colleen Mahr, Roselle director of economic development, and Donald Olivaria, the director of Roselle First, to discuss possible sponsorship opportunities for the Roselle initiative.

ROSELLE — When Mayor Jamel Holley was elected more than a year ago, one of his first initiatives was to jump start a program that would provide opportunity, training, jobs and success to residents in need of these services. He not only realized that goal with Roselle First, but managed to help more than 200 residents in the last year.

On any given week day, the help center at 121-125 Chestnut St. buzzes with activity. From those seeking advice on how to find a job, how to conduct themselves during an interview or in need of occupational training and life skills, this no-cost platform provides a wealth of opportunity.

For some, such as the formally incarcerated or teens on their own with little resources, Roselle First has been the support network needed to get back on their feet and find the pathway to a new life.

What Holley envisioned was a one-stop employee help center where collaboration with the federal, state and local government would join forces with non-profits, businesses and faith-based organizations to deliver programs and services desperately needed by community members.

Never one to believe any project is impossible, Holley worked with Colleen Mahr, Roselle Director of Economic Development, to ensure this vision became a reality. But always echoing in the back of his mind was the voices of the people he met as he knocked on doors while campaigning. The ones who had been out of work a long time had no resources for training, just got out of jail or simply needed support and direction.

“Everywhere I went it seemed like people were looking for jobs. They wanted help, needed help, so I said let’s create a department where we can help these people,” the mayor explained, adding that he also wanted to ensure they helped a broad spectrum of people.

That included providing job readiness, life skills training workshops, occupational training, mature workers and veterans initiatives, ex-offender support and a youth corps. A heavy load to take on for sure, but one Holley was determined to see through.

“I’m a proponent of second chances,” Holley said in an interview last week, explaining that when people have been in trouble with the law and served their time in jail, it is often impossible to get that second chance. Ex-offenders, he said, have to reestablish themselves in order to find employment opportunities, but they need the support and knowledge of those who know how to maneuver through this minefield of challenges.

Roselle First offers ex-offenders that opportunity and more. By partnering with Union County College, ex-offenders can pursue and receive their GED while being supported by a five-year mentoring plan geared toward creating a stable environment. Case workers trained in this particular area stand ready to conduct assessments of ex-offenders’ learning styles and skill levels for the best possible job placement.

The program also has a successful youth corps that assists those 17- to 21-years-old so they can continue their education and training toward better educational and employment opportunities in the future.

Roselle First Case Manager Gleshia Givens is often the person youths see when they go through the doors of this help center. While she admitted she may seem tough on the outside, she is the first to give out liberal doses of love to those in need.

Case in point is 19-year-old Steven Cirene, who has been on his own for several years. Although Givens and the youth locked horns initially, their admiration and respect for one another grew over time. The caseworker recalled the first time she met Cirene, who came to Roselle First hoping for a lead on a job, not a path towards higher education.

“I could see right away that he was smart, so I tried to get him interested in staying in school,” said the caseworker, adding that while it was not an easy task, eventually the youth listened to her advice. The road the two embarked on from there was no bed of roses, she said, because Cirene’s grades in high school were at the failing level. But that soon changed.

“Steven has been through many milestones,” Givens said proudly, adding that one of his major goals was to get on the honor role and when he did it, it was a great achievement.

The road, though, is never easy, especially when you are on your own and have no support system. But, with time, support, tutoring and love, Cirene exceeded all Givens’ expectations and then some.

“Not only is he a senior at Abraham Clark High School, but he also works at ShopRite as a cashier,” the caseworker said, adding that although Cirene did not know how to start the college process, with help he submitted applications to five colleges and was accepted to three.

“I’m so proud of him. His confidence has been restored and he is so committed to succeeding,” Givens said, noting that Cirene is now such a great example of what Roselle First can do, he is bringing other kids into the program.

Cirene chuckled when he recalled his first encounter with Givens, confessing they “butted heads” for sure.

“I just wanted a job,” he said, but admitted Givens refused to stop trying to convince him that he was very bright and could go far educationally. Had it not been for her persistence and belief in him, the youth believes he would have quit high school. Roselle First has been so influential in the path he is on, it has inspired his peers.

“Even my friends didn’t believe how good I was doing,” he quipped, adding that if he had any advice for teens his age it would be that you have to keep working hard for what you want.

“Nothing is ever given to you,” he said, confessing that living on his own for the last year and a half has not been easy, but it has been rewarding. Not just for him, but also his sister, Yawina, who also is in the Roselle First program.

“I love my sister,” he said proudly, explaining that since his mother lives in Haiti, they have to be there for one another and they are.
Yet another example, Givens said, of how Cirene has matured and become amazingly grounded since walking in the doors of Roselle First.

Givens said there are many misconceptions about youths today, but giving them the opportunity to excel through Roselle First proved her theory works.

“They say ‘at risk youths,’ I say they are just youths that need love,” the caseworker said, explaining that more often than not students who are not achieving just need guidance, encouragement and support. And, being as devoted as she is to the program, Givens confessed that she too bucks the system when need be.

“One of my students just was not doing well in the program and although I was told to let her go, I just couldn’t do it,” the caseworker said.
“She wanted a job. I pushed for her to just keep trying, telling her we would work on this together,” she added, but knew something was bothering the teenager.

Givens set up an interview with Walgreens for the teen but as the day approached, she seemed reluctant to go. Recalling how the girl mentioned she had never had her hair done professionally, the caseworker went into what she likes to call “resource mode.”

“So I called Gyrlfriendz, a North Wood Avenue salon and even though Tammy, one of the owners, was usually closed that day, she opened up just to do that teenager’s hair so she would feel great for her interview,” she said, adding that the salon owner also did the work for free.

“You just don’t know how good that child felt when she went to that interview. She said it was the first time she ever felt pretty,” Givens said, adding, by the way, that the teen got the job she wanted so badly.

The caseworker said the help she received from the owner of Gyrlfriendz is an example of the business partnering that Roselle First hopes to expand on in the future.

“How do you thank a business owner like Tammy for coming through when we needed partnering on such short notice?” she asked.
“We need businesses to help us, to partner with us, so we can help those in need get a break, a chance,” said Givens, adding that the program is looking for sponsors.

With that help from business sponsors in the community, as well as nearby communities, Givens is certain Roselle First can reach even more people who need help getting off on the right foot towards a brighter future.

“You know, here at Roselle First we are like the mother they don’t have. A lot of people walk in here empty but when they leave they are full,” the caseworker said, adding that it takes love to motivate, encourage and inspire those who are just looking to make a fresh start.
Mahr said they like to think of Roselle First as “an umbrella,” helping all facets of the community.

“Why this is very unique is that this is our own version of one-stop programs,” she said, pointing out that while larger municipalities such as Elizabeth and Plainfield have similar programs, when a borough the size of Roselle takes on a project and it is successful, that says a lot about local need. And the numbers prove it is working.

Since Roselle First opened there doors a year ago, more than 500 people from all walks of life have sought help. Mahr reported that the program has helped 200 people work their way through the maze preventing employment and find success. Although the program was started for residents, both Mahr and Holley said they never turn away anyone who needs help. For more information, call 908-259-3001.