Category Archives: Featured Story: Education

Enabling Voices: Joy, Hopes and Dreams

By Jared Wolf

The plight of the homeless and the impoverished in the Mercer County area is an issue that extends far beyond the streets of Trenton. Towns throughout the area are pushing to combat high rates of poverty by stressing the importance of education and by implementing after-school enrichment programs where students can learn the importance of being involved in their community.


Plagued by hunger and other struggles for basic needs, many children living in poverty find themselves stripped of a conventional childhood. When food is scarce and money is tight, prioritizing education, athletics, the arts and other secondary interests becomes difficult.


For families in severe economic hardship, providing a nurturing environment for their children during after-school hours can be both challenging and demanding. Affording a place where students can do homework, explore new interests and learn and develop skills that will give them advantages in the real world is crucial for their development.


Many parents of these children, underprivileged and frequently uneducated, work two or three jobs in order to provide as much as they can for their family. Accordingly, many children are left home with little to no supervision.


To address this concern, HomeFront, a nonprofit organization that addresses homelessness in the Mercer County area, established the Joy, Hopes, and Dreams after school enrichment program over 20 years ago. Each child participating in the program — pre-teens, teens and young adults — comes from a struggling family.


“The best part about my job is the kids … all the wonderful, fabulous, lovable characters,” said Program Director Chris Marchetti. “We don’t want to erase the social skills they’ve already developed and acquired, but rather we want to add on to their arsenal to make them even better people.”


The program teaches students about community service and the importance of giving back. The students develop good habits and learn how to get along better with others.


"Green, Red, Gold Abstract"  By Diane Clark
“Green, Red, Gold Abstract”
By Diane Clark

After-school program provides impoverished children with a well structured environment where they can learn to become active members in their community.


From tutoring and basketball to art classes and field trips, HomeFront’s after school enrichment program ensures that its students are using their time outside of school wisely.


For many of the students in Joy, Hopes and Dreams, college is a distant goal. By helping them reach their potential and realize their ability, the program has turned dreams into realities.


The list of success stories goes on and on. From students working in the healthcare field hand-in-hand with Ivy League graduates to students pursuing degrees in architecture, the Joy, Hopes, and Dreams program is constantly empowering children and giving them a voice they never thought could be heard.


“Ultimately, helping the kids is the goal,” said Marchetti. “We want them to become self-sufficient, to be independent, to help their families thrive.”


Through activities like the Discovery Club — where students learn about self-discovery and try to help one another find their interests — students are able to feel more confident about themselves as they pursue their own goals and aspirations. As a result, many students go on to chase after their passions, while making their ambitions realizable.


Positivity, activity and connectivity are all key elements to the Joy, Hopes, and Dreams mission. It stresses the importance of staying positive, staying active and staying a part of both a family and a community. It stresses the importance of lasting relationships, and how creating a safe and strong network of people can be rewarding.


But most of all, Joy, Hopes, and Dreams enables voices, letting children find their own voice by allowing them to be heard.


HomeFront Joy, Hopes and Dreams

1880 Princeton Ave. Lawrenceville, N J.  08648

Phone: (609) 989-9417



Cherry Tree Club: Small Footprints Taking Big Steps

Imagine yourself three or four years old, possessing a mind with boundless direction-unfettered by time. The world was your playground, seemingly infinite and everlastingly innocent. Many of us imagine a time free of worry, filled with exploration and devoted to endless possibilities. Our minds were like sponges, absorbing every dollop of information that fell within inches of our realm of potentiality.

Now again imagine yourself at four years old. But now you are often without food. You feel a ping in your stomach from meal to meal, experiencing hunger daily. You have moved numerous times in your brief existence, slept in many different beds, from motel to motel to homeless shelter; you have no place to call home. You have often been mistreated and you feel ever so small in a big, scary world. And with your parents struggling more than ever, there is a feeling for you that there is no way out.

These are the kinds of struggles no child should ever have to endure. However, this is the reality that many children at Cherry Tree Club face every day.

The Cherry Tree Club is a government-licensed preschool program for homeless and at-risk children between the ages of three and five in Mercer County, New Jersey, located in Princeton Junction.

According to their website, the Cherry Tree Club’s goal is “to provide a loving and nurturing environment that allows the children to thrive and grow emotionally, socially and academically.”

This nonprofit organization, in partnership with The Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and HomeFront, gives destitute children an opportunity to have a normal preschool experience. The organization ensures that every child in its program is cared for and receives the resources every child deserves. Throughout the year, families are signing up for their children to become a part of the program.

Many of these underprivileged children struggle with insecurity and low self-esteem. Now, in its 20th year, the Cherry Tree Club gives its students an opportunity to feel important, included and safe.

“It is the same goal for every student,” said Lead Teacher Shaneica Barnes. “We want them to start kindergarten on the same academic level as any other child.”

However, Barnes adds that this goal is more difficult than it may seem. Many of the children come into the program with delayed development due to their domestic situations.

Nine out of the 30 Cherry Tree Club students have little speech to no speech at all. Some of the children have witnessed brutality or been subject to mistreatment, and all have experienced hunger. The preschool has a large number of volunteers, giving the children the individual attention they so desperately need.

"Crazy in Love" By Frankie Mack
“Crazy in Love”
By Frankie Mack

Most of the children in the program change residences often. And so, along with being fed breakfast, snacks and a hot lunch, the children receive special care and affection from the staff to combat self-deprecation and self-doubt.

From play therapy to pre-literacy development to violin lessons for the older students, the Cherry Tree Club works diligently to ensure each child feels a sense of accomplishment.

