Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Blackjacks Go Bust in Atlantic City, Taking Dreams with Them

by Raquel Rothstein, Adaptive AC Correspondent

Football? In Atlantic City? At Boardwalk Hall? Brilliant. This was a typical reaction of local people when they heard about the new Arena Football League Blackjacks team coming to Atlantic City: FINALLY, something new and positive is coming to Atlantic City!

It all started with strong plans. Indoor arena football is something exciting and innovative to bring to any city, but especially Atlantic City. Arena football is rapid-paced with a titillating atmosphere to draw crowds in and keeps that crowd on their feet. Fans in the stands are just off the field with the players and any action that occurs is that much more fun as a result. Throw in running clocks, sexy dancers and booming music to make it a fun-filled time.

The uniforms for Atlantic City were bold red, black and gold, and the team was named as a result of a community competition. In a gambling town, the Blackjacks were fitting. Personnel were in order as well -- the head coach was Ron James, supported by offensive coordinator Shane Stafford. Sergio Gilliam was the defensive coordinator and Brandon Lang the director of player personnel.

The players hailed from around the country, with long and winding paths to the Arena League. Many of the players felt as if they made history by being the first to have a team like this in the city. The closest Arena League team is the Philadelphia Soul, over the bridge and an entire market away. Locals in the area got excited, hyped up really, and many were eager to attend the home opener game to see what this new thing was all about!

In the meantime, preparations continued at Boardwalk Hall. A dance team called the Diamonds was fielded to cheer on the team. Many dancers were from the local area, some from Northern New Jersey and Philadelphia. Momentum grew, and more and more people were benefiting from this team coming to town.

Tons of jobs were created at Boardwalk Hall when the Blackjack rolled into town. The cheerleaders, coaches, behind the scenes support staff, coordinators, concession stand managers, merchandise specialists and more all were bringing home pay checks. The team created partnerships that produced internships, opportunities, and jobs for many. The Blackjack Arena Football Club brought advantages and positive vibes, giving people a bright spot in the community.

In a city of bet big and bust such as AC, this was good news. It offered a live sports game to look forward to each week, a viable alternative to a show at the casino or a movie at the local mall -- the few sources of entertainment locally.

At the home opener against the Columbus Destroyers, the crowd was vibrating with excitement. The energy was so powerful and strong, the hype and happiness as the crowd gathered to watch this first game was palatable. Children were catching T-shirts, fans had already invested in Blackjacks apparel, and a sea of smiles and clapping could be heard as the new team was being introduced and coming onto the field.

Each action packed drive was bursting with emotion and so entertaining no eyes turned from the field.

James Whelan Boardwalk Hall Arena packed with Fans at the first Blackjacks Game.
The home opener was very successful, with a fully packed stadium, and the crowd could not wait for the next game to come. The launch of the Blackjacks went better than expected.

“I think our players were very much pumped for the game,” Atlantic City coach Ron James said. “Just because ….. the history of the building. We talked about it, (but) they didn’t realize just how historic the building was (At first), so it was great to see them react that way.” The football games brought the community together, and the fans were passionate.

Wide receiver LaMark Brown commented after the first home opener that “One of the things that you kind of worry about being a new team is fan attendance… Our fans showed up. They were into the game. They were in tune. They really came out to support us, so it’s a good feeling.”

All of the players and coaches were pleasantly surprised at the success of this first game. This gave a wave of positive energy, and was just what the players needed to hype them up for each game to follow.

Ventnor native Ryan Rothstein, the emcee of the Blackjack games, loved his job. The thrill of the stadium was exceptional. Part of Rothstein’s job was to go on the field and hype the crowd up and get them excited.

“As I walked onto the field, my adrenaline would sky rocket. My job is to get everyone pumped up for the game but with the natural excitement in the arena, it was made easy to do. When I would walk onto the field, the whole stadium was on their feet. All yelling and jumping up and down enjoying themselves. T-shirts and hot dogs were thrown out and dancing and everyone genuinely having a great time. I feel the Arena football league brought all positive to the community and the area of Atlantic City. This was something so new with so much potential, everyone could not help but be excited and wanting to attend these games throughout the summer,” said Rothstein.

