Planting Seeds of Hope in Newark

Project Coordinator’s (PC’s) are stewards and ambassadors of Jersey Cares, leading other volunteers in projects that benefit the community.  Project Coordinators drive social change by leading well-managed, sustainable projects and programs that meet community-identified needs and provide volunteers with a positive experience, inspiring everyone to continue their journey of service.  This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting opportunities and partner agencies that have a need for Project Coordinators. 

Emilio Panasci, Co-Director of Operations and Education for the SWAG Project (also known as Planting Seeds of Hope) at Plant it Forward in Newark, can be seen in many different lights.  However, a visionary and a leader are what are undeniably true. Leading many different volunteer opportunities and working hard to provide community food access for residents of Newark, Emilio and his team are increasing the educational and economic opportunities around Newark to take back control of their local food system and health. We decided to interview Emilio and dig a bit deeper to find out what the motivation was to create this opportunity.

What made you want to start this initiative and what steps did you have to take to get there? 

“S.W.A.G Project Farm started as a partnership between TEAM Academy, Peshine Avenue School, First Tabernacle House of Worship, and the City of Newark. My organization, Planting Seeds of Hope, played a facilitator role. We built a small community garden on the grounds of the Tabernacle. our assumption was students and teachers would adopt the garden as their own with the help of the church. However, management of a community garden was something that needed more help and so my organization stayed involved at first very casually, but each year started adding more growing space and programs. By the time we got from 2009 to 2013 we were already having enrichment classes in the Spring and Fall for students, on-site farm stand, and even helping other organizations start gardens around the city!”

Planting Seeds of Hope is seen as more than just a way to plant and grow healthy food.  It also serves as an opportunity to provide a deeper relationship with the City of Newark and involve the community to gain a sense of community surrounding the topic of food access. The program serves to build a more unified community. With the countless volunteer opportunities Planting Seeds of Hope offers for the community, we asked Emilio what he found most enjoyable about the experience and what are the major takeaways he would like his volunteers to walk away with.

What is your favorite part of everything that you do?

“Not to sound corny but my favorite part of Urban Agriculture work is just connecting with people around the joy of being outside and being around healthy food and nature. We love that we make an impact on people’s health and on their lifestyle, and for grant applications we must quantify our impact with specific evaluation measures. Yet I think so much of community development is intangible. On a day-to-day basis one of the best things is just joking around with a volunteer at the garden or market, while also discussing what healthy local food means in their life, knowing they will always think “local food” is cool and exciting.

What are some takeaways you want volunteers and Project Coordinators to have at the end of the opportunity?

“When people volunteer with us, I hope that they get first and foremost a fun experience and a sense of belonging no matter what their background or life situation may be like. Being in a garden and working with soil and plants should be a relaxing and inclusive experience. We are not a place that needs to demand a lot of hard work or skill level when you first visit us. In fact, we want people to be creative and ask questions and just do what they are able, not more. The philosophy is that if people want to get more serious about agriculture or food justice in the future, they need to have fun first! Then, there are many places that they can pursue more advanced training, but they could always remember that they got their start and they have a family of support at S.W.A.G. project- and they can always come back and take on more responsibility and projects!”

Learning more about the man behind S.W.A.G. Project, we had to find out more information on who Emilio was outside of his organization and what drives his passion. When asking Emilio more about what keeps him motivated, he stated,

“I’ve always been interested in nature, but I am definitely not an agriculture specialist. In fact, I went to school for Urban Planning (Undergraduate in Literature and Philosophy) and consider myself sort of a Community Organizer and Project Manager.  Yet really, I’m a Facilitator of the Development of Community Based Projects trying to bring together lots of other people to work in collaboration and obtain the resources they need to be successful. But local food system projects touch on everything that I care about from environmental and health improvement to racial and social justice issues. I love getting my hands dirty and I also love talking to local government officials and funders at fancy meetings. I love teaching kids about worms as well as seeing land be rehabilitated and preserved for ag! I guess I like that this kind of work has many sides to it and is never dull. 

Ready to join Emilio at Plant it Forward in Newark (Planting Seeds of Hope)? Then don’t hesitate to become a Project Coordinator today!  Click here to learn more and sign up today.

Engineering, Entrepreneurship and Social Justice

Juan Camacho and Stephany Ayala
Jersey Cares’ PCF Fellows

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear innovation? Creative, new, original? ATMs are probably not included in that list. For two fellows in the Jersey Cares’ Project Coordinator Fellowship (PCF), Stephany Ayala and Juan Camacho, ATMs became a proposed innovative community solution during their internship at the I Have A Dream Foundation – Newark (IHDF-NJ). 

