Newark non-profits helping vets thrive

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on November 11, 2014

Veterans working at Bright Star.

 

NEWARK — A day after an online finance site ranked New Jersey’s largest city as the worst in the nation for veterans, nonprofit operators in Newark say they are living examples that the ranking was wrong.

The nonprofit GI Go Fund was founded in Newark in 2006, and works to help veterans in the city find employment, access housing, and secure educational and health benefits.

“The reason our organization serves veterans in the city of Newark is not because it is easy, but because it is hard, and we work tirelessly to raise awareness of the issues our former military members face everyday,” Executive Director Jack Fanous said in a statement from the city responding to the news about the Wallethub.com ranking.

“But what this study doesn’t mention is all the incredible things that are happening for veterans to improve their lives in the City of Newark.”

Fanous pointed to several pro-veteran initiatives the group has taken on with the city over the past few years, including a PSE&G job training program for disabled vets, Habitat for Humanity veteran housing built in Newark, the Newark Veterans Courthouse – which connects arrested vets with state and federal resources – and the 2012 class of Newark Fire Department recruits made up entirely of veterans.

Dorothy Nicholson, who chose the city to launch her nonprofit, Bright Star, in 2008, said she was “surprised” to hear of Newark’s placement in the ranking.

“That’s never been my perception of Newark,” she said. “I love Newark, personally, because it’s been rejuvenated. There are lots of opportunities here, and they are easy for people to get to.”

Bright Star operates as a high-tech consultation company that provides cloud-based technologies to government clients. Ninety percent of its 20-person workforce is made up of veterans, and it works with the VA office and Lyons Campus VA Hospital to identify vets in the community looking for jobs.

Bright Star offers job sharing and mentoring programs to returning soldiers in an effort to successfully reintegrate them into the workforce, and then hires them into what Nicholson calls a “supportive, family-like work environment.”

“We have found that these men and women are struggling with a number of issues after service including homelessness, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcohol/drug addiction, or are still on active duty…Bright Star offers them a reassuring and flexible environment so they can more easily find their strengths, grow and achieve personal success,” Nicholson said.

Plus, she said the skillsets veterans acquire in the military are a good fit for a tech company.

“A lot of times, veterans come back so they can push brooms or clean toilets…that’s not acceptable,” she said. “They are masters of logistics and process-centric organizations…they just need a supportive environment.”

Kianna Lane, a Newark resident and veteran of the Air Force who served five years of active duty and six years in the reserves, said she found that environment when she came to work for Bright Star two-and-a-half years ago.

“I did a lot of record management in the Air Force, so this was a really good fit,” she said.

Lane said she, too, was surprised to hear about Newark’s ranking on the Wallethub list.

“There are definitely resources here. There are tons of jobs available to veterans, thre’s a job fair every other month. The VA Office will definitely help you, I just don’t think people know where they should go for help.”

But, Wallethub says its ranking is not based on individual examples of veteran organizations, but on the overall environment in the city for returning servicemen and women.

“We have heard from a few communities (on the list) where (individual nonprofit) organizations have been really helpful for veterans,” Wallethub spokeswoman Jill Gonzalez said in an interview this morning.

“Unfortunately there isn’t really quantifiable data readily available to reflect that.”

Gonzalez said Wallethub is hoping to include data on private companies in its 2015 veteran-friendly city countdown. But, she also said that some of the factors they did consider in Newark were hard to ignore.

“According to 2013 Census data, 17.22 percent of veterans in Newark are living below the poverty line. That number, in particular, really put Newark toward the bottom of the list.”

She also pointed to the city’s reported high crime rate, low housing affordability, and comparatively small veteran population as factors that affected Newark’s rank.

“There are things that could definitely improve,” she said.

When asked to respond to the ranking, a city spokesperson did not, but pointed to Fanous’s comments on the list.

“I believe we would be hard-pressed to find another city in the Country doing as much for veterans as the City of Newark,” Fanous said.

“It is terrible to kick someone while they are down, but it is even worse to kick them while they are getting up.”

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