He reported that the energy of the coaches and football players was amazing every game. “Regardless if the Blackjacks won or lost a game, the excitement level never changed,” he stated. “I loved this job because everyone was happy, there was no negative. I looked forward to each home game because it brought a positive atmosphere and joy around me.”
Ryan Rothstein preparing to throw T-shirts and Hot dogs to the Blackjacks fans

Kiante Northington of Louisville, Kentucky was a defensive back for the Atlantic City Blackjacks. 

“Joining the Arena team was a great opportunity and I immediately took it. Football is my passion, and I was looking forward to checking out the area and seeing what Atlantic City is all about. I graduated Eastern Kentucky University and then played for the Massachusetts Pirates of the Arena League. This new team was an exciting thing for me, I couldn’t wait to try something new especially knowing its new in the area as well.

Like a football thrown out of bounds, the energy and excitement of the newest AC sports team dropped to the ground with news that came in October. Not only was the Atlantic City Black Jack team folding, but the entire Arena Football League was done.

Unfortunately, the league faced a lawsuit filed by an insurance carrier that provided workers compensation coverage for the league between 2009 and 2012, leading to the Arena Football League closing. Suddenly, the high cost of doing business outweighed the energy of the sport.

“I had high hopes for passionate, excited fans and that’s exactly what there was. It made playing so much more fun and awesome. I also ended up really loving the city of Atlantic City. We constantly did charity work, fun events, and more. It was an overall great experience that I appreciated every minute of.”

Northington stated he will never forget the experience of the Blackjacks team and memories that were made. The team was always doing charity work at Chick-Fil-A, events at Hamilton Mall, and other appearances. All the team players were from all over the country which was very unique and interesting. Giveaways and ticket deal packages were sold to get more people to attend games.

Ron James, the head coach of the Atlantic City Blackjacks said “I played college football at Siena College. I have been coaching since 1986 and always had the biggest love and passion for the sport. My mindset going into this was nervous but determined. I was overwhelmed by the amount of support our team received from the start and up until the very last game. The team became a family very quickly with one another and we just worked. It all just worked. The experience for me was a blast and I enjoyed every minute of it.”

James loved coaching this team and said he was taken aback in a positive way of the amount of love and constant support the community poured out to him and the new team.

The end of the Blackjacks and Arena League Football was disappointing after the successful launch in Atlantic City. It left many shocked and surprised.

The average attendance for their home games was 5,430 fans, and the last two games included 6,685. The team finished with a 4-8 record, but definitely were celebrated by fans and the community. It is not clear where the players, coaches and support staff will head to next, but for one bright and shining season, the Blackjacks landed on black.
Atlantic City Blackjacks Team Photo 2019

Raquel Rothstein

Raquel Rothstein is a Ventnor resident who is also in her third year at Stockton University. Raquel is a founder of Sigma Delta Tau Delta Pi chapter at Stockton. She works as a concierge at Marriott Fairway Villas and in her free time loves spending time at the beach and hanging with friends and family.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Defining Recovery One Day at a Time

Matthew Bee skating boarding 2016.  

By Dani Starr, Adaptive AC Correspondent
The National Institute on Drug Abuse of Bethesda, Maryland reported in 2019: “There were nearly 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2019 in the United States to put that in a context that’s more than gun deaths. That’s more than car crashes. It’s more than HIV/AIDS during the peak of that epidemic. Another way of looking at it is it is more deaths in the United States from drug overdoses than there were United States casualties during the entire Vietnam War.”

