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Profile: Giving More to Children in Struggling Newark Neighborhoods

Twenty years after founding Project Re-Direct in Newark to give more opportunities to underserved children, Sharon Berry is adding a high-tech element

sharon berry
Sharon Berry

Who she is: Sharon Berry is the founder and unsalaried president of Project Re-Direct Youth and Family Services, which this year marks its 20th anniversary helping children in struggling Newark neighborhoods to accelerate their education, enhance their social skills, and build their physical and mental health.

That's not all. Project Re-Direct has just launched a STEM Initiative -- science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education -- to give inner-city children the sort of access to tech skills readily available in wealthier areas.

Where she’s from: Today Berry lives in Piscataway. But, she said, "I'm an inner-city child. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, a nice little village called Bedford-Stuyvesant." The neighborhood was getting rougher as Berry grew up, but she had "a mother and father who worked hard, and just wanted their children to progress further, to have more opportunities." They gave their children a profound sense of their own worth, she said.

When she was in eighth grade, "I had the opportunity to be bused out to a school in East Flatbush, and that was a different experience," Berry said. She encountered some good teachers who helped her build on the self-esteem instilled by her parents.

She got a BA in English education at the State University of New York at Cortland. When it came time to student teach, the program director offered to place her in top suburban schools, but Berry demurred, preferring downtown Syracuse. "I was more convinced than ever that I was an urban educator," she said.

That carried her to jobs back in Brooklyn and then to teach English as a second language at Webster Junior High in Newark. She then shifted to English at Weequahic High for five years. At every stop, she encountered students who needed more than just instruction. "I could relate to the children very well, because they were facing some of the same situations I saw in my neighborhood growing up," Berry recalled.

Changing roles: Berry decided to move from classroom teaching. She got a master’s in counseling and humanistic services at Montclair State University. In 1987, she became the new school counselor at Newark's South 17th Street Elementary School.

While she was counseling, tutoring and "being a mentor," Berry realized the odds facing the neighborhood and the children. While schools in nearby suburbs had one counselor for every grade level, "my school had one counselor for 500 kids." Outside the school walls, they dealt with the effects of unemployment, crime, drugs, and "gang activity was very high," Berry said.

Why Project Re-Direct? By 1996, Berry concluded that children in her neighborhood needed more -- more education, more positive reinforcement, more opportunities. With the confidence that she had carried through her education and professional life, she decided to bring about the change herself.

Berry envisaged a program beyond school, combining what she had learned from classroom teaching and counseling interactions. Along with academics to reinforce school programs, Berry wanted to support good mental health in children whose families were frequently under stress. Part of the challenge was getting them to lead healthier lifestyles, even if doing that required help.

"So much of the time in this country, there is a stigma to counseling, to talking to someone about your problems," Berry said. "Many of our people see it as weakness, something to avoid."

Deciding to focus on children from four years old through the eighth grade, Berry set about creating a Saturday Academy with "rigorous supplementary education programs" to bolster what children were learning in school, plus activities requiring social interaction and cooperation. "As any new nonprofit, I'm just starting out, I've got to knock on a lot of doors, but I'm very persistent, I don't take 'no' for an answer," Berry said. "I wrote grants, and I wrote grants, and I wrote grants, and I wrote grants and finally the United Way said, 'Yes.'"

For Berry, the selling point is, "We're unique because we recognize the role that mental and emotional wellbeing play in academic success." She wants her young charges to come away with the same feeling of affirmation and self-confidence that her parents gave her. The Saturday sessions attract up to 60 children, and Berry was soon able to add a Summer Academy that operates throughout July and August, drawing 75-100 children daily.

Never enough money: Despite this, "from day one, we've never had enough money," Berry said. Her strategy was finding other people who were willing to do what she did – to donate their time and resources.

"I've never given myself a salary," she said. "For a long time, I was still working as a school counselor, and now that I'm retired, I have my pension. I just wanted to make sure that I had enough money for the program."

Berry's colleagues got involved, experts volunteered their time, business people provided space, food, and other resources. Especially important for a program that works to reduce domestic violence and other familial stresses on children, family members also stepped up. The home base is a facility owned by Essex County in West Side Park.

The result is, "we're able to do three times the activities that we could actually afford based on our budget if we had to pay everyone," Berry said. Over the years, more than 2,000 Newark children have enrolled in Project Re-Direct's programs, which also include physical activities and an internship program to help former participants move into the workforce.

Launching STEM program: While technology may seem pervasive in modern society, many inner-city children and their families lack internet access and the simplest of computing or data transmitting devices.

This month, Berry joined with dignitaries to launch her new STEM program. But the most significant participants were Project Re-Direct students holding hand-drawn signs like "#NewarkAllIn4Stem" and "The Next Tech Billionaires."

The program aims to encourage exactly those sorts of high hopes, by giving students tools and encouragement, but also by challenging them to excel. She said, "Education in these fields is absolutely essential, not just for urban areas. But at the same time, African-Americans are only five percent of computer engineers, so we have to catch up."

Part of facilitating that catching-up is identifying children with aptitude for math and science and supporting them with access to computers and other technology, she said. Another aspect is simply exposing children to different professions and encouraging them to explore.

Plaudits: "The technology sector is a key driver of our economy, and I am certain that Project Re-Direct's STEM initiative will ensure that Newark youth are prepared to compete for opportunities in this growing and increasingly influential industry," said U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ).

"No one can tell you what direction technology will go next, but the children that are in these STEM classrooms will be at the forefront," said Todd Nakamura, founder of Google Developer Group North Jersey, a mentor at TechLaunch LLC and one of those expert volunteers praised by Berry.

Next Steps: With partners like PSEG, PNC Bank and the New Jersey Education Association, Berry already has been able to extend her efforts into Middlesex County, with a child-abuse prevention campaign. She has been reaching out to local officials in Essex and Union counties as well, and hopes to find sites in their communities to host Project Re-Direct programs.

"We'll be working," Berry said. "The challenge is for people to help us."

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