“For over 91 years Collier Youth Services has been providing unique and dynamic programs that assist young people and their families to build the necessary skills and tools to overcome adversity, heal from past trauma, and grow toward their potential in an environment that promotes belonging, dignity and hope.” Collier Youth Services
WICKATUNK, NJ: As you drive down the long, tree lined private road leading up to 160 Conover Road the 260- acre Collier Campus in Wickatunk (neighboring Colts Neck and Holmdel), you start to feel something different and unexpected is unfolding. You might even ask yourself as you continue to drive, “How did I not know this place was here, and is this the right place because this is a really long driveway?” Then, you finally get to the top and see an opening and at the same time you are greeted by a beautiful Grotto with the Blessed Mother to your left. The experience can be very moving, especially if it’s your first time there. Now that you are at the top you can begin to take in the campus. It may feel like going back in time, maybe about a hundred years…
The property is the former summer home of Sarah Van Allen Collier and her husband Robert Joseph Collier. Married in Newport Rhode Island in 1902, Sarah’s mother was from the affluent Astor family. Robert inherited from his family, the Collier Publishing Company, and the famous Collier Weekly, which he edited for many years. The couple had a son Robert Collier Jr, born in 1903, and he sadly only lived 2 days. He was their only child and is buried in the historic Collier family cemetery on the property.
Robert Joseph Collier passed in 1918 at age 42. Sometime in the late 1920’s Sarah Van Allen Collier approached the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in NYC, asking them to move into her summer home and bring disadvantaged children from the city, into the fresh air, fields and forests there. Sarah strongly believed in the natural healing effects of nature and had a very strong desire to help children who were in need, perhaps in memory of and creating a legacy for her only child, who never had the opportunity to run through the fields and breathe in the fresh air of the Collier estate.
The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, Founded by Sr. Mary Euphrasia, turned Sarah’s request to help at risk youth into a fulltime residential home for girls. In 1927, Sarah turned over the Collier estate to Sisters of the Good Shepherd and she lived in New York City until she passed in 1963, totally entrusting the Sisters to carry out her mission of helping children. She chose well. In 1938 Smith Hall was dedicated to house 125 young girls who otherwise had no one to take care of their needs. Many were orphans or had one parent who had passed, and their remaining parent could not care for them. Sr Mary Euphrasia's philosophy she liked to often say was, "One person is of more value than the whole world." Meaning every person has value, an infinite dignity. Sr. Mary Euphrasia was 'burning with zeal for the young women who were marginalized in society,' and so her mission was in line with Sarah's.
Fast forward nearly 100 years after Sarah left her summer home property to the Sisters, and as you enter the campus you can often hear the children, talking, laughing, shouting, playing basketball, see them running, walking, playing… The once summer Collier home is now the administration offices where you will find kind people working together every day to better the lives of children. Their fearless leader, Sister Debbie Drago, executive director of Collier Youth Services, meets every visitor with her warm personality, full of kindness, her heart is open to anyone with good intentions to help the children. Sr. Debbie says, “Every child has a right to reach their full potential and at Collier we do our best to give each child the best chance possible to achieve their full potential. We accept them, nurture them and speak to them with love and kindness. We give them a safe place to belong and feel a sense of family.” A Sister of the Good Shepherd Order, Sr. Debbie is fully dedicated to the children of Collier. Sarah Van Allen Collier herself could not have hand-picked a better person to carry on her mission. Sr. Debbie always fills in visitors about the history of the property and the Sisters of the Good Shepherd who held her position previously through the years and guiding it to where it is today. Most instrumental to the mission, Sr. Debbie always highlights the woman behind the great success of bettering the lives of so many young people, Sarah Van Allen Collier.
In the 1970’s the Sisters realized that ‘children, if possible, need to stay living with their families and should continue to be served by Collier the best way possible’. They started to phase out the residence program on campus.
Continuing the mission, today the Collier Youth Services umbrella has 3 major programs:
1) Collier Schools; Private, state approved nonprofit coed Middle and High Schools.
2) The Collier Residential Program which addresses the immediate needs for a safe home for young women who have survived trauma, abuse or neglect.