A human achingly known to many in South Jersey was Matthew Bee. He illuminated every room he walked into and was truly the most unique person. Besides being handsome, Matt was beyond intelligent. Matt was hilarious, that kind of funny that makes one almost pee their pants and made you snort terrible sounds. Matt was beyond athletic and the kind of athletic as in not only good at every sport he played and started football varsity as a freshmen in high school, but he could also shred on a surfboard and skateboard effortlessly.

As if that wasn’t enough Matt was also very artistic and musically inclined, even his school journal doodles were remarkable and he could play the guitar as though he were born to it, as well as sing. The most important thing about Mathew Bee was that he was the most loving, kind-hearted soul and truly cared about everyone. Matt had a way about him that was like no other, so humble and carefree, it would have been amazing if only he could have seen himself through other people’s eyes.
Adaptive AC Correspondent Dani Starr and Matthew Bee 2014.

Matthew Bee on his 20th Birthday August 2016.

Tragically Matthew Bee passed away in September 2016, at the age of 21 -- because of the disease of addiction. His mother Lisa Bee started the Matt Bee Memorial Fund with the help of the Hanson Foundation. The Matthew Bee Memorial Fund and the Hansen Foundation partner in expediting treatment in a safe and healthy environment, for those who would not have the financial resources and someone to advocate for them.

The Matthew Bee Memorial Fund donations go one hundred percent to treating those who cannot afford treatment. “My choice to send patients to the Hansen facilities is based on the outstanding care and resources provided. I have the ability to share in the client’s treatment and be a part of their recovery plan through my close relationship to the Hansen family” says Lisa Bee.

Lisa Bee had a real need to start the Matthew Bee Memorial Fund and the passion to make it real.

“In 2016 I tragically lost my son Matthew sue to the disease of addiction. Matthew was an incredible human being. He was kind, intelligent, tremendously athletic and beautiful inside and out” said Lisa. “After his passing, it was my mission to stop the stigma of addiction and mental illness as well as help those who have the need of treatment” said Lisa.

Lisa faced her own difficulties but pushed through it and others were ready to help. “In truth, it was difficult for me mentally because of the heartache of losing my beloved son Matthew. As far as raising funds people were ready to.” said Lisa.

Lisa wanted people to remember Matthew in a positive way. “I think the community was ready to deal with a subject matter that was in one shape or form effecting us all” stated Lisa.

Matthew Bee Memorial Fund has been highly successful raising upwards of two hundred thousand dollars to help people go through detox, treatment, and sober living. “I have had the pleasure of seeing people’s lives change and for them to thrive and be happy,” said Lisa.

Anyone who cares about addiction and people with the disease can get involved. The best way to become active is through bringing awareness about the risks and dangers of drug abuse educate students by having speakers and informational materials, make it a conversation built around solving the epidemic rather than bringing shame and isolation.

Stockton University is one of the many schools that provide recovery housing. In New Jersey in 2017, it was actually mandated in all colleges that have one-third of its students living on campus. Michael Levin, one of the counselors at Stockton University, devotes his time and is very hands-on in the recovery housing and councils those who seek help.

“Not many people want to live in the recovery housing because it is not a very glamorous title,” said Michael. At Stockton University there is currently only about two or three students living in recovery housing, where they have their own RA, kitchen, etc. The most Stockton has ever had in recovery housing was five and they all graduated last year. Recovery housing has its own weekly meetings and events.

Michael also explains how there are “smart recovery” groups which are non-faith based meetings that are held twice a week. There are some students who are “recovery coaches” as well.

“There are a lot of other addictions besides drinking and drugs, gambling is a big one, porn, and the internet,” said Michael. “Students should be knowledgeable and know that there are resources to help them and not be afraid to ask for help!” Michael explained.

Lisa Bee and Michael Levin share a goal, even though they have never met -- to help the world understand that addiction is a disease, and it is a disease that can be addressed. Every day that a student or youth lives addiction free is a triumphant day.


