ONE CHILD AT A TIME: The Jubilee Center Strives to Affect Positive Change in the Lives of Hoboken’s Underserved Youth
by Jack Silbert
Maybe you don’t pass by 6th and Jackson very often. So perhaps you haven’t heard about the wonderful things going on at that corner. The Jubilee Center is an afterschool program and summer camp catering to the low-income families of Hoboken. The dedicated staff provides activities for children in academics, health and wellness, and real-life skills. The goal is to expose them to, and equip them for, a brighter future. Oh, and they have a lot of fun, too.
David Shehigian became the Center’s Executive Director in May 2014—previously, he’d been Director of Corporate Leadership for United Way Worldwide—but he was certainly no stranger to Hoboken. “I went to Brandt School for nine years and graduated from Hoboken High School,” he explains. “Obviously, the town’s changed dramatically over the years, but not everything has changed. A lot of the issues that we deal with here on a daily basis—kids struggling with education, families struggling to make ends meet—for a portion of the population, these issues haven’t changed much.”
Summer Days and the New Hire
One of Shehigian’s first tasks was hiring an Education Director for Jubilee’s seven-week summer camp program. “We felt it was our responsibility to help prevent that summer academic slide,” he says. “So many of the kids lose a few steps between when they leave school in June and when they go back in September.”
To fill the role, he found Jessica Accurso. (This May, she’ll receive a doctorate in Higher Education from Seton Hall University.) “I fell in love with the mission,” Accurso says. She developed a curriculum for the camp, focusing on mathematics and English/Language Arts. The campers—ages 6 to 13—spend mornings, Monday to Thursday, on educational lessons. Afternoons are devoted to activities such as computers, art, dance, cooking, sports, gardening, kayaking, etc., and each Friday is a field trip. Shehigian was so impressed with Accurso’s summer work that he hired her full-time as the Center’s Education & Program Director.
The standard after-school program, for students in Kindergarten through Grade 8, follows a similar track as the summer camp: first homework help, then breaking into groups for fun and skill-building activities. For the older kids, there’s also a community service element. Accurso explains, “They go into the hospital here in Hoboken, and bring songs and games to the elderly. It shows them how to give back.”
And no afternoon at the Jubilee is complete without a healthy meal.
“We send kids home with full tummies every night, and sometimes feed half the community as well,” Shehigian says. Meals are donated by Zylo at the W Hotel, Black Bear, The Madison, 10th & Willow, and Zack’s. In addition, Margherita’s provides free pizzas for the Center’s monthly birthday parties and other events. “Those six restaurants are a huge support to the Jubilee Center all year round,” says Shehigian.
Attending to Teens
For high school students, Jubilee Center offers the Teen Enrichment Program, also overseen by Ms. Accurso. It offers SAT prep, writing help for college applications and school projects, résumé building, career days, mock interviews, college tours, and field trips. “Even working a MetroCard,” Accurso says. “They’re educational experiences to give exposure and knowledge that this is at your arm’s reach.”
A graduate of both the after-school and Teen Enrichment programs—and a real success story for the Jubilee Center—is Chianti Welch. He’s now a freshman at Montclair State University, with a major in Family/Child Studies and a minor in Psychology, but is considering switching to a double major in Psychology and Business. Welch first came to the Jubilee Center when he was 5 or 6. “My mother enrolled me, because it was close to home,” he says. (Prior to that, he’d been with Hoboken’s Boys & Girls Club.) Of those after-school days, he recalls, “We had fun activities and they helped me with my homework. We had parties for every holiday. It was fun.”
Welch then joined the Teen Enrichment Program. After his junior year in high school, the program members elected him president. He has also served as an after-school and summer-camp counselor. (In addition to three full-time staffers, the Jubilee Center employs nine part-time individuals, as well as many volunteers.) What has the Center meant to Chianti Welch?
“It helped me become more of a leader,” he says. “I believe the mentoring that I had helped me become who I am today.”
