Success Stories

Through your support, Middle Earth makes a difference in the lives of youth throughout our community. It's one thing to say that, but another to hear the story of an individual whose life has been improved. Take a moment to share in some of the successes our youth have achieved!

Please note that the names and photos in many of the stories shown here have been changed to protect privacy.

You can make a difference in someone's life! Your investment in Middle Earth allows teens to reach their potential and develop into responsible and productive adults. You can help a young person achieve a dream that improves our entire community!


Gaining Security

This is the story of John* and how your investment in Middle Earth changed his life. He lived in Franklin Township with his single mother and younger siblings. His father was incarcerated for a large part of his life. Growing up in poverty without a positive role model resulted in John making some poor decisions in his life. Although he was quite smart and really liked computers, he struggled at school with cutting class and misbehaving. After an altercation with police, he ended up on probation. His life was at a critical crossroads — was he going to tap into his potential or drift further into a life of delinquency?

When he was a junior in an alternative high school, John was referred by his probation officer to PROMISE, one of our employment readiness programs. When he started the program, our staff described him as a very sad kid because he didn’t feel like he had anything going for him. He couldn’t envision a positive future for himself. One of John’s goals was to go to college, but no one in his family had ever attended college, and he didn’t understand the application process. John was losing hope.

As part of the PROMISE program, John received 8 hours of training from our staff in a work readiness curriculum, which includes lessons in setting goals, writing a resume, applying for a job, interviewing, and behaving properly on the job. He learned life skills that he felt were very valuable. As he continued through the program, our staff also helped him in other areas of his life. They mentored him to help him stay out of trouble, advocated for him to return to his public high school, and helped him complete all of the requirements of his Probation. With each step forward, John gained more hope. As he began to achieve goals that he thought we would never be able to complete, he felt happy and proud.

More and more, John began to feel that college was a real possibility for him, but he didn’t know how to make it happen. He often told staff that his mother would help him with the process, but in the end, she would always disappoint him. Our staff felt it was time to intervene. An important life lesson Middle Earth instills in our youth is taking responsibility. Our staff told John that he was an adult now and that he could apply to colleges himself without his mother’s help. Our staff provided John guidance so that he could fill out his FASFA, college application, and write his college essay.

He was accepted at Bloomfield College and began studying computer engineering in the field of cyber security. He felt very accomplished that he was the first person in his family to attend college, and he hoped his efforts were inspiring his younger siblings.


Providing the Path to a Great Future

Irma grew up in a low-income family with few opportunities and was often home alone after school. She said, “If it wasn't for Middle Earth, I believe I would've grown up outside on the streets and continued with the bad friendships I had before.”

It was such a gift to her family when they discovered the 21st Century Community Learning Center, an afterschool program offered by Middle Earth. Irma said that the program “provided me an opportunity to meet new people, learn, and do something productive instead of being at home alone watching television. As a child, surroundings inspire and influence you.”

When Irma moved on to high school and discovered that Middle Earth was launching the Youth College Readiness Program (YCRP), she knew she wanted to participate. No one in her family had ever attended college, but Middle Earth had already helped Irma realize that she had potential to do great things. She became one of the most active members of YCRP and served as a role model to other students, excelling in academics, community service involvement, and leadership.

“If it wasn't for YCRP,” Irma said, “I believe I would not have done not my best in high school. Middle Earth's programs helped me step out of my shell, made me become more involved in my community, and also helped me walk the path towards college.”

In her senior year of high school, Middle Earth offered Irma another opportunity: to participate in a new program called Student Ambassadors for Community Health. Funded by New Jersey Health Initiatives and partnered with the Somerset County 4-H, the program prepares young people to become future leaders, while learning to identify and solve barriers to health in their own communities. Irma and her fellow Ambassadors spent the school year meeting with government and community leaders and ultimately identified street safety in Bound Brook as their focus. The team of students implemented a strategy this past July to improve street safety: building a parklet, painting street murals, and studying and implementing new crosswalks. The project was a big success!

Irma noted that Middle Earth “made me realize that, as a young human being, I am capable of doing plenty, that people who truly care are always there to help, and that being involved with your community is beautiful. I learned that I love to help others, and what better way to spend my free time than to help those around me.”

“Middle Earth is not like any other program," said Irma. "The programs they provide have amazing people that help you become a better you. They push you to succeed and actually want to get to know you. At the end of the day, they want to see us succeed because they truly care and they want a better outcome for the person they initially met at the beginning of the program. Middle Earth is part of what shaped me into who I am today.”

And, we are so proud of the responsible and caring adult that Irma has become! When she graduated high school, Middle Earth awarded her a YCRP scholarship which she used to further her education at Raritan Valley Community College.


Anxious to Be Employed

Andrew was a 19-year-old high school graduate. He was smart, healthy, and eager to make a difference in the world. And yet, Andrew was unemployed.

One of Andrew’s biggest challenges to employment was his anxiety. When Middle Earth staff first met Andrew, he barely spoke. He was shy, introverted, and lacked confidence in initiating and maintaining a conversation. He also lacked basic employment skills. In the past, he obtained small jobs from people he knew, so he never had to actually apply for work. Andrew said, “I was in the dark about how to get a job, such as how to present myself in an interview, create a resume, and handle an application process.”