Dani Starr is a Brigantine native who loves running and spending time on the beach. Dani is a Communication Studies major, on the Public Relations track and hopes to graduate in May 2020. She lives with her family, including her younger brother and sister. She is an Atlantic City High School alumnus.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Forging Community While Studying for the Citizenship Test

By Emily Montgomery, Adaptive AC Correspondent

Naturalization Ceremony held on Stockton’s main campus in Galloway, NJ, provided by Stockton University Flickr account.

Can you name two Cabinet-level positions of the United States government or what stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful? Do you know how many voting members are a part of the House of Representatives or the exact date the Declaration of Independence was adopted? What about the US Senators? Can you name any of them?

As of this past June, eighteen people who attended the naturalization class offered at Stockton knew the answers to not just these five questions, but 95 more as they all passed their civics exam. At the end of November, one more student, Mauro, passed the civics test. Mauro, who is represented by his first name only for this article, was the 19th person to pass the exam. Consequently, the passing rate for the class is 100%.

The atmosphere in the room is unique from any other classroom setting. Students can attend the class whenever they please up to the day they take their exam. Typically almost all of the students in the class show up diligently every week in pursuit of knowledge of the US. All of the students are eager to learn, determined to pass, and curious about their environment.

Mauro came to the naturalization class for the first time on November 19th. He had informed Dr. Merydawilda Colón, Professor of Social Work, Director of the Center for Community Engagement and lead teacher of the class, that he was scheduled to take his exam that week. Compared to the people who had been showing up to class for weeks/months and had ample time to prepare, Mauro was behind. Going to the class that night, however, was the best decision he could have made for himself and his future, according to Colón.

“His mom told me, had he not come to this class, he would not have passed,” says Colón.

In 2015, the Stockton Center for Community Engagement (SCCE) began offering the sessions for people in the community who are trying to become naturalized citizens. The course began a year after Colón became the center’s Director. At the time she started, there was only one program that SCCE offered to the community, and for Colón, that was not enough.

“When I began working here in 2001, I always wanted to teach naturalization. Many people have to do so many levels of approval to get permanent approval for US citizenship. When I became the Director, I said this is it, this is the time because now I’m able to facilitate the process for it. I knew about it and knew there was an importance for it in the community, so that’s how it came to be,” she said.

As a tactic to get every student engaged in the class, the students are expected to just shout out the answers to the questions. Rather than have the students raise their hands, all the students actively participate. This way, each one learns the answers and the correct pronunciation of the words. Also, they feel a sense of belonging as they participate in the class, which ultimately boosts the classroom’s energy and enhances the student’s ability to form relationships with one another.

Dr. Merydawilda Colón, Executive Director of Stockton Center for Community Engagement and Tenured Professor of Social Work, photo by Stockton University Flickr account.
 The class is set up in a way that gives each person taking the class a student Fellow to work with one-on-one. The SCCE Fellows are Stockton students who act as tutors and additional teachers.

The community members typically memorize 100 answers to 100 questions, including such things as Cabinet-level positions and how many voting members are a part of the House of Representatives. However, during the civics exam, they are only asked 10 of the 100 questions they prepare for. And while you may be able to answer questions about the US Senate and the rules of government, these students are expected to answer the questions in English, the language many of them are still getting comfortable with.

That’s where the Fellows come into play, like Mike Meros. The Fellows can pronounce every word so that the naturalization students can fully understand. The community members taking the class must learn how to actively and accurately understand English because the test is given to them orally.

“I want to make a difference in the lives of many and by playing a part in this class, I realized I could start making a difference right away,” says Meros.

The SCCE Fellows work hard, repeating every question and exaggerating the pronunciation of particularly difficult words to ensure that the naturalization students comprehend them. The Stockton students actively practice patience and are empathetic towards each of the community members’ needs.

“It’s tedious because you’re saying the same things every night, but to the members of the community, they want this content so badly. We feel a sense of pride that we can help them in this process,” said Colón.

