Middle Township Elementary School students Antoinette McNeil, front, and Kalani Shelton, use the county library's Bookmobile to get books to read for the after-school homework club at the Martin Luther King Center in Whitesboro. Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro, is an organization in this historically black community that helps provide to under-served children, thanks to in part to a $1 million donation from Oprah Winfrey four years ago.

Dale Gerhard

Ray Jefferson Jr. has always looked upward.

The 21-year-old from the Whitesboro section of Middle Township developed a fascination with the weather as a child. Next year, he expects to graduate from Rutgers University with a meteorology degree.

His mother, Rosie, said it wasn’t always clear he would be able to do so.

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Making it possible was, of course, his hard work. That, and the $4,000 in scholarship money he earned from the Concerned Citizens of Whitesboro Inc., to which Oprah Winfrey pledged $1 million four and a half years ago.

“Which Mom and Dad really appreciated,” Rosie Jefferson said.

Hundreds of other families could probably say the same. The CCW has been an uplifting force in the community since being created in 1989 to benefit the small, historically black neighborhood between Cape May Court House and Rio Grande.

The group has never been more active than in the past four and a half years, since Winfrey pledged four installments of a quarter-million dollars each to benefit the group’s goals. The Community Foundation of New Jersey administers the money, and the CCW draws from it as needed.

That grant has doubled the amount the organization gives out each year in scholarships to more than $30,000 and has allowed a free after-school tutoring program to expand from a dozen or so students to more than 80 at times.

“We’re working with the younger kids to help them with their homework, and hopefully they’ll grow up to be the ones earning the scholarships,” CCW President Bernie Blanks said while children bustled around the Martin Luther King Center on Main Street in Whitesboro one recent evening.

The group has been spacing out its allocations of scholarships to make the media mogul’s largesse last for decades. It doles out the funding in renewable, $1,000 increments.

Since its founding, the CCW estimates it has given out more than $200,000 in scholarships. It had $254,120 in net assets at the end of 2011, according to its latest available tax filing.

Whitesboro resident Quanette Vasser’s daughter, Chantelle Reid, has received $4,000 from the group for her studies at Hampton University in Virginia, from which she plans to graduate this year.

“I was a single mom at the time, and it helped out a lot,” Vasser said about when her daughter was looking at colleges. “At the time, we were questioning whether we would be able to pay for her to go away to school.”

The effort to help fulfill the dreams of local students who do not have a lot of advantages in life is really a continuation of Whitesboro’s founding mission.

The community was established in 1901 by a group of wealthy southern black investors, led by North Carolina U.S. Rep. George Henry White, who purchased 1,700 acres in Middle Township with thoughts of it becoming an agricultural and industrial town for African Americans.

The original settlers were mainly blacks from North Carolina and Virginia with names such as Spaulding, Beaman and Askew. They soon built a school, a meetinghouse and a church. The Garden State Parkway passed through the original cemetery, and the gravestone for Noah Cherry, one of the original landowners, sits west of the highway just south of Exit 6.

Today, about 2,200 people live in Whitesboro, only about a third of whom are black. Two-thirds are white, according to the U.S. Census.

Blanks said a lot has changed since he grew up there. He fondly remembers growing up in his neighborhood, saying “everybody knew everybody.” All the local children went to school in the historic grammar school on Main Street, which is now home to a nonprofit social services organization.

“We had great teachers, that’s for sure,” he said. “I always say that the education I got at Whitesboro was extremely important in my life, the life experiences they taught you.”

Blanks grew up near the home of Stedman Graham, an author, speaker, educator and Winfrey’s longtime partner. Graham is the executive director of the CCW, and he and Winfrey have returned to Whitesboro together several times.

The funding provided through Winfrey’s foundation is used in addition to local donations and fundraisers the group puts together, such as the annual golf tournament held each spring for the past decade.

The competition is named after John Roberson, a retired Middle Township High School teacher and longtime Whitesboro resident who was instrumental in the event’s creation. He said the scholarships it has helped fund have made a dramatic, clear difference.

“It’s been a blessing,” he said. “It seems to be that we’re sending a lot more students off to college.”

While the organization’s scholarship committee favors disadvantaged Whitesboro residents, it has provided financial aid to students from throughout Cape May County. Graduating seniors can receive scholarships and continue to earn money throughout their time in school if they maintain certain grades, and adults can receive money to go back to school.

The group also organizes summer camps and yearly reunions, with this summer’s event around Labor Day to be the 25th annual. Winfrey made her original pledge at the group’s 20th anniversary event.

Cheryl Spaulding, program coordinator for the CCW, laughed and said she could not reveal whether the group is anticipating any star power this year.

The money from Winfrey’s gift also supports supplying snacks for students in the homework program, which Robert Matthews Jr., director of the Martin Luther King Center, said are often more like meals for the less fortunate children.

Some of the volunteers at the after-school program go on to be scholarship recipients themselves, which is what happened to Ray Jefferson Jr. He was a tutor at the after-school program before he graduated, and now his younger brother, T.J., is a participant.

“They’re helping you all through your education process,” he said. “They’re a great community group, and they do a lot of great stuff that helps the community all the time.”

As for Jefferson Jr.’s education, he is not yet sure what he will be doing with this meteorology degree. He said most people only see the weatherman on television, but there are several potential career paths.

So far, though, he is enjoying the journey toward his life-long goal.

“It’s difficult,” he said, “but it’s what I wanted to do, so I enjoy doing it.”

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