As students stream into her classroom, Vivian, an instructor at The Work Group, a United Way supported nonprofit in South Jersey, sees a lot of herself in each of the young people walking through her door. And since she herself is a graduate of the program, it’s not hard to see why. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that she sat in the same seats, learning the same material and having the same dreams of a brighter future.
Vivian’s journey started like a lot of kids. She lived with her dad and step mom in a middle-class neighborhood, attending public school. She had a good network of friends, she kept her grades up and she had a sense of purpose. “It was a time in my life where I felt normal.”
But after a falling out with her stepmom, Vivian’s life began to change and things shifted. She found herself living with her biological mom in an urban community, going to a new school. With all the change in her life, Vivian started slipping off track. “With no support or guidance, I started hanging out with the wrong crowd and going down the wrong path,” she shares. Her attendance at school dropped significantly that year, and she fell behind on her most of her school work; she ultimately made the decision to quit school and drop out altogether. “I spoke to my mom and gave her the reasons why I wanted to drop out, and I stopped going to school.”
That could have been the point in Vivian’s’ story where she became just another statistic. In fact, that’s just what people thought would happen to her. “Growing up people thought that I wouldn’t amount to anything just based on a few of the choices I made and where I was living. They said I would be just another statistic: homeless and couch surfing, or pregnant at an early age and barely making ends meet. But I wanted more than that; I didn’t want their expectations to define my life.”
That’s when a friend told Vivian about The Work Group, a Camden County nonprofit that provides at-risk youth in transition to adulthood with the resources they need to become self-directed, self-sufficient individuals and productive members of their families and communities.
“They told me about this great program where I could not only finish school and get my diploma, but walk away with more than that. They talked about the support, the resources, the help getting back on track and I wondered if it was for me.”
She arrived at The Work Group excited but apprehensive, but soon after enrolling, she knew she’d made the right choice. “The moment I walked through the doors, I knew I was entering a special place,” she explained. “The staff showed me how to explore and embrace who I was, they helped instill confidence in me. And they helped me face and deal with some of the trauma I experienced as a kid – trauma that was keeping me from fully reaching my potential. I learned what family is supposed to be like. I learned what it feels like to have someone never give up on you,”
Vivian also learned valuable life and job skills that ultimately set her up for long-term success and build a supportive network of students and adults who cared about and invested in her. At the end of her time at the program, she was named ‘Corpsmember of the Year’ – essentially the program equivalent to valedictorian – and landed a job at Hahnemann Hospital.
But Vivian’s connection to The Work Group doesn’t end there. She was offered a Peer Leadership position at The Work Group shortly after graduating. She admits at first the decision was tough – her job at Hahnemann Hospital allowed her to provide for her only child at the time, and she wanted to buy a home – but it didn’t take long to decide to follow her heart and accept the role. “To have the chance to give a student the same chance someone gave to me – how can I pass that up?” she reflects. “I looked at where I was and knew I wouldn’t be there without The Work Group, and this was my chance to give someone that same opportunity.
It’s not lost on Vivian that many of the students related to her because she grew up like them and once sat in the same seats. “It helps them see what is possible; it motivates them to look beyond their immediate situation. I came from the same school, the same neighborhood, the same background. If I could accomplish this, what’s stopping them?”
At the end of the day, Vivian finds herself reflecting at a colorful mosaic wall, right inside The Work Group’s main entrance. The wall boasts tiles decorated by current and past students – in fact, Vivian’s is among the most prominent – and as diverse and unique as they all are, they have one thing in common. Each tile represents a student who unlocked their potential and discovered the identity – something that far too many wouldn’t have been able to do without The Work Group or instructors like Vivian.
“Nobody can take away what I’ve been able to accomplish in my life. It’s empowering to give back and have a real impact on young adults in a way that is truly transformative.”