Being a part of the class and working with the members of the community means more than just community service to the Stockton students. They genuinely care about each of the community members. While the student Fellows are impacting the lives of the community members, the community members are also impacting the lives of the Fellows simultaneously.

The people taking the naturalization class are not just taking the class to memorize a bunch of United States trivia, take the test, and be done. Rather, they are taking the class to fully understand the United State’s government, culture, and language and to set themselves up for a future that they have craved for a long time.

“I concentrate on people understanding, this is not simply about being documented. This class isn’t a path to be documented,” says Colón.

The challenges of the class are just the beginning for many of these community members, who crave citizenship so intensely. Before anyone can even consider the class, they have to have permanent residency with a green card for at least five years. In addition to going through the prolonged process of getting a green card, (this can take up to 3 years) permanent residents have to wait another five years before they can take the citizenship test. Colon reserves spots in the class for those who have everything to become a citizen, and only need to prepare for and take the test.

“We care deeply,” says Colón, “but we [the US] don’t always make things easy for people who want to become American citizens.”

The green card requirement sets back some people who are eager to not only learn a new language but who want to immerse themselves in a new culture. During the naturalization class recently, a woman, bright-eyed and smiling, who spoke Italian and very little English, passionately walked into the classroom. Sadly, she had to be turned away from the class because she only had her green card for less than a year. Unaware that she had to wait five years when she was told she could not stay, she immediately sank into despondency.

“I want to learn more, I don’t want to wait,” she said.

With similar goals in mind, all of the students taking the class form a deeply connected community amongst themselves. Since most of the students show up every week, spending time together and learning, they quickly become bonded. When one student passes, it’s as if the whole class passes. There is a sense of accomplishment among all of the students, even if they have not taken the test yet. For the students focused on becoming citizens, this provides hope, motivation, and something to show them that their hard work will eventually pay off.

“I love it,” says Colón. “They call me to tell me they have passed, and then they come by to celebrate. If there's one thing that you will always know as a student, it’s that you need to network. Everything is about relationships. I work hard to maintain relationships.”

Even the student SCCE Fellows have developed relationships with the community members.

“You could say I have developed a relationship with some of them. It’s more a teacher-student relationship, but also a friendly relationship as well. They’re great people to be around,” says Meros.

Anasky, (her last name has been withheld for safety), has had her green card for five years this March. She has been attending the class for about a month with her mom with the hope both will pass their civics test. Anasky came to the United States with her mom in 2015, following her father who came in 2008. They are motivated in their desire to complete their education and land dream jobs -- jobs they would not have the opportunity to get back in their country.

“The laws right now are really hard. I feel like if I want to go back to the place I was born, they’re not going to let me go. I want to study here. Back in my country, I was supposed to graduate high school in 2016 and I came here in 2015, so I had to do high school here, and now, I am in college. I wanted to come here [to Stockton], but they don’t have what I want [talking about wanting to be a pediatrician],” says Anasky.

Anasky’s mother, Norma, does not speak English as well as Anasky does. Language is one of the biggest reasons why becoming naturalized is so valuable to Norma. Norma explained that she aspires to go back to college, but she can not do that until she passes the civics exam. Norma tells her daughter, who translated the conversation, that she wants to become a kindergarten teacher and that if she can not do that, she would like to be a medical assistant.

“I want to integrate myself in the American community,” says Norma. “In my country, I practiced being a nurse, but I am not finished. I want to improve my English, so I can interact with patients.”

All of the opportunities that could potentially be available to the community members in the class start with the passing of the civics test and becoming citizens. This course and what it offers is indispensable.

The work that goes into implementing the class is more than just important, it’s crucial. Colón, the student Fellows, and other community partners that are part of SCCE, all work together to not just educate the community members -- they help to transform their lives. And community members never let it go unknown how thankful they are, either.

“I love when students pass, it’s my life, my everything. These individuals, they want this badly, it’s a gift every day that I get to do this. The community members are the experts, not us and it’s good to know we’re making such a big difference,” said Colón.