Though the programs and personnel of the Jubilee Center have changed over the years, the goal of helping to support low-income children and their families has been clear from the start. It all began as a mission of the All Saints Episcopal Parish of Hoboken. In 1995, the parish rector, Geoffrey Curtiss (“a Hoboken icon,” says Shehigian) and Rev. Laurie Jean Wurm launched a homework help program in the Hoboken Housing Authority’s Community Room.
The program quickly outgrew that room. “Geoff envisioned what is today the Jubilee Center,” Shehigian states. The church purchased land on Jackson Street, and a building was constructed to house the after-school program and summer camp. The facility was completed in 2002.
In early 2015, fulfilling one of the early mandates for Shehigian, the Jubilee Center became a stand-alone 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. “However, we continue to enjoy a close affiliation with the All Saints parish,” he explains. Indeed, the Center’s bylaws stipulate that two members of the church’s Vestry Board also sit on the Jubilee Center Board of Directors.
Keeping Jubilee Afloat
As a nonprofit, the Jubilee Center depends on government, private, and corporate foundation grants. “None of it is guaranteed from year to year,” Shehigian states, “so it’s a real challenge for us to aggressively go after these sources of revenue and support to sustain our programs.”
A recent $20,000 grant initiative has funded the Center’s “Teen Work Experience.” The program connects youth to professionals in the community for job shadowing, internships, and summer jobs. “I’m a big believer in experiential learning,” Shehigian says. “Actually being in a work environment is an invaluable resource. You really learn so much more.”
In addition to grants, private donations are another major source of revenue for the Center. “Unfortunately, we’re a very well kept secret, due largely to our location,” Shehigian says. That may be changing, due to new construction along Jackson Street, including an upcoming community gym next door that the Jubilee Center will have access to.
In the meantime, the Jubilee Center makes every effort to spread the word about their good work. One of their primary instruction components—along with academics and health — helps in that regard: the performing arts. “We feel it builds a lot of character,” says Shehigian. Jubilee Center kids put on a couple of public performances every year.
“It’s important for the community to see what the kids are accomplishing,” states Shehigian. “That helps us maintain our network of friends and, of course, donors, since we rely heavily on individual donations for our operations.”
Facility rentals and tuition payments from parents, for the after-school program and summer camp, round out the revenue picture for the Jubilee Center. “Our prices are quite modest, but we also feel it’s important for our families to invest something in the program,” Shehigian explains, “to understand that we take their children’s education seriously here, and that they’re responsible for taking it just as seriously. It’s not just a handout; everyone is investing in this process.”
The legal name of the Jubilee Center nonprofit doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: The All Saints Community Service and Development Corporation. But it does help capture the fact that the organization is not only the facility on Jackson Street. They also run two fully grant-funded programs in Union City. La Puerta Abierta (“The Open Door”) is a bilingual after-school program for about 40 kids. (It has existed since 1988, founded by the local St. John’s Episcopal Church.) There is also the Palisades Family Success Center, opened in January 2014. It provides crucial resources and referrals in topics including ESL, computer instruction, crisis handling, and immigration matters. The Center serves approximately 40 families every month.
Making a Difference
The Jubilee Center’s heart will always be in Hoboken, though, devoted to the city’s kids. “There is tremendous pressure that young people growing up in certain neighborhoods around here are under from their peers, and from individuals that were never able to break out of that cycle,” says Shehigian. “The pressure to make bad decisions is a daily reality, whether it’s with drug use, criminal activities, or to belong to a gang. We’re trying to present a different type of reality for kids, one child at a time, pulling kids out of that cycle.”
Jessica Accurso has seen the successes, and it inspires her. “That’s what keeps our wheels turning,” she says. “It’s motivating and encouraging to see young people like Chianti moving forward.”
As for Chianti Welch, he sums it up best. “The Center is more like a second home, somewhere you can go to as an escape. There was always somebody there if you needed to talk. And you had other people surrounding you, in the same situation, to bond with. On the streets, there’s really nothing there; I saw the same negative things happen over and over and over. The Jubilee Center is a welcoming environment, like walking into a new world.”
To help support the efforts of the Jubilee Center, visit: http://ascsdc.org/donate/. Volunteers are also needed.