When the annual corporate funding for the New Jersey chapter of the Jobs for America’s Graduates program started to wane because of COVID-19, Withum CEO and Managing Partner Bill Hagaman stepped up — reaching out to his colleagues with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and imploring them to find funding for the program.
Hagaman’s efforts helped raise more than $100,000 in new support for the program, led him to be honored with a national leadership award and earned him praise from some of his peers in the business world.
Hagaman’s efforts may have done something even more important in the process: Brought awareness to the JAG program — and its mission of helping at-risk students in some of the state’s most challenging situations.
That was the takeaway of Donna Custard, the president of New Jersey Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the organization that manages the JAG NJ chapter — and the only one of the 39 JAG state chapters across the country that is 100% funded by private contributions.
“Bill helped us to maintain the number of programs that we had during the last academic year, which is a great position to be in, given all of the financial challenges that we faced this year,” Custard said.
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Those challenges, Custard said, are nothing compared with the obstacles faced by the students JAG helps.
“The purpose of the program is to work with opportunity youth, which you would know as at-risk youth, but we try to use more positive language,” she said. “It looks different in every state. In New Jersey, we focus on youth in places such as Newark, New Brunswick, Carteret, Camden, Vineland and Little Egg Harbor.
“The purpose of the program is to provide the JAG curriculum as a course while they’re in school. We focus on employer engagement, project-based learning and trauma-informed instruction. Our students typically have multiple barriers that prevent them from graduating high school on time. So, we work to remove those barriers, support the students and provide them with training that will help them after they graduate.”
Graduating is important, but it does not mean the end of the support, Custard said.
“Once they do graduate, we follow them for an additional 12 months to ensure that they’re on a positive trajectory,” she said. “And that means that they are either attending post-secondary education, they’re going to enlist into military service, or they’re getting a job, or a combination of work and school.”
Custard said bringing awareness to the program is key.
When the state chamber announced initiatives with the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, Hagaman — who is on the state chamber’s executive committee and on the board of the foundation — said it was the perfect time to let members know of this initiative. State chamber members quickly stepped up.
The effort earned Hagaman the National Network Leadership Award from the national JAG program.
Tom Bracken, the CEO of the state chamber, applauded Hagaman for his efforts.
“The award recognizes Bill’s outstanding support for the JAG program, which helps young adults of great promise — most of them dealing with barriers such as low income — succeed in high school and prepare for a career, military service or post-secondary education,” Bracken said. “Bill is the only person in the country to receive the Leadership Award.”
Hagaman humbly downplayed his efforts.
“The pandemic created a challenging environment for not-for-profits and their fundraising efforts, and that certainly included Jobs for America’s Graduates,” he said. “As a member of the N.J. Chamber executive committee, I challenged my fellow committee members to contribute what they can, and, to everyone’s pleasant surprise, we accomplished something special, raising over $100,000 to support JAG’s mission.
“This award is a reflection of that collective effort, for sure.”
Custard said she hopes the recognition will led to other companies stepping up to support the JAG program, which she hopes to be able to introduce in more municipalities across the state.
“This is ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ — there’s no better example,” she said. “We have students who have so many significant barriers to graduation. Eighty-nine percent of the students that we work are low income. Many have barriers involving parenting or are in foster care. Some have gang affiliations.”
They all deserve a chance, Custard said.
“It’s not that these kids are not intelligent or are unworthy of the support,” she said. “In many cases, they don’t have support at home. So, what happens is, they get pushed to the wayside and they fall through the cracks.
“If we do nothing to support these kids and they don’t graduate from high school, what kind of job are they going to get? What kind of future do they have? This is a transformative program that literally turns lives around for students. We have students who weren’t going to graduate who are now either holding down a steady job, are serving in the military or are in college, and they’ve got brighter futures.”