Stephany and Juan are PCF interns.  The PCF connects young people between the ages of 16 and 24 in Newark with opportunities.  With a unique collaboration between corporate partners, non-profit organizations and young people from low-to-moderate-income families, fellows learn valuable career skills which they put into practice at Newark non-profits.  While participating in workforce development workshops facilitated by corporate partners, and mentorship from Jersey Cares, students help build the capacity of local non-profits, putting their newly developed skills to work as interns. 

Juan and Stephany meet with their PCF Mentors, Anthony Barley and Janique Sanders

Although Stephany and Juan worked on multiple projects during their time at IHDF-NJ, ATMs became a focus for the team.  In observing local businesses in the West Ward of Newark, the students realized there was a surplus of ATMs located in the neighborhood.  Juan shared, “ATMs are considered a business and in the West Ward, they [ATMs] account for 16% of all businesses. In comparison to only 2% in New Jersey.”  Stephany continued, “The people of the neighborhood have limited access to banks and ATMs are usually easier to get to. They are always in different stores who have card limits or do not accept cards. This is an example of a social engineering project.”

The team related that the profit from the ATMs are typically attributed to the individual owner and those funds rarely are circulated back into the community. The team recognized a link between engineering, entrepreneurship and social justice and the opportunity to put an innovative solution in place.  With the support of their supervisor, Yolanda Gadson, the two fellows began developing solutions that would benefit the community. Stephany and Juan developed the idea of the creation of community owned ATMs that would be operated and maintained by a community group. The community group would reinvest the profits made from fees back into the community to fund after-school programs, feed and provide resources for underserved populations, and other community programs and initiatives. This cycle would put communal interest at the forefront in local conversations. They imagined creating a platform for local businesses to use a portion of their profits to help fund revitalization projects within the community– in schools, community centers and other local institutions. They would schedule town hall meetings to introduce the business owners to the community members to understand who their donations are helping.

Yolanda Gadson
Executive Director
I Have a Dream Foundation – Newark

Stephany and Juan’s supervisor, Yolanda Gadson, Executive Director, IHDF-NJ, raved about the two fellows and the work they have completed while interning. She was so thrilled by their capabilities that both students have been offered continued opportunities to work with the foundation after the completion of their internship. She highlights the impact of having two young people, especially two young people of color, to help explain how engineering relates to everyday life. Gadson states, “It’s not often you have interns come together and they work, but they really work. They make time for something outside themselves. I go to them and ask for their voices, because their voices matter. They were such a positive and professional light in the office.”

Juan and Stephany are rising sophomores at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) where they are studying engineering. Both fellows are heavily involved in various campus organizations such as the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, where they both are executive board members, and the Robotics Club. These two outstanding students also mentor Dreamer populations, help create and facilitate interactive STEM workshops for Pre-K children, and are working on a sustainable schoolyard revitalization project at 13th Ave School in Newark’s West Ward community. They made a commitment to go above and beyond and are shining examples of the power of people to be the change they want to see in their own community.   

Say Hello to Juanita Cook!

Juanita has been a motivated volunteer with Jersey Cares since 2017 but started her journey with us in 2013. In 2018, Juanita decided to take on the role of a Project Coordinator and become a part of the Jersey Cares family leading many different volunteer opportunities throughout the state. When asked what sparked her interest in Jersey Cares, Juanita stated: 

“Joining Jersey Cares was very unintentional for me.  In the early Spring of 2013, my church organized groups of volunteers to help local families in Sayreville clean-up their flooded homes after Hurricane Sandy.  Experiencing the damage brought back memories of losing my childhood home to a fire at the age of eight. Each bag of debris was a reminder of what it was like to start over from nothing but the clothes on your back.  From that day on I had a desire to do more and help those in my community. Around the same time, I joined the churches’ nursery ministry and still serve in a monthly rotation to provide childcare during Sunday services.  I also became active in another church ministry called ‘Love Your Neighbor’.  Twice a year we visited local senior communities in Monroe to assist seniors that had contacted the church to help them with activities like yard work, spring cleaning, minor repairs, etc. I maintained my monthly nursery commitment while working and attending a master’s program full-time, but after graduating in 2016 that desire to be more active in my community reappeared.  I felt obligated to dedicate a bigger portion of my time to doing more volunteer work.  After googling “volunteer opportunities in New Jersey”, I came across the Jersey Cares website.

