PATERSON, NJ - In a ceremony filled with the pomp and circumstance the celebration deserved, nine graduates were honored by NJBUILD, a program run by the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), Friday for successfully completing six months of training in general construction.
Launched in Paterson less than three years ago, the NJRC is a non-profit organization that works with individuals returning from prison, jail, or probation and aims to provide them with the tools they need to support themselves and their families. In addition to the pre-apprenticeship program the organization, headed by former Governor Jim McGreevey, also matches participants with addiction treatment, linkage to legal services and healthcare, acquiring identification or New Jersey drivers licenses, and “spiritual mentoring.”
Among the graduates was Anthony Ritter, who, clad in his formal blue graduation gown, said that he felt “great” after moving his tassel from right to left.
“I was living in a halfway house eight months ago when a supervisor told me about the NJBUILD program,” the 54-year old Paterson resident recounted. “I wanted so bad to get in. I made phone calls or visited almost every day. I didn’t give up.”
Ritter said that when he got the call that an opening was finally available, he did not take the opportunity for granted.
“Every day of training, I came in early and was the last one to leave,” Ritter elaborated, listing several aspects of carpentry including framing, sheetrock, and using a miter saw and a skill saw as his newly developed skills.
Practical work experience and getting involved in the community were also important aspects of the program, Ritter added, saying that helping the Habitat for Humanity Women’s Building Program was one of his highlights.
“I’m so proud of my brother,” Carlene Ritter said of Anthony's accomplishment. “He had a hard road to follow but never gave up.”
Also graduating was 40-year old Robert Contreras who said that he has lived in either Passaic or Paterson since 1994.
“While I was obtaining my degree, I worked in the day and went to school from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Monday through Thursday,” Contreras said. “I have done carpentry work all my life but have never gotten any certification."
Although he already knew how to most of the work that was taught he appreciated the opportunity to get better.
"You can always learn more and finesse your trade," he added celebrating that he now knows how to use a table saw better.
Listening intently was Contreras’s daughter, Michelle James.
“I feel good today. I am so proud of my dad,” the 13-year old said with a smile on her face.
“This is about new beginnings,” McGreevey told the graduates. “The Bible says you shall reap what you sow. God gave you a gift and you cannot hide it under a bushel. This is about a promise that you have fulfilled. You are valuable, strong, and powerful, no matter what the world throws at you.”
McGreevey also applauded the efforts of family members who he said were by the sides of the graduates every step of the way.
“Now you can go out and serve others,” he told the graduates. “You can give back. Please help someone else get involved in NJBUILD.”
Norman Watts, Lead Instructor at the Ho-Ho-Kus School, told his younger protégés that was proud of them.
“40 years ago, I was as hard as a man could be,” Watts said. “I killed a man and went into a mental institution. I was in prison for 32 years," he reflected.
"We are all just beggars, talking to other beggars, to find a piece of bread. Today can be about self or serving, it can be about sobriety or addiction.”
“You had a tough road but you made it,” Senator Nellie Pou said, congratulating the men's efforts. “Your journey has led you to the right place. You now have the tools to succeed. You have made your loved ones proud. What has led you to today will make a difference for your entire life.”
Perhaps with a view towards the redevelopment projects he hopes to attract to the city Mayor Andre Sayegh offered a final exclamation point to the evening saying that the graduates are not only future plumbers and construction workers, they are, "our future.”
The New Jersey Reentry Corporation is located at 66 Hamilton Street, Suite 201 and has aided 1,600 clients since its opening, with 15-20 new clients applying for assistance daily.