PATERSON, NJ- Growing up in Paterson, Anthony Ritter said, “things were tough” but he always had everything he needed. The youngest of ten children, however, he didn’t always have what he wanted. To resolve that, he recalled for TAPinto Paterson, Ritter resorted to robbing and stealing.
Not shy about sharing his past transgressions, Ritter went on to admit that he “committed many crimes in the city,” found himself addicted to drugs, and wound up in jail.
As is often the case, the struggle to successfully transition from jail back to regular life was overwhelming, Ritter said, and, finding “a lack of opportunity” while still struggling with drugs, he admitted that he “went back to what (he) knew best.”
On Monday, after just several months of drug-free living, thanks to the support of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), Ritter told his story in front of dozens gathered in Paterson City Hall prior to submitting his application to enter NJBuild, a pre-apprenticeship training program that connects persons with a history of addiction and incarceration with building and construction trades unions across the state.
Launched in Paterson just over two 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. Headed by former Governor Jim McGreevey, the organization doesn’t just help find job and training opportunities, it also matches participants with addiction treatment, linkage to legal services and healthcare, acquiring identification or New Jersey drivers licenses, and “spiritual mentoring.”
Presiding over the event the still charismatic McGreevey said that the gathering was a chance to talk about the “importance of second chances, the importance of opportunities.” By providing individuals with a path to earning “industry recognized credentials”, McGreevey added that the program gives clients the “ability to secure long term, viable careers.”
“My past is not the most positive or appealing,” Chonah Bendy admitted. Her “poor choices and bad decisions” came with consequences that set her life back in ways she said she never could have imagined. Instead of dwelling on her past Bendy decided that she wanted to be a positive role model for her teenage daughter, and turned to the NJRC for assistance.
Thanks to the NJDC, she said, Bendy now has “options and skills, offering (her) a massive gateway to a successful future.”
“Employment is empowerment,” Mayor Andre Sayegh said, repeating a line that he used last week announcing the hiring of 24 new laborers to help clean the city’s commercial corridors. “The people of Paterson deserve decent, well-paying jobs with good benefits,” and the pre-apprenticeship, he suggested is “a great pathway to the future.”
Praising what he called the previous speaker’s “testimonials of transition” from incarceration and drug use to employment, Sayegh spoke of the wider effort to improve the city saying that “Paterson is getting a second chance,” something every individual deserves.
The theme of second chances figured prominently throughout the event, including with Matthew Doherty, a former Atlantic City firefighter who lost his job to addiction. “I was a productive member of society, I loved helping people,” Doherty said. “Drugs and alcohol got in the way, but that doesn’t make me a bad person.”
The NJRC now has a track record of helping over 1,200 Paterson residents, said Jada Fulmore who serves as the facility director. Despite the range of support services the program provides, housing it on Montgomery Street, in the heart of the city’s 4th Ward, wasn’t initially a popular decision, admitted Councilwoman Ruby Cotton.
“No one wanted it in their neighborhood,” Cotton recalled. Understanding the difficulties faced by the formerly incarcerated, as well as their families, Cotton took it upon herself to convince her neighbors that the program was necessary, and would be a benefit to the community. When it comes to getting second chances Cotton asked, “who are we to judge?”
As the crowd milled out of city hall standing at one of the tables to begin his application process for the program that is expected to launch in September with 25 Paterson participants, was Ritter who earlier said that he was “willing to change his life.”
With the help of the NJRC, he hoped, he’s on the path to becoming a “prominent and productive” citizen of Paterson.