Friendship Train Enriches Children’s Lives

By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez. Photos by Tina Colella
RED BANK – Some say it takes a village to raise a child, but an innovative enrichment program allows a community of inspirational adults to share their talents with underserved children.

Friendship Train Foundation, a nonprofit based in Red Bank, taps into the talents and wisdom of community members to provide creative programs for children.

“It’s a mosaic of talent,” said Connie Isbell, program coordinator at Friendship Train Foundation.

Since 2011 the foundation has helped to provide an afterschool enrichment program for more than 150 students in the 1st through 8th grades at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Asbury Park. OLMC’s All Stars program offers creative classes – as varied as robotics, glass arts, cake decorating, yoga or engineering – to children to enable them discover their talents and interests while building their self-esteem.

“This is not a typical aftercare program,” Isbell stressed. “It’s innovative, and close to being unique.”

The key to the Friendship Train Foundation program are the professionals, artists, artisans and teachers who share their time and talents. Instructors include a gourmet baker sharing culinary skills, a retired NASA scientist teaching astronomy, artists, musicians, computer whizzes, and many more.

With some 45 innovative instructors involved in each 10-week session, the classes run the range from career exploration, CSI science, video game design, volleyball, public speaking, and more. New classes are introduced each session.

Isbell is inventive and relentless in recruiting new talent and over the years has enlisted some 125 teachers, who rotate through the sessions. Interesting and talented people are around us every day, she said, whether it’s asking an artist if he’d like to share his talent, or meeting a retired professional who now has time to teach. “It’s all about making the connection.”

For all the knowledge and smiles Friendship Train Foundation brings, tragedy is where it got its start. Almost a decade ago retired businessman Michel Marks of Red Bank, was moved and curious about the story of a family involved in a horrific car crash on the Garden State Parkway.

Marks befriended the family and “adopted” the four children, who had lost a parent and were struggling financially. He became involved in their education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel School, providing tuition and expenses, in addition to guidance and mentorship. His generosity grew exponentially among the children’s relatives, friends, classmates, and eventually the community. As a result, he founded Friendship Train Foundation in 2007 to bring together groups united by a common and worthy need. One of the first needs identified was the lack of afterschool activities for the children.

The OLMC after-school program has been a success by all accounts.

What Sister Jude Boyce, principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel school, appreciates the most is the “collaboration and inclusion of all,” she said. “It’s extremely gratifying to me.”

According to Sister Jude, the students at OLMC are mostly from Hispanic families. “If they didn’t have a place to come after school, they would stay in the house,” she said. Their close-knit families won’t let them out of the apartment for fear of violence, the unknown.

“A program like this is a gift their parents can give them.”

She cites that since the program began, OLMC 8th grade students who have applied to area high schools, such as St. Rose in Belmar, have scored significantly higher on entrance exams. “You can’t help but get better when you have three extra hours (in school) every day each week,” said she said.

OLMC’s programs are funded through a variety of sources, including Friendship Train and grants from other private foundations, as well as from a 21st Century Community Learning Center grant from the State of New Jersey. In 2014, the program was one of three featured by the United States Department of Education for excellence in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) programming.

After a snack and an hour of homework help, where students are able to study and complete their homework assignments, most students head to an assortment of classes in groups of 12 to 15.

Through the program’s STEAM theme, students can dabble and expand on subjects such as computer programming, fashion design, or video production.

“Some of these students have a real interest in a topic,” said Isbell, and others are introduced to something new. She is impressed with the creativity and ingenuity among many of the students. “Sometimes it’s a challenge to keep up with them.”

Volunteers and paid instructors share their talents and skills. A recent community service project with High Tech High School resulted in a new class in which High Tech students teach chess each week at OLMC, and Red Bank Catholic High School hosts OLMC 8th grade students so they can experience high school level activities.

Collaboration has always been a focus for Friendship Train, and the All Stars program has proved to be a good venue for area businesses and organizations to get involved. A Lakehouse Music Academy instructor gives guitar lessons and a nonprofit donated nine guitars that students can earn after completing the course. Kula Café in Asbury Park, a community café and job training program, brings OLMC students in each week to learn about Kula’s urban farm, how to run a café business as well as what it takes to get a job in the food industry.

Artist Manda Gorsegner, arts education manager at Monmouth Arts, lends her artistic skills to the program.

“I’m an environmental artist too, so I see how the arts can help people talk about social issues deeply,” said Gorsegner who is also in a graduate program at Drexel University studying arts administration for nonprofits.

“We spend a lot of time integrating ecology into our projects,” she said, talking about the human impact on birds like the piping clover, what nonprofits do to clean up the environment, and creating art out of recycled materials.

Gorsegner was impressed at how many fourth graders were just as interested in the ecology lessons and not just the hands-on art projects – creating bird figures out of typical beach debris.

“They knew words like entanglement,” and how birds can become entangled in ocean debris. “But they didn’t realize it happened so close to their home.” She shared photos of debris on the Asbury Park beach, just blocks from their school. “It was not as abstract as climate change.”

“It’s great to see the students through a different lens,” said Isbell. “There are no grades in afterschool. They get a chance to try things and be confident in themselves.

Isbell said she has heard students remark: “I could never get into that high school,” but now that they’ve been exposed to different career options, met successful high school students and have tested the waters of new topics, many have a newfound confidence. Now they’re thinking about careers such as detective, engineer, or nurse.

“And college is not that far away.”

With the success of the OLMC program, the Friendship Train Foundation recently launched STEAMLabs, a new educational enrichment program available to schools, recreation departments and other organizations in Monmouth and northern Ocean counties.

STEAMLabs spark children’s interest in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM) through a variety of exciting, hands-on enrichment activities that reinforce school learning.  Students are encouraged to create, experiment, investigate, and collaborate in an informal, fun environment.

STEAMLabs classes are designed for afterschool and recreation programs, school assemblies and end of year activities, and summer camps.  Visit www.mySTEAMLabs.org to learn more.

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