Shavar Jeffries had a story to tell and a thank you to give the more than 180 Union County youth services professionals sitting before him.
Jeffries is a partner with the law firm Lowenstein Sandler, a former associate professor of law at Seton Hall University School of Law Center for Social Justice and a recent candidate for mayor of Newark who garnered 46 percent of the vote. He also served as Assistant Attorney General and Counsel to New Jersey's Attorney General for two years, was the founding board president of TEAM Academy Charter School in Newark and has served as board president of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board, board president of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Newark and board member of Seton Hall Preparatory School.
"I thought I'd tell you a story of how work by people like you got me where I am," he told the audience attending the Second Annual Union County Youth Services Networking Conference. "I'm very blessed to be a product of the work of people like you."
Jeffries told the story of how as an 8-year-old he watched his mother subjected to domestic violence then lose her life to that crime, how he lived with his estranged father for a time before his father abandoned him and how he went to live with his grandmother. Yet he also told how his grandmother enrolled him in the Boys & Girls Club of Newark and how that changed his life.
"When I walked through those doors I walked into people just like you," he said. "They were there when they said they were going to be there. When they said they were going to do something they did it. But they also held me accountable."
Counselors at the club also arranged to have Jeffries awarded a scholarship to Seton Hall Prep, where he again found people who nurtured him.
"Those loving people believed we could achieve great things," he said.
"When I think about my bio and all I've achieved, I think about my grandmother and the Boys & Girls Club and Seton Hall Prep," he continued. "The standards of your circle become your standards. If your circle doesn't believe in their capacities, it becomes insidious. People like you are supporting and encouraging our young people and getting them to believe in themselves. So I'm here today to say thank you and honor you because you change countless lives."
Assemblyman Joe Cryan (D-20) opened the conference with similar thoughts.
"You're in the front lines every day," he said. "You don't bat a thousand every day but the reality is you step up and swing the bat every day."
The more than 180 attendees represented more than 20 youth services agencies from throughout Union County, including Community Access Unlimited, which hosted the event along with the Elizabeth Housing Authority, the Health & Wellness Coalition of Union County/Prevention Links and the Union County Freeholders.
The morning presentation was made by Kelli Puryear, the assistant director of the Office of Adolescent Services (OAS) within the Department of Children and Families. Puryear said that the mission of OAS is to make sure young people can achieve adulthood.
She spoke about the programs and focus of her department, including human trafficking, outreach to at-risk youth through recreation, homelessness – "Far too many youth find themselves homeless after aging out of the child welfare system," she said – safe space and normalcy.
"There are things all of us need to grow and become healthy," she said. "These things don't change just because a young person is engaged in the system."
She also praised the attendees for their efforts to collectively bring security, normalcy and a healthy environment to the youth in their care.
"Standing in the void and working with youth who are at risk really is heroic work," she said.
Morning and afternoon networking sessions also allowed the attendees the opportunity to interact and learn more about the other agencies and services available throughout the county.
"We hold this conference so that the community can network, put faces to names and come together so we can better serve the youth population," said Tanya Johnson, senior assistant executive director of youth services at Community Access Unlimited.
Community Access Unlimited (CAU), marks its 35rd anniversary in 2014, supports people with special needs in achieving real lives in the community. CAU provides support and gives a voice to adults and youth who traditionally have had little support and no voice in society. CAU helps people with housing, life skills, employment, money management, socialization and civic activities. CAU also supports opportunities for advocacy through training in assertiveness, decision-making and civil rights. CAU serves more than 5,000 individuals each year. For more information about CAU and its services, contact us by phone at 908.354.3040 online at www.caunj.org or by mail at 80 West Grand Street, Elizabeth, NJ 07202.