While walking down a bustling city street in the morning, you might pass some people who are talking loudly into their phone and others with headphones plugged into both ears, listening to music. As you’re walking, you might even take out your own phone to send a few quick text messages before arriving at your destination. What you might not notice while walking down the street is the number of people you pass that aren’t using a phone, possibly because they can’t afford one. In today’s society, most people tend to focus more on the growing technology addiction than the reality of the digital divide. While Internet access is a rite of passage for many people, there is a portion of the population that can’t afford to buy the latest iPhone or Internet connection. For those that live in Mercer County, evidence of the digital divide is apparent right in their backyards. Of the 85,000 citizens that call Trenton home, a significant number do not own a computer. With the Internet becoming more of a staple in our society every year, these families are being limited to what they can participate in with regards to school and their careers. For the families of Trenton and surrounding areas that find themselves in this situation, a section of the non-profit organization Mercer Street Friends may be able to help. This program, called the Trenton Digital Initiative (TDI), is working to slowly end the digital divide in the local community by distributing free computers to families that are in need of one. At its start, the Trenton Digital Initiative was a small idea being launched by tech-savvy founders, Dave Zboray and Glenn Paul. “We were just talking about how we could use our computer skills to help others,” said Zboray, who is now an IT specialist at Mercer Street Friends. “We came up with the idea we called ‘100 Computers for 100 Mercer Street Friends: Trenton Digital Initiative Gets Tech Savvy Families,’ which we would later rename the ‘Trenton Digital Initiative.’” Since it began in 2012, TDI has established a partnership with Mercer Street Friends and distributed 350 computers to families in need. In addition, TDI works to educate both youth and adults on basic computer skills. “We didn’t want to just hand out computers,” said Zboray, emphasizing the importance of offering these classes. “So we have included training with each computer we distribute.” The computer education classes are offered through the Youth Services Program and Parenting Program at Mercer Street Friends. By signing up for either set of classes, families gain the opportunity to expand their knowledge of computers and technology. Another major concern for families that are struggling to make ends meet is being able to afford a stable Internet connection. With help from TDI, those families can connect to a special plan offered by Comcast. For just $9.95 per month, they can put their computers to use. The mission Statement for Mercer Street Friends is, “Bridging opportunity gaps…helping families and communities make the journey out of poverty.” TDI exemplifies this statement by providing local families with the opportunity to take home a computer of their own and support their Internet connection with an affordable plan. With each computer they distribute, the Trenton Digital Initiative is helping to end the digital divide within the Trenton community.
As of December 2015, Mercer County accomplished its mission to provide shelter for every homeless veteran seeking assistance. This makes it the latest community to respond to the nationwide challenge to end veteran homelessness that had been issued in 2010 by First Lady Michelle Obama. The city of Trenton, in conjunction with Mercer County, first addressed the issue in early 2015, with a joint effort from other veteran and non-profit organizations, which included Mercer Alliance to End Homelessness. The collaborators worked closely together to seek out each of the veterans in need. Many of these patrons came through the Rescue Mission of Trenton, as well as other organizations across Mercer County. The county and city has achieved what is being called “functional zero.” This is defined as having the processes and resources in place to immediately house a veteran. When the movement first began last year, there were 79 homeless veterans in the area. Through a systematic screening process and partnerships with Soldier On, Community Hope and other veteran programs and housing providers, the veterans were promptly afforded the services they required most. According to Mercer Alliance to End Homelessnese, of the 79 veterans who were offered assistance, only two remain without permanent housing. Housing is available to them, but they have declined for undisclosed reasons.
