ELIZABETH – Christine Carter had no chance in life. The daughter of a teenage mother addicted to drugs and working as a prostitute and a father convicted of murder, Carter was used as a drug mule and often left alone at age five with her infant brother. Later, after their deaths, she was beaten, sexually assaulted and left for dead. At age 13 she was working two jobs while caring for her brother and bathing in her high school bathroom.
“I was destined to fail,” she said. “The tide changed for me when someone had the audacity to serve.”
More than 190 human services professionals with the audacity to serve heard Carter tell her story at the first annual Union County Youth Services Networking Conference, hosted by The Union County Youth Steering Committee chaired by Sidney Blanchard, Executive Director of Community Access Unlimited (CAU) Oct. 29 at Kean University. Now the founder and CEO of the Against All Odds Foundation, a nonprofit agency providing educational and social service programs to at-risk children and underserved families, Carter said she was saved by a high school teacher.
“If ever there was a doubt in your mind about your purpose and the impact on the lives of at-risk families and children, I am your walking, breathing testament that what you do counts, more than you’ll ever know,” she said.
“I salute you for your passion, your commitment and your guts,” she added. “I am here because you had the audacity to serve.”
The intent of the conference was to enable those who work on a daily basis with adolescents and youth to reach out to each other and embrace what agencies in Union County has to offer, according to Tanya Johnson, senior assistant executive director of Youth Services at CAU.
CAU provides support programs and services to people with disabilities and youth served under the Department of Children and Families, juvenile justice system and homeless youth to enable them to live independently in the community, in areas including housing, vocational and life-skills training, education, advocacy and recreation.
“The goal was to allow those who serve youth to make new connections, to bring a community together and identify the resources we have as well as the gaps in services so we can put together a plan for serving the youth of Union County,” Johnson said.
Judge Robert Kirsch of the Union County Family Court has seen many young people fall through those gaps but many more be rescued by the human services professionals serving them, he said.
“Quietly, silently, each of you is indispensable in saving a life or lives,” Kirsch said. “I see a lot of despair and helplessness, which at times can be depressing, but there are a lot of successes that you in the trenches get to see.”
Jessica Trombetta, director of the Office of Adolescent Services within the Department of Children and Family Services, spoke of the programs and services offered by her office to the more than 130,000 youth in Union County under the age of 18.
“There’s never going to be enough money for all the services we need,” she said. “But relationships are free, connections are free…As our youth transition into adulthood, if they don’t have sustainable connections, all the skills we teach them will be for naught.”
CAU establishes connections with youth who are transitioning out of the child services system, as well as those still within the system enrolled in CAU programs and those who find temporary respite at the Union County Youth Shelter, which the agency operates for the county, according to Johnson.
“We focus on building relationships with our youth members, identifying both their needs and interests and creating customized plans to empower them to succeed,” Johnson said.
CAU was the natural choice to host the conference, according to Union County Freeholder Bette Jane Kowalski.
“An effort like this, I would expect CAU to be right up front,” she said. “I know a lot of you who went into public service thought, ‘After a while things are supposed to get easier.’ But that hasn’t happened. But good things can be done and we’ll move forward together.”
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