Remarkable Newarkers is a series profiling people who live and/or work in Newark who are making a positive contribution to the city.
Newark, NJ—Michele Adubato has been making an impact in the City of Newark for decades, first through her work as an educator at Newark Public Schools and most recently as the CEO of the North Ward Center, a nonprofit organization that has served as an anchor to the neighborhood and surrounding communities since it first opened in 1970.
The North Ward Center offers a variety of social and educational services and programs, with the goal of improving the quality of life for Newark residents.
Driven by a passion to empower others to succeed, Adubato began her educational career as a special education teacher at Newark's Camden Elementary School and later joined the New Jersey Regional Day School (NJRDS), where as a teacher, vice principal and later as principal, she developed educational initiatives for students with special needs to transition from school to adulthood.
The transition program was recognized by the State Department of Education as a model program for students with disabilities.
In 2010, Adubato founded The Center for Autism, a nonprofit organization that provides day services and opportunities for adults with autism and their families.
Born and raised in Newark, Adubato said her roots are a great source of pride.
“Although I do live down the Parkway now, when someone asks me where I am from, it’s always answered with ‘Newark,’” she said. “It’s like a badge of honor.”
Adubato said along with her Italian Catholic upbringing came a trailblazing spirit that she inherited from her father.
“There was an element of revolution within my family, namely my father,” she said of North Ward Center founder Stephen Adubato, who also founded Newark’s Robert Treat Academy Charter School. “We were raised to be independent thinkers. As most people will say now, I am most like him, which scares and delights me at the same time.”
Adubato said she dropped out of high school during her junior year.
“My mother cried and my father hugged me,” she said. “I went to a Catholic High School in Rutherford and although just a couple of miles from Newark, it felt like I was on a different continent. There was a mixture of racism, indoctrination, and dullness that did not meld with how I was raised. So, I rebelled. I quit.”
But Adubato's father had one condition—that she work full-time.
“The only job I could find was at the old eyeglass factory where the four diamonds are in Branch Brook Park,” she said. “I was a file clerk. First day, I looked at the clock…9:00 a.m. I looked at the clock again- 9:07. This was agony. I was bored beyond belief and realized that I was the lowest person on the totem pole. It was based around not being able to make any decisions and being told what to do all the time. Anyone who knows me understands that is just not in my DNA.”
Adubato returned to school, made up the credits and graduated.
“I do take satisfaction in knowing that I broke the record for the most demerits anyone has accumulated in that school,” Adubato said. “I say this because it has everything to do with the struggles of attempting to understand your place in this world, both professionally and personally. Also, because I was different and did not fit the mold -- I don’t know really who does. I learned differently. I truly did march to a different drummer, and the school did not know how to handle that. I suffered and learned so much because of it. I learned that children need to be cognitively connected and celebrated for their individual talents and styles. It was a precursor to my success in the educational field.”
After high school, Adubato worked with at-risk youth, which had a profound impact on her career.
“This experience, at a young age, had a profound effect on me professionally,” she said. "These children were coming from all types of emergency crisis situations, ranging from abuse to petty crimes. They would come into the shelter at all times of the day or night, looking shell-shocked and worn out.”
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Theater Arts at Rutgers University—Newark, and later earned her certification as a special education teacher as well as master’s degrees in social work and educational administration.
The decision to open The Center for Autism came out of Adubato's frustration at seeing students graduate into the unforgiving structure of the adult provider system.
“When I founded The Center for Autism seven years ago, it was out of need and vision,” she said. “There were little to no services provided for people with autism and their families. I wanted to provide a first-class experience for our families. We now provide premier adult services along with family resources and are now expanding our services.”
Adubato describes The North Ward Center as a microcosm of the history of Newark, citing the mass exodus in the aftermath of the 1967 riots and a city in turmoil.
While many residents chose to leave the city, Adubato said the small segment of North Ward residents who remained had needs that were being neglected in the atmosphere of confrontation and conflict.
“My father wanted to stabilize the North Ward neighborhood by offering job training and educational services to the residents who remained,” she said. “For over 45 years, the Center has remained true to our mission, while the services have expanded. The NWC has become a symbol of stability for Newark. Our operating principal is to offer fiscally responsible programs that build a foundation for an economically viable community. We are also one of the largest employers in this community. Our programs define our community and us.”
The North Ward Center network of services is comprised of Casa Israel Adult Medical Day Center, which serves 120 senior adults, while The North Ward Child Development—one of the largest providers of Abbott preschool programs in the city—educates more than 600 children each day.
The Youth Leadership Development Program—the largest youth leadership program in the city—serves over 2,000 young adults each year, while the Family Success Center helps strengthen families through education and advocacy.
“The communities we touch have been the people who live here every day, and all that comes with living in an urban environment,” Adubato said. “They are primarily Hispanic families, and our services cross the lifespan of these individuals. It is in my DNA to understand and work towards equity and service. My father founded the NWC with one simple goal—to empower the residents of the greater Newark community by providing services designed to strengthen families. I firmly believe that service to others is the highest purpose, and I am honored to be in a position to lead an organization that has served this community so well for so long.”