Mercer Is First NJ County To End Veteran Homelessness By Jared Wolf Kevin Bryson, a sophomore at The College of New Jersey and a yearly recipient of the ROTC scholarship, reflected on the recent feat, stating “I think that as a nation, our veterans can often be overlooked and underappreciated, and to see our county act so proactively for these people is truly something to be proud of.” Mercer County has long utilized a “housing first” strategy, which prioritizes putting those people in need into permanent housing, subsequently providing them with the resources to combat substance abuse, and offering them mental health counseling. Ultimately, the goal for these veterans is to be able to use their new housing as a tool for a better future. While Mercer County should be proud of this accomplishment, it is important to understand the plight of homeless veterans remains problematic nationwide. Someone who is not homeless today might be homeless tomorrow — homelessness is a fluid issue and must be treated as such. “We as a community owe it to these struggling veterans to provide the necessary care and aid so that they can transition back into society as smoothly as possible,” Bryson said. This is a great first step for Mercer County and for the state of New Jersey as a whole. Veterans should remain high-priority, as it is the only way to ensure that we, as a community, do not walk away from the goal that the First Lady set out for us to achieve.
Sprouting from Wood Street in Central Trenton, Isles is an organization focused on supporting families and communities in the area. The program’s ideals have not changed since it was first established by a group of enthusiastic students from Princeton University in 1981. Hoping to rebuild what was damaged while upholding the vibrant and persistent spirit of the Trenton community, these students came in with big ideas that are now the basis for the organization’s efforts and work. Working alongside other local organizations and groups, Isles focuses on four elements in their plight to build thriving, stable communities: educating communities and training individuals, revitalizing the community, building community wealth and promoting healthy living. As the pillars to their organizations, these four focal points have already mobilized hundreds of eager volunteers. Together, this group of individuals creates and implements projects that facilitate community progress. Such projects include rescuing families who face foreclosure, restoring and establishing an art house, planting community gardens, among many others. These initiatives address many of Trenton’s biggest challenges. “From [the] beginning Isles kept asking and testing a basic question: What are the most effective ways to promote self-reliance and healthy communities while building on the assets that are already there?” reads its brochure. “It’s an effort to support the Trenton area but, also, an effort that considers the bigger picture,” John Korp, Isles’ director of community planning and development, said.
Poverty is defined as not having enough money to meet basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. According to the 2011 U.S. census report, roughly 50 percent of Trenton residents are living in poverty. Of the 50 percent of Trenton residents living in poverty, 25 percent of them are children under 18. This causes a major problem in Mercer County community, especially within the school systems. These children growing up in poverty are living without access to technology while their classmates are excelling in every facet of their schoolwork because they have been afforded access to technology. This is called the digital divide, and it is becoming an impending issue in cities across America. As a result, we can see the difference in technology fluidity and aptitude in children as early as grade school. Luckily, there are good people in the world, people who began and are beginning organizations to not only help the community of Trenton but bridge the digital divide children in the community are facing simultaneously. The I Am Trenton Community Foundation was formed in 2007 by a group of individuals united in their passion for the city. The organization has formed a board of trustees who are committed to the mission of making Trenton even better through community engagement, building pride in the city and community-focused giving. Currently, the I Am Trenton Community Foundation is working on closing the digital divide within the community, not wanting any underprivileged children to have to struggle to keep up with classmates. The President of the foundation, Kelly Ingram said, “We connect youth with technology by providing grants to those committed to guiding youth in varying capacities, and by actively working to create collaborations and connecting identified needs with available resources.” The foundation does all it can for the youth of Trenton in terms of helping them gain access to the technology necessary to help them succeed. This was only further reiterated by Ingram, who elaborated on the foundation’s impact on the community. “A volunteer with the Trenton Digital Initiative attended an I Am Trenton fund and friend raiser in October and was connected with eight different community groups which have since provided over 30 computers to Trenton youth,” explained Ingram. Given that the foundation was formed in response to Trenton’s specific needs, the foundation is able to more effectively aid the community by focusing all of its energy and attention on Trenton and the issues that may come up. Longevity within the community and tireless efforts to better the community is what essentially defines the I Am Trenton Organization. In addition, the connection between the I Am Trenton Community Foundation and the city of Trenton will be that much more deepened due to the fact the organization will not be going anywhere anytime soon. “I Am Trenton plans to be a lasting resource that will grow over time, making immediate and lasting contributions to the Trenton community,” Ingram said.
