Ten-year-old Leon asked Newark Mayor Cory Booker if he could pass a law that allowed children his age to work.
“Leon, no. You have a job. To learn…. Please, please, please stay with your job,” Booker countered.
Leon attends the Dr. E. Alma Flagg Elementary School in Newark. His “job” brings the fourth-grader, together with 15 of his classmates, to Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell through SCEEP of West Essex. The tutoring and mentoring activity is part of the Suburban Cultural Educational Enrichment Program that, with Protestant Community Centers, Inc., has been pairing inner-city children with honor-roll high school students from suburban Essex County communities for 30 years.
On May 27, Booker visited the program for a second time — he last came five years ago — to check in on the SCEEP kids and their tutors, taking obvious delight in sitting among and chatting with the children.
Booker smiled broadly and applauded as he listened to essays written by the children about their experiences with the program and heard from SCEEP “graduates.”
“SCEEP was so special to me. My tutors were like my brothers and sisters,” said 14-year-old Wendy Gamez.
Her friend, Jennifer Made, could not agree more. “I got helped a lot with my math. It paid off. Now I get straight A’s,” she said.
In his remarks, Booker conducted a lesson that touched upon American history, civics, and individual responsibility.
“Did you know we are the only country in the world to have a continuous Constitution?” he asked. And while he admitted that the document was not perfect, he also defended it. “People came together and put forth perfect ideals. So many of the values we enjoy came as a result of the people who sacrificed before us.”
Booker described Newark as a place of “great heroism,” telling of a retired resident who created a beautiful playground in a lot that was filled with debris and driving out the drug dealers in the process.
“It doesn’t take much to do something nice for somebody else,” the mayor said. “To live your life like that is amazing. That’s why this program is so special. Everyone is here because they want to.”
Each year, 18 carefully selected second-graders commit to attend the weekly program (October through May) for four years. Each student is assigned two high school tutors who work on a curriculum tailored specifically for each student’s needs by local teachers.
SCEEP of West Essex was founded in 2003 by Agudath Israel members Maxx Frost and Zachary Waxman, both of North Caldwell, who were then in seventh grade. They modeled the effort on the Center for Children in Newark run by the Protestant Community Centers. Temple Sholom of West Essex in Cedar Grove hosted the program from 2004 to 2007, Notre Dame Church in North Caldwell for the following year, while Agudath Israel was undergoing renovations.
Frost is now a sophomore at Princeton University, and Waxman is a junior at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“It’s truly a blessing to see how successful the program has become,” said Frost, who came to the gathering. He added that in his experience, the tutors gain as much from the students as they give to them.
When Frost left for college, his sister, Carlye, now a junior at West Essex High School, became cochair; she has streamlined the application process and overseen the extension of the program to a full two-and-a-half hours.
The 18 Flagg Elementary students, eight adults, and 75-100 tutors are all volunteers. Each year $6,000 must be raised to cover the cost of running the program in addition to the space, food, and supplies that are donated.
“I’ve learned so much from the children that it’s difficult to put into words. I’ve learned about growing up in an environment entirely different from the one I’ve grown up in,” said tutor Kira Monin, 18, a student at West Essex High School.
Lisa Robbins of Verona, a member of Congregation Agudath Israel, is an adult volunteer. “I wanted to volunteer to do something gratifying within the community,” she said, “and I felt that as a special ed teacher and teacher-trainer, I could contribute my skills to SCEEP.
“You realize how much they need you and if you can make a difference for these kids, it’s a great feeling.”