Naturalization ceremony held at Stockton University on May 7, 2019, provided by Stockton University Flickr account. 

Emily Montgomery

Emily Montgomery is currently a Communication Studies student at Stockton University, concentrating in General Media Studies and minoring in Spanish and Professional Writing. She is a Staff Writer for Stockton’s independent newspaper, The Argo, and she hopes to one day pursue a career in Broadcast Journalism. In her spare time, she likes to workout, take pictures, and explore the world around her.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Mentors Guide the Next Generation in Atlantic City

Videography by Kedar Dockery, AdaptiveAC Collaborator

By Marissa Luca, Student Collaborator
Jodi Burroughs’ footsteps echo in the empty halls as she walks to her office at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Complex in Atlantic City. The usually bustling school, decorated with multi-colored murals and photographs of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is quiet on a recent Thursday morning. It is spring break, a time for catching up on sleep or having fun.

For Burroughs, the principal of MLK, who serves students from preschool to eighth grade, this time “off” means acting as a liaison to the contractors renovating the floors of the Pre-K classrooms in the school, ensuring that it is ready for the children’s return.

Working on the weekends is not unusual for Burroughs, a resident of Atlantic City for most of her life. Growing up, she often volunteered alongside her sisters in the community, paying special attention to the needs of those around her, internalizing a desire to help, wherever and whenever possible, to the best of her ability.

For mentors like Burroughs, guiding the next generation toward success is less of a choice and more of a natural drive to give back to the community. For some, it’s these systems of mentorship that helped them grow. For others, it’s about connecting the youth in Atlantic City to personal development and career opportunities.

Burroughs saw a way to give back through teaching, and so, after graduating from Rowan University, she pursued a career in education, working as a teacher in the K-12 Atlantic City school system. Burroughs worked her way up from teacher to the district’s literacy coach to the vice principal of Texas Avenue School. Shortly after, she was appointed principal of MLK.

“I love my job,” Burroughs says. “I’m destined to be here. My hope is that I’m nurturing people’s gifts and that I’ll leave things better than when I got here.”

One of Burroughs’s priorities at MLK is introducing her students to new careers and aspirations outside of the classical curriculum. For instance, MLK has been working on creating makerspaces for students to design, experiment, build and invent in hands-on, creative ways as they engage in science and engineering. Recently, in a makerspace funded by a grant, the MLK students have assembled a prosthetic hand for a young woman with the assistance of a doctor and an engineer.

“It’s important for them to know their value and what they can do,” Burroughs says, “because unless you know you can, you won’t.”

Mentorship seems to run in Burroughs’ family.

Her son, Marvin Burroughs Jr., is constantly aware of the effect he has on the kids who participate in the Accelerated Reading program at Texas Avenue School where he teaches.

Burroughs Jr. also coaches basketball at Atlantic City High School, trying to give students the same sort of support he had.

“Growing up, I was lucky to be the kid that, out of all my friends, I had both parents,” Burroughs Jr. says. “My home was a haven and my parents raised me to give back.”

Unlike his mother, Burroughs Jr. wasn’t always so sure he would be an educator.

“This is honestly the last thing I thought I would be doing,” he says. “But I know there are institutionalized disadvantages kids in the city face. School is an institution, so why not change it from the inside out?”

Atlantic City is no stranger to disadvantages: The national portrait of the city, painted in broad strokes, is marred by economic troubles caused by tumultuous shifts in the gaming industry that gave and took in equal measure.

The 2008 recession hit the city hard and many lost their jobs as a result. Since then, the city has been working to bounce back.

More casinos have been developed in the area, and, in March, Atlantic City gaming revenue increased by 34.5% from 2018, according to data from the state Division of Gaming Enforcement released in a press release by the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General. Since the opening of Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort in June 2018, gaming revenue has steadily increased each month, with gains often being in the double digits. The legalization of sports betting has also benefited gaming revenue.

