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From their early 20s to late 40s, alumni of NewBridge Jobs Plus gathered on Nov. 30 for the program’s 40th anniversary reunion, sharing memories and catching up on each other’s lives.
Amy Sheppard, longtime director of the successful alternative education, career and counseling program, praised the graduates for overcoming challenges and building fulfilling lives. “You did not quit. You kept going, you persevered,” Sheppard said. “All we did was provide the environment, and you guys did the rest!”
More than three dozen alumni joined past and current NewBridge Jobs Plus staff at the reunion, held at the Grasshopper off the Green in Morristown. Members of NewBridge Services’ Board of Trustees and the nonprofit’s leadership team also attended.
NewBridge Services launched the program in 1983 as Project 70001 to help young adults who left traditional high school earn their diplomas and prepare for the next step: landing good jobs work and/or enrolling in college or trade school. Since then, well over 1,000 young adults have completed the program and earned high school diplomas. It is free to area residents age 16 to 24 and transportation is provided to residents of Morris County.
Michelle Sanabria of the Class of 2014 only needed to attend NewBridge Jobs Plus briefly, but still, she said, it had a huge impact on her life. Sanabria was a sophomore when her high school terminated her enrollment over a guardianship issue. “At a time nobody was willing to help, it was so easy for NewBridge to open their doors to me,” she said.
Sanabria earned a bachelor’s degree at Rutgers University, and at age 28, she is a first-year law student at Rutgers Law School. She owns El Tucán, a restaurant in Hackettstown, which her husband manages.
Phil Silva from the class of 1999 chatted animatedly with classmates and former teachers. The 42-year-old said he got into trouble as a teenager and had to leave high school at age 16. At NewBridge Jobs Plus, “I felt blessed. They had teachers who understood troubled youth and the obstacles we faced,” Silva said. “A lot of people just needed someone to care about us, and they did.”
The Newark resident has been in the Laborers Local 3 construction union for 23 years, and has a teenage son. His sister, Sarah Baumgartner, a Class of 1997 graduate, also attended the reunion.
Many alumni said the program made them more self-assured. Ben Nadler of the Class of 2014 said he had anxiety in high school and regularly skipped school. At NewBridge Jobs Plus, “I was very comfortable. I learned about myself, and it helped me with confidence,” Nadler said. While he wasn’t in the program long, “it made such a big impact on my life.” Nadler, who attended the reunion with his wife, Vanessa, heads digital operations at his family’s business, Happy Chef uniforms.
“I gained the confidence to go to into the real world,” said Brian Wells of the Class of 2011, who left high school as a sophomore. Wells became an auto mechanic and now works at a dealership in the parts department. “It also helped me with social skills, which I use every day,” the 31-year-old said. Wells said he doesn’t believe he would have earned his diploma without NewBridge “and I probably wouldn’t have had the doors opened that I did.” The Flanders resident and his wife, Carissa, are expecting their first child in early January.
2020 graduate Isabella Gonzalez had to leave high school at the end of 11th grade to help care for younger siblings. NewBridge Jobs Plus “was judgement-free and they really tried to help you out with things,” including issues unrelated to academics, the 22-year-old said. [In addition to academics and work readiness, the program provides supportive counseling and life skills education.] Gonzalez is a dog groomer. The Morristown resident is working toward a degree in psychology.
Ricky Chavez of the Class of 2015 DJ’d the event. When his mother became seriously ill during his senior year of high school, Chavez missed classes to pick up extra work shifts to help cover the family’s bills. He enrolled at NewBridge Jobs Plus when he learned he would be unable to graduate on time.
The program helped him grow as a person, he said. It also put college on his radar, a goal he continues to pursue. (He is studying business administration at Warren County Community College.) The Hackettstown resident works in customer service at a dietary supplements company, and he and his wife, Cassandra, run Party Rocker Events.
“I’m happy to see NewBridge is still thriving and wish nothing but the best for the students and staff,” the 26-year-old said. “I don’t think I’d be where I am today without NewBridge.”
NewBridge has launched an effort to raise $20,000 to serve more young adults who struggle in traditional high school so they too can realize their potential. Please donate at newbridge.org/donate. Every dollar counts so please donate what you can afford. Thank you. If you have questions, contact Trevor McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 939-2427.
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