Since then, my involvement with Jersey Cares has been a gradual progression.  In 2017, I sporadically searched the calendar and tried different volunteer categories.  Each time I attended an opportunity I had a strong sense of purpose and enjoyed coming together with kindred souls that also prioritized helping others.  Those things peaked my interest to return.  In 2018, it became intentional.  I set a personal goal to volunteer an average of one hour per month or 12 hours for the year through Jersey Cares, in addition to my monthly nursery rotation at church.  I am not sure how I ended up logging 21 hours, but it’s safe to say I achieved that goal. For 2019, my goal is to complete 50 hours through Jersey Cares.”

Throughout the years, Juanita has been extremely active both within her personal life and within Jersey Cares. In between her hobbies of traveling to eight different countries, spending time with family and friends, reading, and dancing, Juanita makes the effort to dedicate her time to leading several different volunteer opportunities offered at Jersey Cares. Some of those opportunities include Tutor and Mentor in Martinsville, Marketplace in New Brunswick, Computer Essentials in Elizabeth, Homework Helpers in Elizabeth, Marketplace in East Brunswick, Caring Closet in Hightstown and many more.

When asked about her dedication to volunteering, Juanita remarked:

“I consider volunteering one of my hobbies. Whenever it occurs to me that I have a free weekend or a large amount of free time I go to the opportunities calendar and see what I can get involved in. Volunteering is a great reminder to never take anything for granted”

When asked what she loved most about leading different opportunities, Joanne noted:

“Leading different events gives me opportunities to meet new people and learn more about the different issues facing our community. The opportunities I enjoy most are Marketplace in Jamesburg and Computer Essentials in Elizabeth. The team that operates Marketplace in Jamesburg is phenomenal!  They are extremely passionate about serving others and it is truly inspiring.  I hope to be able to stay committed for as long as the individuals there.  It is also astounding to see the amount of youth volunteers that attend every month, in and outside of Jersey Cares. At Computer Essentials in Elizabeth, I am grateful to be able to pass along my knowledge to the courageous individuals that seek their services. Hopefully, I am making a meaningful contribution to them, creating great opportunities for themselves and their families. Also, I recently attended Bingo Time in Bridgewater for the second time.  Now, I cannot stop thinking about the sweet residents and the amount of joy it brought them to have us there.  I think I will make this a regular commitment now.”

As a Project Coordinator with a lot of experience in different spaces, Juanita advises new volunteers to: “Just go for it!  It is not complicated or demanding to be a Project Coordinator. As a P.C. I aim to provide a high level of service to the contracting organizations and meaningful experiences for the volunteers.  I believe that having an engaged Project Coordinator present at opportunities creates a better experience for everyone involved. I encourage everyone to do it, especially if they frequently participate in an opportunity.”

Inspired by Juanita’s dedication to leading volunteer opportunities?  Become a Project Coordinator today and begin changing the lives of others today. Also, check out our Monthly Calendar to find the project that interests you.

Who is Care of The Park?

Pat Thomas has been a part of the Rutgers Master Gardeners of Essex program since 2014, dedicating many volunteer hours to the Care of The Park program at Essex County Branch Brook Park. A lifelong resident of Newark, Pat grew up around the park and takes every opportunity to give back as a volunteer leader with Care of the Park. Keep reading the below interview to learn more about Pat’s experience as a Master Gardener at Care of the Park.

Why do you volunteer?

“It’s been instilled in me to help others and if I can garden while helping my community than that’s even better. I saw the opportunity to give back to the park I grew up with and help people who enjoy it like I do. Even giving a few hours can be so helpful especially when the money and resources aren’t always there to do the job. I volunteer because I like helping others and the community I grew up in.”

Pat Thomas – Master Gardener

What compelled you to volunteer with Care of the Park?

“This is the park that I grew up with, played in, and always felt connected to. It’s something dear to me. I like gardening, so I joined the Master Gardeners and this opportunity just fell into my lap. It’s been great getting to work with the team and whenever I tell my friends from Newark that I volunteer at Branch Brook Park they always say ‘thank you for taking care of our park.’”

What was your favorite moment volunteering in the park?

“My favorite moment was seeing three college students who were all friends but went to different schools. They wanted to get together and decided to do that by volunteering at the park. They could have just gone to dinner but decided to spend time together while taking care of a park that they grew up around. It’s really wonderful seeing all the people coming together and making the most of the time they spend here at the park.”

What was your biggest takeaway from your volunteer experience?

“Despite all the negativity you may hear, there are so many people who are taking care of their communities. So many people come through the park and are thankful for the work that we do. And it’s wonderful to have the Essex County Parks Department and the Branch Brook Park Alliance give so much to take care of the park and the community. I love seeing the collaborative effort to give back, and volunteering has been a big part of that.”