3) The Collier Summer Camp; Kateri Day Camp, providing over 200 economically disadvantaged youths with a safe, free, full day, fun summer camp experience.
Collier Middle and High Schools are for children whose needs cannot be met within their own public school district. Combined with a strong counseling component, students are prepared for college, technical or vocational schools, and full- time employment. According to Collier’s annual report, 88 percent of the 2017 graduating class of Collier High School went on to continue their education at 2-4 year colleges or trade schools, and 85 NJ school districts send students to Collier High School and Middle School. Opened in 1977 currently 154 students in grades 9-12 attend the high school from 59 NJ School Districts. The Collier Middle School opened in 2011 to encourage students grades 5-8 to become their best selves through quality education and therapeutic support has 60 students ages 10-15 from 32 NJ School Districts.
TAPinto spoke to a grandmother of one of the Collier High School Grads who said, “The Collier High School in my opinion saved my grandson’s life. He was severely depressed in his high school situation and just couldn’t fit in. He was bullied. Collier nurtured and accepted him, and he thrived. He graduated from a four-year college and now is living a happy healthy normal life, working full time to support his growing family. Our family is forever grateful to Collier Youth Services.”
A wonderful testimony that speaks for itself, and the Collier programs success, is the current principal Mr. Samuel who was introduced to Collier Youth Services at 8 years old as a Kateri Camper. Samuel says, “From the moment I first stepped onto the Collier property as a child I felt a connection to both Collier and nature. As an at-risk youth camper, Collier Youth Services has carried me to where I am today. As principal, I am now able to give back to the students what Collier has given me. I am so grateful to be back with my Collier family.” Russel Gartz, Director of External Affairs for Collier says, “Mr. Samuel coming back full circle to serve at Collier as one of our principals truly speaks for the great success in carrying out the Collier mission. Collier is a place where you can truly witness small miracles everyday and I’m so grateful to be a part of this important mission.”
Collier Residential Homes launched their first off campus group home in 1973 in Red Bank. A 10-bedroom house open to girls 13-18. The group home facilitates an environment to gain skills necessary to achieve independent living and a healthy family lifestyle. The girls all attend the public high schools in Red Bank, and perform volunteer work in the community as well as hold part time jobs when they are old enough to. The social workers who live with the girls create a loving supportive, family environment in the Red Bank home and in the Keyport home opened in 2007, a 5 bedroom home for young women ages 16-21, supporting their growth towards independent living. These girls are in school and working to save money for their future. Counseling services are provided, and life skills training is a constant, creating a family environment. The residential homes are in Red Bank and Keyport where young women are nurtured with love, support and assistance from the social workers who live with them and the girls they live with. For many it is the first time they have experienced a family setting. According to Collier, ‘Nearly 400,000 youth in the USA live without permanent families and emancipated foster youth experience post traumatic stress disorder at a rate 2 times the level of war veterans.’ Collier is doing their part to help this national crisis, providing in-depth counseling services and life skills training with the goal of reuniting the girls with their families if they exist, or transitioning them successfully to independent living. Maria, a former Collier Resident who is now in college and has a family of her own says, “Collier Residential Homes saved my life. I felt truly loved for the first time, for the first time I learned what family was all about. I will always be thankful to my Collier family. I learned how to celebrate Christmas with them and now I carry on those same traditions with my son.”
See video here for Collier Residential Programs:
Collier Kateri Day Camp: Here is a fast fact-‘low income students lose 2-3 months of reading skills over the summer while higher income youth make gains.’ Collier is addressing that disparity. The Katari campers start by being picked up by buses in their neighborhoods some as far as Bradley Beach and bussed to the 260- acre beautiful campus with endless activities including swimming lessons, crafts, sports activities, academic tutoring, delicious breakfast, lunch and snacks (it’s not unusual for some of the children to squirrel food away for themselves for later or for a sibling. Many come without shoes that fit and don’t own a bathing suit…). Kateri Day Camp provides 200 children with an amazing summer camp experience in a safe and loving environment.
