BRIDGETON - The Nehemiah Project is looking for donations - but not money.
The project started two years ago and includes community leaders who have hosted rallies, meetings, support programs and seminars aimed at making life better for Cumberland County's residents.
The group's focus is now squarely on children. Project organizers are planning to start a mentorship program and are looking for people to give their time to school-aged children throughout the county.
With Gov. Chris Christie's budget announcement including significant cuts to school aid, project leaders fear programs will be cut from school budgets. If that's the case, then people need to be willing to step up and fill the void created by the lost programs, said Al Kelly, president of Tri-County Community Action Partnership.
"We need to develop many different relationships and go down many different avenues," Kelly said before a luncheon crowd Monday at Marino Banquet and Conference Center in Bridgeton.
Specifics about the program do not yet exist. At the meeting, Kelly asked the assembled community leaders, which included politicians, religious leaders and educators, among others, to start gathering information and spreading the work about the mentor program.
A workshop will be held at the Marino center at noon Monday to further map plans for the mentorship program.
Cumberland County Freeholder the Rev. James Dunkins took aim at Christie's budget, calling it abusive. While he said he supports the idea that changes need to be made, he said he felt Christie's budget demands too much, too soon.
School districts throughout the county face cuts in state aid of up to 5 percent, which means millions for Millville, Vineland and Bridgeton, as well as significant cuts to the county's smaller districts, too.
"This means programs throughout the county are going to be cut. Anything we can do to help the young people we have to do," he said. "We are going to need, based on budgetary shortfalls, people working in any capacity they can."
Part of the organizational process laid out Monday is meeting with officials from the various districts, as well as community leaders with access to children, to determine what is needed and help identify at-risk youth.
Kelly suggested a kind of fair where Nehemiah Project organizers can meet with a group of kids in an informal setting to discuss ideas. He also said it would be worthwhile to look at what mentorship programs throughout the country have done successfully and try to incorporate them here. Even something as simply as a lunch buddy program where an adult takes a child out to lunch can have a lasting impact on a child.
"The solution is already out there, it's just a matter of doing it," Kelly said.
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