BUSINESS & ECONOMY

Program provides hands-on experience for inner-city youth

BY Rhonda Schaffler, Correspondent |

This Tuesday is Giving Tuesday — a day dedicated to opening hearts and wallets to give help where it’s needed. A group in Newark has, since 1999, run after school development programs that have exposed some 35,000 inner-city kids to leadership and professional skills. It takes all stars to keep that going. All Stars Project of New Jersey Board Co-Chair and President and CEO of Investors Bank, Kevin Cummings, city leader of the project Gloria Strickland and All-Star graduate Leslie Odonkor join Business Correspondent Rhonda Schaffler.

Schaffler: Gloria, I want to start with you. The All Stars Project talks about bridging the opportunity gap. How do you do that?

Strickland: Well, we have our young people in the poorest communities connect and partner with business leaders. And what they do is create new kinds of performances together. In fact, it’s the young people who are really learning from the business community how to perform in the mainstream of America. So they’re performing as business leaders themselves, they’re performing as people who can carry out a professional conversation, a good handshake and good eye contact.

Schaffler: Now Kevin, why did you and Investors Bank want to get involved in a project like this?

Cummings: Well, I got involved years ago before I joined Investors Bank and I met Gloria, and she’s just a great leader. It’s a great opportunity for the youth in the inner cities to learn about corporate America. So it’s a win-win for both the corporation and the kids.

Schaffler: Leslie, what have you learned about corporate America? What doors were opened from your involvement in the program?

Odonkor: All Stars introduced me to a life I never thought would be possible for me. I was born in Ghana, West Africa but I grew up in the South Ward of Newark, and if you’re from Newark, you know the South Ward of Newark is one of the worst cities in Newark. Growing up, I had two younger brothers, and I also grew up in a single parent household, so I mainly had the responsibility of setting role models for my younger brothers. I remember there were nights where I had, my mom woke up in the middle of the night yelling at our neighbors because they were smoking next door and the smell was coming in our room, and even one night it was to the point that our neighbors kicked down the door and we had to call the police. So, growing up I didn’t really have anything to really look up to in the neighborhood I was from. And then, also being in a single parent household, I had the responsibility of setting role models for my younger brothers and I never really had anything to look up to until I found the All Stars program where it was able to help me, show me a different field of life, that there’s more to Newark than growing up living in a poor community and not being able to achieve something. All Stars introduced me to many different business companies and I learned what it is to be a business professional, even if there’s something you don’t think you can achieve, there are ways to still get your goal across.

Schaffler: And it looks like you’ve come very far. You’re very poised and together. Gloria, when you find Leslie and many other young men and women, what’s the biggest stumbling block or challenge that these young people have to first overcome to know that they can believe in themselves?

Strickland: Well, it’s very interesting because what we’re asking them to do is something that’s very new and very different. We’re asking them to perform, to create a new performance in their life. Now, that can be risky for young people to try something new, and for anybody, so it might be a stumbling block at first, but as they begin to work with us they actually step out, what you’d call step out of their comfort zone and they begin to take on new kinds of roles with new people. It’s just marvelous to see how they grow.

Schaffler: Kevin, what have you learned from some of the young people you’ve worked with?

Cummings: I’ll tell you, everyone deserves a good opportunity and what the All Stars Project does is create that opportunity. It matches the interns with corporate America. And for a guy that grew up in Jersey City, I didn’t know corporate America. This allows them through the internship program and Gloria’s “boot camp training,” it’s a fantastic combination.

Schaffler: All right, what is that boot camp training? Give us a slice of two of what you do.

Strickland: In our leadership development program, the young people come every single week and they can’t miss a week, so it means they have to get up, they have to deal with a lot of challenges and they have to get there. The interesting thing is because we’re doing something new we have a high attendance rate, 95 percent, so they can do it.

Schaffler: And we should point out how many people have gone through this program.

Strickland: We’ve had 1,800 young people graduate from the program alone, but we’ve touched in all of our programs 35,000 young people in 20 years.

Schaffler: Leslie, what was the first thing you learned about corporate America that seemed a little strange?

Odonkor: What I realized was everybody there came from a different field or aspect. There are many people who didn’t think they were going to end up where they are today, and that also made me realize that whatever comes in hand, I should take it. And that’s how I first got introduced to All Stars when they came to my school and did the presentation in the cafeteria and I had no idea what it was. I was a little hesitant because because there are programs that come and just talk and they don’t fulfill what they say, so I figured I had a teacher that always told me it was better to say ‘yes and no, thank you’ instead of saying ‘no’ and missing out on everything. So, I figured right now I was going to do All Stars. And as Mrs. Strickland said, it was very strict. You can’t miss a day, you always have to come professionally dressed. And once, I went out to my first internship and realized that everything I learned, even the littlest things that made you feel uncomfortable doing, that’s what it is in the business world.

Schaffler: What do you want to do when you grow up, which isn’t too far from where you are right now?

Odonkor: My field of career changed. My first internship was with Interstate Drywall Construction, which is a construction company, so I had a hands-on in construction. The next year after that, I was also offered another internship with Tocci Building Construction Companies and that was my freshman year of college. And that opened my mind, at that time I was in school for fire science to become a firefighter, but with the All Stars internship, I realized I wanted to do more toward construction. So, I’ve now switched my major to HVAC, so I’m in school for HVAC, which is heating and air condition ventilation. The good thing is, I also had another internship this summer with Ernst and Young, so that’s what I mean by All Stars, All Stars doesn’t just give you one opportunity. I never thought I’d be doing HVAC now. If it wasn’t for All Stars, I didn’t finish high school with the goal of where I wanted to go, and All Stars was able to help me with that. And also having a construction internship and working with Ernst and Young made me realize I could combine the two and work in a field where both attributes consist in one.

Schaffler: Congratulations on all your success so far. We look forward to hearing more from you. And congratulations on leading the way.