Here is one mother’s testimony to the Kateri program: “We live in Asbury Park and if you watch the news regularly you will see that some of our neighborhoods are in dire straits. From murder to drugs, gangs… it’s rough. I hope and pray my children are safe, at least I know they are during your camp hours while I’m at work trying to better our situation.”
Alex Taylor was a camper and says, “Kateri Day Camp is not like other camps, it’s like a second home. You never want to leave and when you do, you almost immediately become homesick for it.” Alex, before coming to Kateri spent his summer at local community centers in areas where he lived. His expectations were low but that changed the first day he experienced the lush 260-acre Kateri experience. He continues, “I felt at home and when I became of age to leave the summer camp I chose to stay on and became a counselor in training and will be moving up to a Junior Counselor.” Sr. Debbie comments, “Once the children have a summer camp experience with Kateri they want to keep coming back and we want them back. They make great friends and feel a sense of belonging. It’s not unusual for the scenario of the campers when they age out to come back as counselors in training and we love that here.” You can send a child to camp click here for information.
The Collier administration, teachers, counselors and volunteers together care for and nurture the whole child. They nourish with nutritious healthy meals, keep the child active in physical team sports and group academic learning. Kindness and acceptance are key to providing emotional support to the complete child. Sr. Debbie says, “We speak to every child with love at Collier. Many of them arrive for the first day of Kateri Day Camp scared and disconnected, sometimes they can’t make eye contact because they perhaps have been let down by people in their lives. It’s so beautiful to witness the loving connections made, the feelings of acceptance and being part of a team create a chain reaction with the children that quickly bring them to a very happy comfortable ideal summer camp experience that they would otherwise not experience.” Many of the campers would be home alone, perhaps on the streets, playing on blacktop, with gang activity, drugs and violence. Instead they are experiencing a bucolic 260-acre property where they enjoy among many activities; hiking, swimming, frogging, basketball, football, art, exploration of nature and so much more. Fast fact: 79 percent of children in families with household income less than $50,000 have no or low swimming ability. Every summer Kateri Day Camp provides over 200 economically disadvantaged Monmouth County youth with the opportunity to learn to swim while at camp.
Sr. Debbie says, " We are now in the full swing of summer fun with our Kateri Day Camp, and the kids and really everyone involved is having so much fun. We are still basking in the afterglow of our beautiful graduation ceremony. Every graduation ceremony at Collier High School is an emotional special one, but 2018 was especially heartwarming, a proud moment for all of us. Our former 2006 Collier graduate James Donovan gave the commencement speech. After graduating Collier in 2006, James went on to go to NYU, where he majored in Studio Art and he graduated in 2010 with honors. James after working at Huffington Post as a senior designer is now Facebook's Virtual Reality Designer. We are Collier Proud!" James after thanking the administration at Collier added, "To the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who sponsor Collier, thanks is not enough. I hold you in my prayers and thank God for your service...."
In May, Collier held their annual gala, this year’s theme, “A Time and Place For Us” raised over $300,000 to go towards Collier's mission to continue to serve disadvantaged youth in Monmouth County. Sr Debbie commenting on the Gala said “We are so pleased with the generosity of our guests, the dedication of our chairs, the gala committee and our honorees, The Schoor Family Foundation and Bill Rubenstein for the outpouring of financial support and confidence in our mission. We had a great night thanks to so many. We are proud to share first-hand how Collier empowers young people of all abilities and backgrounds to develop skills for achieving independence and pursuing a healthy fulfilled life. Collier’s work is universal, in support of at-risk, underprivileged youth. Investments from those who sponsored our Gala fundraiser, enable Collier to continue uplifting vulnerable children and teenagers from Monmouth County and across New Jersey.”
For nearly 100 years Collier has been the place where small miracles happen every day.
Support the upcoming Collier Golf and Tennis Classic, October 1, 2018 see details here. For more information on Collier Youth Services and how you can donate or volunteer click here. To speak to a Collier representative call 732.946.4771 You can mail a donation check to Collier Youth Services, Atten: Development Office, Post Office Box 300, Wickatunk, NJ 07765
All photos and videos were used with permission from Collier Youth Services.