If the walk across the Elks Lodge stage Wednesday seemed to take a little longer, it was because the path to get there was longer still.
If the hugs seemed a little warmer and the applause a little crisper, it was to celebrate making up for lost time.
For 42 graduates of NewBridge 70001, an alternative education program run by the Pequannock-based social-service non-profit organization, Wednesday was the night that all the hard work to overcome scholastic and personal troubles paid off.
NewBridge 70001 Jobs Plus is 27 years old and serves students in Warren, Sussex and Morris counties. The students are between 16 and 21, and have dropped out of school. NewBridge 70001 includes a GED program and career preparation, skill-building and job placement. The staff provides motivation and support.
Educational coordinator Jason LaPaglia said 90 percent of this year’s class passed the GED exam the first try, and all class members passed on their second try.
This year graduates came from Butler, Boonton, Dover, Lake Hopatcong, Mine Hill, Morristown, Mount Olive, Parsippany, Rockaway, Roxbury, Stanhope and other towns.
For Elvis Reyes, 17, of Paterson, who attended Dover High School, the seven months in the program turned him from someone who “was lost in high school” into a person with plans to get qualified to work in a hospital.
Reyes said he will be attending County College of Morris in the fall working toward a degree in radiography.
"It’ll get [me] a job," he said. "I’ll go back to Paterson and work at St. Joseph’s Hospital, and if I can’t get a job there, I’ll be able to work at any hospital. This is a big, huge step.”
Without the program, he said, the problems he had in life and school could have stopped him.
On the side, Reyes said he is a musician, and at the ceremony performed a rap song. He said he was grateful to the staff for giving him the chance and letting him perform his music.
Haley Hathaway, 17, of Stanhope was a heroin addict before she went into a recovery program. On June 15, she will have been clean for a year, she said.
She left Lenape Valley High School after “kind of” getting kicked out, she said. She ended up in a recovery program and decided NewBridge 70001 was the place for her to start again.
“The place changed me,” she said.
She’ll be heading to County College of Morris in the fall with the goal of getting into possibly Rutgers University to earn a degree in recovery health. She wants to work with people in recovery programs.
Keynote speaker Edward Wilson, social worker at the Cicely Tyson School for the Performing and Fine Arts in East Orange, was a former education coordinator at NewBridge.
His message was simple: “Keep moving forward.”
He said when he was growing up, he was told that life was going to be hard. But, he said, for people his age growing up, “an issue was an issue, and a student was a student.”
Students today deal with the same things, he said, but the levels are intensified.
The key, he said, is to answer the question, “What are you afraid of?”
He said, “you’re going to fail, but if you fall on your back, then get back up.”
He said he had a saying on the wall of his office, which says in part, “It is the lights, not the darkness, that frighten us.”
Graduate Megan Kleinschmidt summed up the attitude expressed in the cheers of her classmates: “I can and I will be okay.”
NewBridge 70001 is supported by the Workforce Investment Board of Morris/Sussex/Warren counties, the Morris County freeholders, the United Way of Northern New Jersey, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp., Verizon, the NewBridge Fund and community members.