Barnes said that two twin boys came into the program from the inner city a few years ago. Their father was fresh out of jail. Barnes shared, “They did not know how to behave like children. By the time they finished in our program, they were enthusiastic to learn, and were behaving like well-mannered children. That is what this program is all about.”

Funded largely by private donations, the Cherry Tree Club has created a service that is making a grand impact on many children’s lives.

Director Wendy Schutzer stated, “It is not easy to support the cost of the program.” While the program receives McKinney grants from the state government, it remains both “frustrating” and “a challenge” to keep the program fully funded.

Schutzer is currently working with the state to try and get the families to receive childcare subsidies.

For six hours, five days a week, these children can escape from the incommodities of a small motel room or homeless shelter and receive the positive feedback, socialization and even a little bit extra. Something as simple as a place to run around freely and safely outdoors can be really special to a child who comes from an impoverished neighborhood.

One student, Brandon, said, “My favorite part of Cherry Tree Club is play time outside!”

The organization does a fantastic job preparing the children with a lively curriculum for entering the public school system, but unfortunately, this is only the first step to a long staircase of challenges that lie ahead.

Cherry Tree Club


Phone: (609) 799-1753


Article written by Jared Wolf for the Fall 2014 edition of The Wall

Life after Foster Care Teaching Teens Marketable Skills and Boosting Self-Esteem

Article written by Amanda Ippolito


Foster Care

Turning 18 is a major milestone. It means going to college, moving out or finding a job. And it can be difficult. But the independence associated with this particular birthday has very different – and frightening – implications for foster care children.

At 18, teenagers in New Jersey foster care age out of the system. They face realities such as homelessness, joblessness and incarceration. Many are left to transition into the real world without the support of a family, but there is an organization based in Trenton that can help.


Beyond Expectations

Beyond Expectations is a nonprofit that provides teens with marketable, tangible skills that can be used in the workforce. The program provides hands-on media education, featuring workshops in film-making and television production.

Participants are involved in every step of the process, from the concept all the way to production. While the program focuses on media, the skills learned prepare teens for jobs in any field.

"Building Piece" by Shanna Brown
“Building Piece” by Shanna Brown

“Everything we do is about giving them something very tangible that they can use,” said Leontyne Anglin, a founder of Beyond Expectations.

The organization was started in 1999 by a group of parents in Burlington County who wanted early exposure to college and careers. In 2008, after learning about the difficulties teens in foster care face, the group decided to shift its focus. One year later, the Beyond Expectations Teen Film Program was launched.

Beyond Expectations is open to all youth – not just those in foster care. They partner with organizations such as the YMCA, group homes and mental health groups. Teens can also choose to enlist themselves individually.

Beyond Expectations has two locations: Bordentown in Burlington County and Trenton in Mercer County. It also travels across the state to work with organizations. Programs are typically five sessions. Short-term programs – such as weekend retreats and a one-day speed program – are also offered.

Workshops in the film-making program include storyboarding, camera instruction, script development, recording sessions, and film shooting. Television workshops include camera instruction, teleprompter operation, audio production, vocal techniques, and wardrobe styling. Both programs also discuss college and careers.

All aspects of production are in their hands. They decide the subject, crew and camera operators. After deciding who they will interview, they conduct research and write interview questions.

“There is nobody in any of our programs sitting in the corner. Everyone is engaged,” Anglin said.

“Participants might realize if they enjoy storyboarding and writing, they could start a blog.  And if they enjoy working behind the camera, they might consider freelance photography,” Anglin said.

Some might even decide to pursue a career in television, film or radio. In a video on Beyond Expectations’ website, Anthony Weaver, a participant in the program, says his experience has inspired him to pursue a career in media.

"A Walk" by Gennie Darisme
“A Walk” by Gennie Darisme

“I’ve taken a lot away from this (program), whether it be knowledge, or doing what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he says in the video.

While teens learn many technical skills specific to the media industry, they also learn soft skills necessary for any job.

“Some benefits teens take away from the program include enhanced communication, the ability to collaborate, refined body language and improved self-esteem,” Anglin said. “They also learn the importance of planning and management.”

“Foster children may experience a lack of trusting relationships, as they often move from place to place on their own,” Anglin said. “When they work on a crew with Beyond Expectations, they feel a sense of being needed; the rest of the group is dependent on them.”

Beyond Expectations notes on its website, “The same young people often shunned and overlooked have become the role models.”

Anglin explained that a group of young men – who many people did not want to work with, as they were “rough around the edges” – wrote and produced a short film with Beyond Expectations. After presenting their film at a community screening, they were approached by people who wanted them to speak at their schools.

“If you provide any young person – I don’t care what their background – if you provide them with access to information and resources, you can change their whole lives,” Anglin said.

“When they come to our program, we want them to learn everything they possibly can,” Anglin said.

There is a sense of urgency, she said, because they often do not hear from participants again.

“I think they’re surprised at themselves and at how much they are able to achieve in such a short span of time,” Anglin said. “Our classes are typically only 20 hours. It’s less than one day that we have to transform young people who typically are never exposed to this type of program.”

Having marketable skills – such as those learned in Beyond Expectations – is particularly important for teens in foster care, who may not have the resources or connections that other teens have.

In 2011, more than 26,000 children in foster care aged out of the system, according to a 2012 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Sources.

According to, 12-13 percent of those who aged out experienced homelessness. The unemployment rate was 25-55 percent. Those employed had average earnings below the poverty level, and only 38 percent of those employed were working after one year.

To learn more about Beyond Expectations and how to get involved, visit


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2013 Issue of The Wall Newspaper