What advice would you give someone who’s thinking about volunteering?   

“Pick something you like that is near and dear to you. Sometimes that park can be difficult and a lot of work, but when you have skills and the passion for it is always great. Just find something that you would like to do and take the time to give back.”

What does it mean to be a Rutgers Master Gardener?

“Part of being a Master Gardener is going out to different gardens and sharing what you have learned with others. We have a little expertise that we get to share and help out in a lot of different places. And we get to meet a lot of other nice people. And when people hear that I work with Care of The Park at Branch Brook Park they even say thank you and great job!”

What does Care of the Park mean to you? “Really Care of The Park is a wonderful experience. So many people come around while we’re working saying “Thank you”. They are so grateful to see so many people taking care of the park. It’s so nice seeing this feeling of ownership for the park that so many people grew up with, played in, and would drive through as a shortcut. And you have so many different people from corporations or schools, so many people from different backgrounds. It really is a collaborative effort.”

Planting Seeds of Hope

At Plant It Forward in Newark, Planting Seeds of Hope is working hard to provide community food access as well as increasing both economic and educational opportunities for local residents. In the heart of Newark’s South Ward, Emilio and his team are working tirelessly to provide fresh and healthy food to the local community and are dedicated to empowering local residents to take back control of their local food system and health.

Planting Seeds of Hope is more than just planting and growing healthy food, it serves as the opportunity to educate and provide deeper relationships within the community. The gardens and programs are meant to build a cohesive, integrated community around the common bonds of healthy local food. 

The goals of Planting Seeds of Hope are:

H – Health – Environmental, public and individual wellness

O – Open communities – Intentionally inclusive and integrated places

P – People development – Ample growth opportunities for youth and adults

E – Entrepreneurship – A spirit of innovation and creating shared prosperity method

Open to all local residents and visitors as a place to assist in volunteering or act as a classroom to learn more, the farm and community center serve its purpose! With the assistance of volunteers and Project Coordinators assisting in maintaining and creating planting beds, planting, digging, watering, weeding, and composting, Planting Seeds of Hope is well on its way to kicking off summer with some fresh fruits and vegetables.

Interested in joining this team of passionate and hard-working volunteers who are dedicated to local farming? Become a Project Coordinator today and take the lead in transforming this Newark neighborhood into a Healthy, Open community where People develop and Entrepreneurship flourishes.

Project Coordinator Fellowship Spotlight – Jonhatan Blaise

The Project Coordinator Fellowship (PCF) program works tirelessly to close the opportunity gap of low to moderate income Essex County young adults between the ages of 16-24.  The PCF program aims to enhance professional development and reduce youth unemployment for young people who live in and around Newark. Read on to hear the experience of one of the 150 fellows who benefit from the PCF program each year.

Jonhatan Blaise is currently a senior at Caldwell University studying towards his bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice. When not attending classes or working in the University’s mailroom, Jonhatan is also a member of Circle K Caldwell Chapter and was inducted into the National Honor Society for Leadership and Success in Spring of 2017.

Jonhatan spent his PCF internship with Newark Community Solutions (NCS), an organization that works to provide Judges in Newark’s municipal courthouse with a variety of sentencing options for low-level, non-violent offences.  NCS aims to limit the reliance on prison sentences and fines for these offences, instead focusing on community service and other productive sentencing options.  When asked about his time with NCS, Jonhatan stated:

My time at NCS has not only been eye opening but also a great pleasure. The group sessions that they run every so often are really engaging. In the group sessions, we chat and have conversations with the clients, making them feel welcome. In the sessions we also talk about life and its struggles, while sharing experiences and tips.

Jonhatan went on to describe the countless skills that he has gained throughout his time in Jersey Care’s PCF program as well as his internship with NCS.  From administering intakes of new clients, finding out what their needs were, to having the opportunity to watch a court session on his first day, Jonhatan learned valuable lessons and gained skills that will carry over to his future career in the Criminal Justice system.  When discussing the skills he learned from the NCS team, Jonhatan remarked that:

At NCS I learned what it means to have and give your trust, integrity, and respect to others. Loving your neighbor as yourself and serving them; showing empathy, compassion, and an ear to listen to. I also learned the value of wanting those around you to be successful in life despite their setbacks from mistakes, and ultimately motivating them to overcome all limitations and rising above their circumstances.

PCF experiences such as Jonhatan’s could not be possible without the support and mentorship of individuals like you! If you’re interested in getting involved in the Project Coordinator Fellowship program, as either a fellow, sponsor, or leader, click here to learn more.