There are lots of reasons youth might not be ready for the workforce, but our society loses out when the potential of our youth is not realized. Research shows that teens who are unprepared for the workforce are more likely to be unemployed, rely on government support, experience poor health, and be involved in criminal activity, costing taxpayers $1.6 trillion over their lifetime.

Our caring staff worked closely with Andrew to help him determine his career goals and assess his weaknesses. They taught him job search techniques, helped him create a career plan, and offered him community service opportunities. At first, volunteering made him anxious, but he quickly adapted and jumped into help, which gave him valuable work experience and built his confidence. Soon, Andrew was able to create a resume and begin building his network. Staff guided Andrew through a curriculum for developing employment skills, and he earned a national credential that confirmed he was ready for the workforce, which he featured on his resume.

Andrew attended Middle Earth’s groups to learn conflict resolution, communication skills, independent living skills, budgeting, and money management. “I was pretty terrible with money,” confessed Andrew. “Since coming here, I’ve learned how to budget better. A lot of really good things have happened. I’ve realized that I really need to be more careful with how I spend my money. I don’t want to be in debt, and I want to have enough money for the future and a family.”

Through mentoring, Andrew tackled his anxiety. Staff were very supportive and helped to build his self-esteem by being trustworthy and always available to listen. With the staff’s assistance, Andrew improved his communication, now holding extensive conversations. In fact, during mock interviews, the staff was surprised at how much Andrew had to say! Originally, Andrew’s anxiety made him resist criticism, but he learned to recognize its value. He soon understood proper behaviors in the workplace and exhibited professionalism and responsibility. He credits Middle Earth with helping him to develop a much stronger workplace skill set.

Andrew’s dream was to one day be a politician so that he can “help the most people by changing the system from the inside out.” To help steer him toward that goal, Middle Earth helped him to secure an internship in county government, where he learned about policy making at the county level.

“The thing I am most thankful for at Middle Earth is getting me this internship,” said Andrew. “I feel like I’m on the right track towards getting a career in politics. I would not have been able to get this internship without Middle Earth. It has been quite helpful in getting my foot in the door for a future career.”

Andrew’s mother was also very thankful for Middle Earth’s services. She said, "I was very impressed with Middle Earth. I think it is a wonderful opportunity for all students who are eligible, and I would encourage anyone to take advantage of the supportive opportunities that are offered at Middle Earth."


Overcoming Obstacles

Jamal’s neighborhood wasn’t the ideal location to raise a child. Jamal saw drugs being sold, he knew which of his classmates were members of the local gangs, and he observed the violence that traversed his streets. The traditional childhood activities most of us associate with growing up, such as riding bikes or shooting hoops, were not a safe option in his part of town. When he looked around his environment for role models, the “successful” and “powerful” community members in his neighborhood were drug dealers and gang leaders.

One of his older cousins introduced Jamal to Middle Earth. He visited our Community Youth Center to get homework assistance, hang out with peers in a safe environment, and stay out of trouble. The staff not only kept Jamal safe, they taught him respect and engaged him in positive activities. Middle Earth promises to provide every child with a safe place, caring adults, information to create healthy habits, education to develop marketable skills, and the chance to help others. We keep our promises.

Jamal said about the staff, “They taught us how to cook and clean up after ourselves and to take responsibility. They took us on trips to amusement parks and theater shows. They organized activities like sports and arts and crafts.” Middle Earth staff provide a fun environment, but more importantly, they equip youth with skills that last a lifetime, like budgeting or how to apply for a job. Staff assist teens in exploring the options for their future, helping them to apply to college or practice for a job interview. Jamal said, “The staff worked so hard to show me how I should go about life… and make sure we were doing the right things. I noticed how much time they took making us into better men and women. That showed me that they cared and I started to use the advice they were giving me in life and that helped shape me into the person I am today.”


Paying It Forward

Back in 1968, I was a person who was hopeless. At the age of 14 I had watched my brother mainline Heroin. My parents had been divorced and married for a total of 8 times between them. I was hanging out on the streets of Somerville, drinking more alcohol than a person of any age should.

Middle Earth provided me with a place to obtain guidance and direction, as well as express my concerns about the systems that affected the youth in the area. They taught me how to establish short and long term goals, which was new to me.

In 1973, I was a new mother and not sure what I was going to do with my life. Dan Puntillo (executive director) came to my apartment one morning and told me to get ready for an appointment with the financial aid officer at Somerset County College. I insisted that this would not work, but before I knew it, I was enrolled in college. I finished my degree and went on to a four year college and obtained my Bachelors Degree in Social Work.

For twenty-six years now, I have been paying it forward by helping others who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected as a child; aiding those with developmental challenges; helping senior citizens living in nursing homes; teaching social problems to those incarcerated as they attend college; working for a state legislator; community organizing; leading girls and leaders in Girl Scouts; and aiding those who are returning to the community from an acute mental hospital. I went on, after my children were grown, and obtained my Master of Science in Social Work which has allowed me to continue to offer the legacy and values that were first given to me at Middle Earth.

Without the guidance offered by Middle Earth, I may not have finished high school let alone returned to college as a single mom, I may have remained on welfare as my mother did, and not had the strength to return to school to obtain my master's degree. I was literally removed from the streets of Somerville and headed in the right direction to what I consider a very successful life.
  
Mary D. (Hicks) Bishop