I Am Trenton Community Foundation 122 W State Street Trenton, NJ 08608
Derrick Branch sits at a wooden table in a small room in the back of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) cafeteria. The table is lightly stained with ink and paint and covered with craft supplies and half eaten snacks.
He’s going on 51, and his grey skullcap and faded Mets hoodie enhance the specks of white that have peppered his black hair and beard. Even with his signs of age, he flashes a boyish grin and proudly clutches a portrait of a brown and yellow lion that was just painted the day before on that very same table.
“I didn’t look at no picture or nothin’,” he said. “I just remember how a lion looks. My hands was guided by an inner source.”
Branch is one of many artists that have benefitted from the soup kitchen’s Trenton Community A-TEAM (TCAT), an arts program that was founded in 2009. Open to the public, the program offers the local community a chance to compose their own music, poetry, screenplays and writing. The program also offers the opportunity to create original artwork, such as paintings and drawings, in order to provide a creative outlet for those living in poverty or low-income neighborhoods. He participates heavily in the latter, writing poetry, rapping and painting.
Branch was born in 1963 and raised in North Trenton, just a block short of the soup kitchen’s current location. The youngest of ten children, he often struggled to stay afloat amongst his many siblings and the lack of attention from his parents. The lack of stability at home left him grappling with the ability to find an identity, especially during the racial tension he experienced as an African American male. He felt a need to categorize himself in some way.
“I knew I was called a colored boy. I even found out they called me mixed black,” said Branch. “A colored boy had ancestors from Africa, maybe some Native American. Up until I was about nine years old, someone decided to call us black. I’m black and I’m proud. I was like a beatnik from birth. I ain’t goin’ along with the establishment. I got my own thoughts.”
He also struggled with severe acne during his adolescent years, leaving his face scarred and making him selfconscious. He soon withdrew from others, becoming antisocial and disassociating himself from both romantic and platonic relationships.
During this time, however, he began to show the signs of early childhood schizophrenia and began to suffer from delusions. Unable to be properly treated and uneducated about mental illness, he was not aware that his delusions were unusual or harmful, and attributed them to an overactive imagination. He began to use his budding artistic skills to try to purge his delusions.
Art had always played a significant role in Branch’s life. As he struggled with his identity and his mental illness, drawing became a way for Branch to escape and also bond with his large family. He and his brothers would sketch together and read comic books, and Branch looked to his siblings and mother for inspiration. His mother was also an avid storyteller, which enamored Branch and encouraged him to write stories of his own and to portray them in his drawings.
“We always worked as a team,” said Branch. “Nowadays, kids don’t get together with their brothers and sisters. We would have a certain time of day when we were bored, and the next thing we’d know, we’d be sitting around the table and drawing.”
Branch’s favorite artists growing up were cartoonists like Charles Schultz and Stan Lee. As he got older, Branch was inspired by photographs in Playboy magazine. He appreciated the simplicity in cartoons and the explicit detail that he could learn to draw from the photographs.
His efforts, however, went largely unnoticed. He did not receive any outside support or praise for his work, and felt that he was overlooked and rejected. Even though he spent time with his family, much of the attention went to his siblings.
“Nobody believed nothin’,” said Branch. “If I didn’t have my name on the picture, they said, ‘Oh, you didn’t draw that.’ Everyone had done it already, so they focused on them. I thought I was just as good as anybody. But I just couldn’t fit in.”
His problems at home, along with his insecurities and mental illness, led to poor academic performance and eventually an expulsion from high school. Depressed, suicidal and unsure of his future, Branch enlisted in the Army National Guard with hopes of turning his life around. During his service, Branch was exposed to the drug culture amongst his fellow soldiers. After being discharged, he began using drugs heavily.
He became a heavy user of Phencyclidine (PCP), a dissociative drug and hallucinogen that can trigger psychosis and mental illness in individuals who are predisposed. Branch’s underlying schizophrenia was exacerbated by the drug use, and he experienced constant hallucinations and disturbing thoughts that led him to numerous hospitalizations, and lost relationships and jobs.
