School ties Fixing up the neighborhood

Camden Street School Principal Sam Garrison, with help from Marketsmith's Monica Smith and others, is changing an entire community

Tom Bergeron//April 13, 2015//

School ties Fixing up the neighborhood

Camden Street School Principal Sam Garrison, with help from Marketsmith's Monica Smith and others, is changing an entire community

Tom Bergeron//April 13, 2015//

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Sam Garrison wasn’t looking for a savior for his school. He wasn’t looking for a business owner he could make his pitch to. Nor was he looking for someone from outside the neighborhood who would give their time and money.

He just wanted to watch his daughter play soccer.

He just wanted to spend time with his family.

But as the kindergarten girls kicked the ball back and forth and their parents yelled out their appreciation of teamwork and fun, Garrison’s wife, Laura, struck up a conversation with another parent on the sidelines — explaining her husband’s vision for how to transform the failing Camden Street Elementary School in Newark.

She didn’t know the woman was the owner of a million-dollar company. Or that she was there because she was in the process of adopting foster children from the area.

They quickly found common ground regarding the benefits of family. And soon after, Sam Garrison started a partnership with Monica C. Smith of Marketsmith Inc. that has benefited his school beyond his wildest dreams.

“I told her about a book I read called Fantastic Families,” Sam Garrison said, referring to a book on a landmark study that proved a successful family circle is the biggest key to a successful journey through school and life.

The book detailed what successful families around the world have:

Commitment to family

Showing appreciation

Positive communication

Quality time

Overcoming challenges and crises together

Having a sense of higher purpose

Garrison was hooked.

“The philosophy led me to say, ‘What am I doing for families?’ ” he said. “So the strategic plan I have in place now centers around building families and making them the building block of the community. I have made those things the pillar of my school, because to transform a school, you also have to transform a community.”

Garrison explained this vision to Smith. And she was hooked.

“She was so moved by it and our chance encounter that the next day she raised $3,600 for the cause,” Garrison said. “She read the book and became a believer of the book and that’s how our partnership began. Today, three years later we’ve seen the transformation starting to take root and focusing on families, focusing on quality time.”

The partnership is about more than just money — though Marketsmith has raised and donated thousands of dollars for the school.

Marketsmith began its partnership by sponsoring a Thanksgiving dinner for the community, one that served more than 1,000 people last year.

But that’s just the start.

There have been coat drives and book collections, mentoring programs and school supply giveaways, computer monitors and raffle items.

Smith calls it being a corporate citizen — and she’s not shy about asking other New Jersey business leaders to do the same.

“Camden Street came out of our belief that if every successful company or school could adopt a school in New Jersey, specifically, we would all be better off,” she said.

“The idea is that we would help bring dinner home, creating a family environment. But as we get to know this world a little closer, we learned just getting them to school is a big deal. What started off as a Thanksgiving meal has turned into a 12-month-a-year affair.”

Garrison calls it being a good neighbor — which is what he is preaching to the more than 700 kids in pre-K through the eighth grade. And, more importantly, their families.

“Monica has come to embody what it means to be a neighbor,” he said. “It used to be a neighbor was someone you thought of who lived next to you; she’s come to symbolize that being a neighbor is what lives in your heart for somebody else.

“Even though Newark is an hour out from Chester (where Smith lives) and the demographics could not be more different, she has made it a point to be a neighbor to a city that is an hour away from where she is and where the demographics do not reflect who she is. The commonality is the responsibility we have to the human race and to each other.”

With Smith on board, Garrison has been able to implement more of his programs to transform the school.

He introduced literacy lunches on Saturday, opening the school simply to give families a chance to read together.

“We called it food for the mind and food for the stomach,” he said. “We would open the school, we have a lot of donated books. And we needed the time for families to read together.”

That transformed into Saturday school, where teachers come in and give an additional day of instruction. Up to 10 percent of the school takes advantage every weekend.

Marketsmith is on board.

“I believe those of us who have found success owe it to this world to make it a better place,” Smith said. “This is my mission; to end hunger for the children in our state and to ensure that the obstacles to learning are removed. Every child deserves to be fed, safe and educated. It is that simple.”

Others share her beliefs.

Garrison started his Adopt a School program with the idea that any volunteer is welcome at any time.

“Just give us an hour of your time, is all I ask,” he said. “But people always come back and give more.”

Companies, too.

The Devils bought students to the Prudential Center for a skate with the players. Costco sends associates to tutor.

And then there are the schools.

The New Jersey Institute of Technology had its basketball team run a “Dads and Lads” event.

Randolph High School students come and help put on plays.

Three years into his run as principal, Garrsion — a 10-year veteran of the Newark school system — sees change taking place.

But it’s not just in the school, it’s in the community.

Family is everything.

“That sense of family, that sense of security means everything,” he said. “Kids do better on standard tests, they sleep better — everything is better.”

Everything is better at Camden Street School.

Garrison’s vision is coming to be — thanks to so many others in the community, starting with Marketsmith.

“Our sense of family is the heart behind the school,” Garrison said. “Monica Smith and Marketsmith have adopted us, but more so, they’ve internalized and share that belief and been instrumental in helping us build better families and build a better community.”

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The roll call of companies helping Camden Street Elementary

A number of companies and schools are helping transform Camden Street Elementary School in Newark, according to Principal Sam Garrison. A quick look:

Costco: Their employees come and tutor our kids. “They are always eager to do more,” Garrison said.

Marketsmith: Sponsor an annual Thanksgiving dinner that fed more than 1,000 in 2014 (among other generous efforts).

New Jersey Devils: “They recently hosted a private party for our school,” Garrison said. “The kids got to go to the Prudential Center, they got to skate on the ice, they met the players, they got prizes. It was incredible. They had close to 200 employees buddy up and mentor our kids, got close to them and showed them the time of their lives. The kids left saying, ‘I felt famous,’ and that was perfect because it was like going to the store and buying motivation.”

NJIT and Rutgers Newark: Both local colleges send kids to tutors. NJIT recently sent its men’s basketball team to run a Dads and Lads basketball game. “Just another way for fathers to connect with their sons,” Garrison said.

Randolph High School: Have their students put on a play together. “To say it was life-changing, would be an understatement,” Garrison said. “The kids were crying — the kids from both schools. And we’re currently putting on a second play. So a school from the inner city partners with a school from suburbia and they obliterate racial barriers and eradicate stereotypes.”

About this special report

Rebuilding New Jersey’s urban core has been a priority of so many for so long. And while the goal has long been to bring companies back to the cities (see the various Economic Development Authority incentives),

this report looks at how some companies are giving their time, knowledge (and money) to help rebuild urban areas through better educational opportunities at the grade school, high school and college level.