Senate President Stephen Sweeney
Deputy Speaker John Burzichelli
Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro

Courier Post – CAMDEN – “They say it takes a village to raise a child,” said Lawnside resident Sean Benton. “Well, it also takes a village to change a man.”

A good chunk of that village was assembled at YouthBuild of Camden County Thursday morning as U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez took a tour and sat in on a roundtable discussion at the jobs training facility for at-risk youth.

Perez was flanked by two South Jersey politicians with strong ties to the building trades and organized labor —state Sen. President Stephen M. Sweeney and U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross — as well as business leaders and city and state officials ranging from Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson to city schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, representatives from Mayor Dana Redd’s office and city council to state Labor Commissioner Harold Wirths.

Joe Balzano of Camden Iron and Metal, as well as Kris Singh, president of Holtec, which is building a new facility in South Camden, talked about the need for trained, work-ready job candidates.

Benton, a YouthBuild alum who’s now a full-time student at Camden County College, told officials he grew up in the city, attended Camden Catholic High School and had a good job with the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

But when he was laid off, he was left feeling expendable, he said. “I am here speaking for the have-nots,” Benton said, as he talked about YouthBuild, a national program to put 16- to 24-year-olds through job training and life skills classes, all while building homes for the homeless.

YouthBuild, Benton told them, changed his outlook and gave him the skills he needed to go to college, and he hopes, on to a better future. “YouthBuild got the job done,” he said.

“The greatest social program is a job,” Sweeney said at the roundtable, discussing how he and Norcross, a union ironworker and electrician respectively, knew firsthand how trades can provide well-paying, middle class, sustainable jobs.

“You can be an ironworker for 40 years, you can be an electrician for 40 years,” the Gloucester County Democrat added.

“I am one of four boys who grew up in Pennsauken,” Norcross said. “All of my brothers went to college, but that wasn’t really my focus. I liked to work with my hands.

“Not everybody wants or needs to go to college,” the Camden Democrat said. “And an alternative path that can be just as rewarding, especially if you’re not carrying a quarter-million dollars in debt, is through the trades.”

Perez spoke with students in classrooms as they learned financial literacy, building trades, general construction and more. One, Bart Williams, told Perez his hopes of attending Morgan State University in Baltimore to major in instrumental music and education.

Later, the 17-year-old city resident asked Perez and others at the roundtable about expanding opportunities for students like him, from helping them pay for college to how he could help others follow a path to the same education he got at YouthBuild.

Perez, Sweeney and Norcross watched as students in Emerson Hill’s general construction class practiced installing vents, light fixtures, a vanity and a toilet. Hill, who’s taught at YouthBuild for three years, praised his students, Kadeem Turner, Vanessa Still and Troy Mathes.

Mathes spoke afterward about his hopes of someday studying cosmetology and ultimately owning a barbershop.

“I was a dropout; I needed to come here to make my future what I want it to be,” the 24-year-old said.

Still said what struck her most about YouthBuild was its students’ determination to succeed, something she said she shared.

“This school has inspired me to graduate and get my college degree,” she said. The 22-year-old said she hopes to become a nurse.

District Offices

Gloucester County

Kingsway Commons
935 Kings Highway, Suite 400
West Deptford, NJ 08086
Phone: (856) 251-9801
Fax: (856) 251-9752

Salem/Cumberland Counties

The Finlaw Building
199 East Broadway, Suite G
Salem, NJ 08079
Phone: (856) 339-0808 or
             (856) 455-1011
Fax: (856) 339-9626