As Branch wrestled with his mental illness, he created an invisible friend named Lizair. He began drawing her around the age of 13, and she became a replacement for his friendships and real life romantic relationships with women. This also became a defining moment of his artistry.
She went from being a figment of his delusions to a muse for all of his drawings and paintings, appearing in images and being the subject for many of his portraits. His thoughts, fantasies and desires became colors on a canvas as he fought to draw the line between the illusion and reality. At one point, Branch burned one of his portraits with the hopes that Lizair would come to life and marry him.
“I wanted that affection even though it was misplaced and misguided. I needed that. It was much deeper, but that was my biggest battle,” said Branch. “I had a whole scenario of how she came to be. I used to go to that fantasy a lot.”
He returned to Trenton and was hospitalized after a particularly bad episode while living in Detroit, Michigan, where he became convinced that Lizair was following him and wanting to cause him harm.
During his hospitalization, Branch had trouble connecting with his art and did not draw or write for four years. He entered a behavioral and rehabilitation program after his release, and resumed his artwork, performing spoken word and participating in local poetry slams as a way to share his experiences. His poetry elicited a positive response from the audiences he performed for, and he chose to look for other places where he could continue performing and recovering.
Branch was drawn to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) while he was trying to maintain sobriety. At the time, he had not necessarily needed to use the program’s services, and would show up periodically out of curiosity. Branch returned one day during a period of relapse to get a meal, and noticed various paintings on the walls that had been drawn by other patrons. He then learned about the budding community of writers and artists that had formed.
“A white haired lady came out and was hanging pictures on the wall,” explained Branch. “I asked her who drew the pictures, and she said one of the people that comes here. She said, ‘We have a thing called the A-Team. Would you like to come and see?’”
One day, Branch encountered a few friends of his who were writing in a back room, and asked a staff member if it could become a regular place for them to write and meet. He was unaware that he was about to be the start of something that would become a huge part of the community.
Shortly thereafter, he formed a band called The Vast I Am, which consisted of several others that he met through the program. They performed locally in Trenton and other parts of central New Jersey.
Branch credits his schizophrenia for giving him a unique and creative ability to draw and write effortlessly. He channels his past and the lingering effects of his illness into his paintings, recalling the detail he would put into drawing Lizair.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have the technique that I have today,” explained Branch. “I always wanted to perfect her. It gave me the desire to have perspective on my work. I have seen drawings that have perspective and they’re more attractive and appealing. I wanted her to be all that.”
Along with his writing and music, Branch has rekindled his love of drawing and painting, and has made up for the lapse of creativity that he encountered while hospitalized. Much of his former art was destroyed during a psychotic episode, and he now works to create pieces that contain positive themes and imagery. He comes to the soup kitchen every week to work on his projects, practice, perform and socialize.
Branch has also made for himself many loving and supportive friendships through his work at the soup kitchen. After spending most of his life seeking out the love and affection he longed for as a child, it appears that Branch has finally found that through TCAT. He has received endless encouragement from the community there, and has been inspired by the people he has met from all walks of life.
“The support was awesome,” said Branch. “Why couldn’t I get this from my family or people around me?”
Branch has also made his artistry a small career, making him less reliant on others for money. His band has received exposure from performing in local bars, and he has turned a profit from selling his paintings. For the first time, Branch feels like he has finally found his place through the program’s opportunities. He wants to give back and inspire others, just as they had done for him.
“I value the experience I have with people, and if I can help someone out with my experiences, the greater the value,” Branch said.
Branch compares himself and his life experiences to how the rest of New Jersey views Trenton negatively, neglecting its rich history and culture. He once found it difficult to view his own hometown and history in a positive light, but soon began to seek out its positive attributes by overlooking the stigmas of the city and his illness. He wants others to shift their negative perceptions and find beauty wherever they can, just as he did through TCAT and his art.
“Life is bigger than it seems. If you focus on negative things, it can drain your mind completely and you can’t see nothin’ but negativity,” Branch stressed. “But if you think positively, you train your mind to focus on the positive side and you see wondrous things.”
Written with and for individuals experiencing homelessness in the Trenton, New Jersey area.