Despite the recent successes, the story of the city still seems to be one of constant challenges.

But it doesn’t have to be, according to Michael Everett, the founder of the local chapter of the Champions of Youth Program.

Everett, who worked at Atlantic City High School for years as an English teacher and then a guidance counselor, founded the Champions of Youth Program with a “holistic approach” in mind, which he defines as a signature approach. The mentors in the program examine the needs of each individual student, meet the champions where they are in life, and provide them with the resources they need.

“These kids have every kind of need you can think of and their goals are as diverse as they are,” says Everett. “Some are homeless, some are on the honor roll, some are the only breadwinners in their family, so when you come to them, you have to be genuine. You have to be an advocate. You earn that trust, and when you do, you get results.”

Those who have graduated from the program have achieved different levels of accomplishments ranging from being the first in their families to graduate from high school or attend college to owning their own homes.

Programs similar to Atlantic City’s Champions of Youth have found success across the nation as well. In 2013, three researchers conducted a study on the role of risk, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and distributed by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, also known as MDRC. The study’s results show that mentorship, both through official programs and unofficially by educators and community organizers, reduces symptoms of depression, increases social acceptance, and improves students’ academic attitudes and grades.

“If you give kids the tools to succeed, they will,” Everett says. “Former Champions have not only accomplished a great deal in their careers and academically, but they have taught me so much as well.”

Jamahl Williams, Atlantic City native.
Photo credit: Marissa Luca
For Jamahl Williams, an Atlantic City native and graduate of Champions of Youth, success looks like attending Stockton University and running his own videography business, FlicKing Media, part-time.

Williams joined the program in his junior year of high school, later than most of his peers. He emphasizes just how important it is for kids to have someone show them not only what they are capable of, but where they can go in life.

“Michael helped me apply for college and took me to different places, to see what it’s like outside the city,” he says, “and not a lot of kids know that life exists outside the city.”

Now Williams, like Burroughs, Burroughs Jr. and Everett, acts as a mentor to kids just like himself. Each Saturday, at Stockton’s Atlantic City Campus, College Bound, a mentorship program, allows local high school students to ask college students questions and build lasting connections. The program, which is a partnership between Stockton University and the state, also provides classes and field trips designed to prepare students for college.

“I know what it’s like to grow up in Atlantic City,” Williams says, “and kids don’t often know that they matter. So I try to show them that they do, and they should never give up. Helping them allows me to give back everything I was lucky enough to get.”

Williams’ sentiments are echoed by Pam Cross, who has been running Stockton University’s Writing Center for 32 years. As a professor who teaches each summer for the Educational Opportunity Fund program in Atlantic City, Cross often works with students who are at risk academically or are having trouble adjusting to college. She notes that they often lack confidence or have never been told that they can succeed.

“I try to impart to every student of mine that there is a future for them and that we have so much to learn from each other,” she says, “and that every bad day can be followed by a good day.”

Atlantic City is known for its bad days, but for the youth of the city, these mentors hope, good days are not only in reach but waiting for them.

“Yesterday is gone; we can’t change it,” Everett says. “But we can, and will, take one step forward.”

This story was produced as part of Stories of Atlantic City, a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. The project was produced in partnership with Free Press, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, ivoh (Images of Voices and Hope), Stockton University, Authentic City Partners and ThisIsAC co-founder Evan Sanchez, Grace & Glory Yoga and The Leadership Studio co-founder Alexandra Nunzi, Press of Atlantic City, Route 40, SJNtv and Breaking AC. Stories of Atlantic City is funded with a grant from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. To read other stories produced as part of the project, visit www.storiesofac.com.

Marissa Luca, Student Collaborator
To Contact Marissa Luca:

Twitter: @marissaluca98

Instagram: marissallena

Friday, May 17, 2019

After Decade, “Back Sov” Skatepark Wheels Hope into Atlantic City

"Back Sov" Skatepark. Photo Credit: Luke Miller

By Alexa Taylor, Student Collaborator

At three o’clock on a Thursday afternoon, Atlantic City’s Sovereign Avenue skatepark, affectionately nicknamed “Back Sov,” truly comes to life. Walking his dog around the park, Zach Katzen watches as dozens of children flood down the street after school dismissal, racing to the skate ramps with boards in hand.

