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‘Dreamers’ are one step closer to graduation
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‘Dreamers’ are one step closer to graduation

If sending one child to college triggers financial anxiety, just imagine if you had to send 57.

That’s the daunting — and completely fulfilling — challenge facing the “I Have a Dream” Foundation Plainfield Project.

Those 57 students have been the proteges of the foundation since it was established back in 2000, when they were in first grade. Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation in Westfield, led by Rabbi Charles Kroloff, now rabbi emeritus, and congregant and philanthropist Warren Eisenberg joined forces with Clinton Elementary School in Plainfield in a bid to change the odds for this one group of children.

At the time, they pledged to provide tuition assistance for the students’ post-high school education, filling in whatever parents, scholarships, grants, and other sources couldn’t cover.

Now the kids are seniors, and 90 percent — as compared to the 50 percent typical of the area — are expected to go on to some form of higher education, whether it is college, the military, or technical training.

Major funding for the program has come from Eisenberg of Short Hills, cofounder and cochair of Bed, Bath and Beyond, and his wife, Mitzi. They covered the cost of hiring the program director, Larry Johnson — or “Mr. Larry” as the kids call him — and the wide range of extracurricular activities provided for them by volunteers from the temple and partner churches.

All that financial support, however, didn’t include all the incidental extras that pump up college costs — things like travel, books, food, and additional clothing, said Gail Friedman, a longtime IHAD volunteer. To that end, the foundation held its first-ever fund-raiser, on Oct. 25 at the JCC of Central New Jersey on the Wilf campus in Scotch Plains.

‘Close-knit family’

The evening — a cocktail party followed by a program of speakers, music, and awards — pulled in over $100,000. “It exceeded not just our hopes but our fantasies,” said Friedman, who chaired the event.

About 10 Dreamers and their families were among the estimated 250 temple members and community supporters at the event. It was a privilege they had earned with good grades. The venue was a familiar one for them; they have gone there to swim or take classes, or share programs with young JCC members.

Niga Jacques arrived with her mother and her grandparents — all beaming with pride. Her grandmother, Jillian Clarke, made it clear the family was fully in partnership with the IHAD program. They were determined from the start that Niga would do her best and go on to contribute all she can.

Niga, who plans to be a psychiatrist or a physician, said, “The Dreamers program has been more than a way to go to college; it has been a close-knit family” that had helped her through crises, she said, like the illness her mother faced earlier this year and the loss in September of her beloved great-grandmother.

Samantha Perez was also there with her grandparents. She was invited to join the program in fifth grade, when her family moved to Plainfield from New York. Since then, she has written four novels, while maintaining grades good enough to get her into the very demanding Union Catholic High School in Scotch Plains. She plans to carry on writing, to become a teacher, and “to give back.”

“Who I am and who I almost was are so different it’s scary,” she said, addressing the audience of around 250. With the help of “Mr. Larry” and all the volunteers, she said, “I have learned that being a dreamer means trying new things, putting yourself out there, and seeing the earth as more than a planet, but as a playground to be explored, to learn and grow with.”

Eisenberg said he and his wife got involved out of a desire to do something for children who were not finishing high school. Attributing the success of the program to Johnson, he added, “This has been one of the best investments we’ve ever made.”

Four people were honored for their efforts on behalf of the program: Myrna Dyson and Henry Foster received the Community Champion Award, and Gordon Golum and Brett Harris received the Founder’s Award.

Dr. Ken Hamilton was among the other speakers. It was he who, as principal of Clinton School at the time, led the effort to bring in the IHAD program. He said he still regards these youngsters as “my babies.” He reminded them that as the only children in Plainfield to have had this great opportunity, they have an obligation to get through college as quickly as they can and then give back, supporting IHAD or even creating their own foundation.

With graduation coming up in June, he, Johnson, Kroloff, and the other adults involved with the Dreamers for almost 12 years will face an “empty nest” transition — but not the end of their involvement. Johnson, though he will be moving on to another position, said he will still provide support for them as they go forward. Perez said she expects “Mr. Larry” to walk her down the aisle at her wedding one day, alongside her grandfather.

As with one’s own children, Kroloff said, “the concern doesn’t end when they leave home. It never ends.”

Sponsors of the event included the Woodbridge law firm of Wilentz, Goldman and Spitzer, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church of Plainfield, the Connell Company, and the Harris Gilbert Fund for Social Justice of Temple Emanu-El.

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