There are many ways to measure the success of the I Have a Dream program in Plainfield.
For the past 10 years, it has teamed up 55 students from low-income homes with mentors and supporters from Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, and together they have wrought academic and social wonders.
With two more years until high school graduation, the Plainfield Dreamers look likely to graduate at twice the rate of their peers.
But perhaps the surest proof can be found on weekday afternoons at the Plainfield Public Library. This past Thursday was a typical example. An hour after school ended, nine high schoolers gathered around a table with a bunch of adults. The teens had come, as they do three afternoons a week, to receive homework help from their volunteer and professional tutors.
“I come to the library because it’s fun. It’s like being with family,” 16-year-old Dawan Rose said. He’s shown he no longer needs much help; he proved his capability when he won acceptance to Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains — “thanks to the Dreamers program,” he said.
Samantha — or Sam — Perez, 15, also goes to Union Catholic High. Clearly she doesn’t need any help with language homework — she is in the midst of writing her third science fiction novel — but she has been seeking math help from longtime teacher Arlene Burstein.
There were even two younger siblings present. They come, they said, because they enjoy these sessions, too. Larry Johnston, director of the Plainfield IHAD program, said the spillover to family members and classmates is one of the program’s great benefits.
While the Dreamers are dispersed now between Plainfield High, Union Catholic, and a couple of other schools, they remain a close-knit group. Their bonds go back to 2000, when philanthropist Warren Eisenberg, an Emanu-El member, worked with Rabbi Charles Kroloff — now rabbi emeritus — to provide major funding for a local affiliate of the national IHAD program.
The Clinton Elementary School in Plainfield was selected because the students there faced such economic and social adversity. All three of its first-grade classes were enrolled in the program, with the commitment that the students would be nurtured and mentored through 12th grade, and all who qualified at graduation would be guaranteed college tuition.
An IHAD foundation, one of 34 affiliates around the United States, was established. It has been supported ever since by the temple members, who give their time to the students, run fund-raisers, donate funds, and rally support of all kinds for the kids and their families.
In just one example, in 2008, when a Dreamer’s home was destroyed by fire, congregants helped furnish and equip a three-bedroom apartment for the family. More recently, Emanu-El congregants — as part of the temple’s 60th anniversary celebration — ran a book drive to benefit the Clinton School. A group of Dreamers got to return in style to their grade school alma mater and present the books themselves.
Achievers and believers
With Johnson and Burstein at the library last Thursday was temple member Don Wortzel, a volunteer since the program’s inception and now its cochair with Susan Pepper. He succeeded Susan Jacobson, who had served in that capacity since 2000.
“Larry’s like another father to these kids,” Wortzel said. “He’s there for them in everything they do.”
In addition to the scholastic help, the IHAD relationship has opened up experiences these children might never have had. Over the years, they have been taken to concerts and plays and on field trips. Recently, 25 went into New York City, some for the first time. Some have flown for the first time, to attend an IHAD conference. They have also had swimming, basketball, and crafts programs at the JCC of Central New Jersey.
Johnson said that one afternoon a week, nine Dreamers meet up with nine teens from the JCC — alternating between the Wilf campus in Scotch Plains and Plainfield High — to share interests and concerns, have cooking lessons, and work on a social action project. They are also learning leadership skills in the process of organizing Project A.L.I.V.E., a day of community action.
The students at the library described dreams that reach in all directions. Sam, while continuing as a fiction writer, wants to study early childhood education. Dawan said he is interested in doing forensic science. Tyne’sha Brown wants to study fashion design. And Nia Allder plans to go to the army for four years and then study criminal justice.
On Feb. 14, a number of the “achievers” and “believers” — including Sam, Dawan, and Tyne’sha — were honored at a party at the temple. Congregant Janet Kurtter was honored as the temple’s IHAD Foundation volunteer of the year.
The event, organized by Wortzel’s wife, Lee, was another link in an extraordinary bond that has formed between the children and the adults.
Don Wortzel said, “I wanted to get involved in something where you could see the benefit of what you were doing. With this program, you really can.”