FLORHAM PARK, NJ — An crowd of 600 people attended the NCJW/Essex Opening Event last week at Brooklake Country Club, where teacher, author and journalist Jenna Bush Hager discussed her work as a teacher in Baltimore and working in Latin America.

In Latin America, Hager learned about the power of education “to change lives and to save lives.” She encouraged the audience to tell the stories of people making seemingly small, ordinary changes that could ultimately impact people’s lives in a big, extraordinary way.

Hager, this year’s keynote speaker for the NCJW/Essex yearly kick-off event, is a contributing correspondent for NBC’s Today, an editor for Southern Living magazine and chair of UNICEF’s Next Generation which works towards reducing the number of preventable childhood deaths around the world.  She is the daughter of former U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

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“There is no definition of a successful life without service,” said Hager, relaying the message she learned early on from her grandfather, former U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

Hager spoke of her own experiences as a teacher, author, journalist, daughter, sister and mother. She read a few excerpts from her just released book of short stories, Sisters First: Stories from Our Wild and Wonderful Life, co-authored with her twin sister, Barbara Pierce Bush. The mix of funny stories and more serious anecdotes brought the audience to tears in one moment and laughter the next.

Also addressing the audience was Deacon Francis Dixon of the New Hope Baptist Church in Newark, NJ, who shared his experiences with the NCJW/Essex Back 2 School Store and the partnership that has been created between NCJW/Essex and the Church. Deacon Dixon reflected on the kindness of NCJW/Essex volunteers who believe in the work they do stating, “Long after the shoes and clothing provided by the Back 2 School Store no longer fit, the young people whose lives you touched will remember you for your kindness.”

“The messages from our Opening Event were positive and uplifting,” said Livingston resident Shari Harrison, president NCJW/Essex. “They give us renewed inspiration to continue our work of providing compassion and community support to change lives for the better.”