Katzen, program director of the Atlantic City Arts Foundation and one of the prime movers behind Back Sov’s installation, visits its site overlooking the Atlantic City bay daily. Katzen is responsible for monitoring the park’s activity and keeping the grounds clean.

“I love the community, I always have,” says Katzen. “These kids like to skate, and deserve to have a place solidified for them.”

His two partners, Jason Forslund, 32, and Jason Klotz, 31, also serve as the park’s representatives. Together, the three embody the entity “Skate AC,” a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the community of Atlantic City through its public skatepark.

Forslund and Klotz, two Atlantic City locals and skate-enthusiasts, became advocates for the building of a park almost a decade ago. Katzen joined his friends on the project in 2017.

“I really felt like this place, with a proper skatepark, could be the East Coast’s Venice Beach, and it starts with something like a generational skatepark,” says Forslund, now a father of two.

“Back Sov is a promise to the kids of Atlantic City, and I hope that it’s the very first one of many.”

After reading an ad that encouraged Atlantic City residents to get involved with their community, Forslund began attending NJ Casino Reinvestment Development Authority (CRDA) meetings in 2010 to propose his ideas of building Atlantic City’s first public skatepark.

“I was often the youngest person there,” says Forslund. “One day I stood up, introduced myself and said, ‘I really love Atlantic City, and I would love to see a skatepark here.’”

“They were all kind of perplexed. At first, they kind of just blew me off, but I just kept coming.”

Klotz, who had moved from Atlantic City to California, returned back to the island in 2011 when he heard about the headway Forslund was making on the proposal.

“A park on the island was always my dream,” says Klotz, who had run out of spots to skateboard in Atlantic City by age sixteen, due to illegalities. “I heard Jason Forslund was stirring up the idea of a skatepark in AC and I wanted to get involved.”

Once the two got the plan for the park on a docket, the NJ CRDA voted their favor. But for every step made that seemed closer to having the skatepark built, there were twice as many hurdles standing in their way.

“I saw the obstacles my friends were facing while interacting with the government,” says Katzen. “The struggles have been showing that this park is something that is needed by the community, beating the preconceived notions that a lot of people have about skateboarding.”

Feeling discouraged, Forslund took a break from the project.

Klotz took over much of the responsibility, creating and funding the initial “Do-It-Yourself” park in 2014, and launching the GoFundMe campaign after the park was torn down by the city.

“We skated there a lot and would host events to donate boards, shirts, shoes, and wheels to local kids,” Klotz says. “One rainy night, the city’s public works team was ordered to tear the park down.”

However, Klotz decided to push forward. The GoFundMe page helped raise thousands of dollars for the rebuilding of the park, while also spreading awareness to the community about its building process.

“In 2017 the new mayor, Frank Gilliam, who is an advocate for recreation, let me know he would help us,” Klotz says. “He stood by his word.”

Meanwhile, Katzen, a partner to “48 Blocks AC” and the Atlantic City Arts Foundation, felt his connections within the community could also help drive the project over the finish line.

“I saw they were having a lot of trouble,” says Katzen. “I said, ‘Let me step in and try to help you.’”

Katzen decided to commit himself to the venture until the goal was achieved, joining the organization known today as “Skate AC.”

“All credit goes to the guys who did all the work leading up to it, starting the GoFundMe and getting the community’s support,” says Katzen. “I was just able to utilize my channels to get everybody together and show them that we’re all on the same page, that we’re all working towards the same goal to make the community better.”

Videography by Luke Miller, Student Collaborator

Once the true goal of the project was finally realized, community leaders in Atlantic City started coming together to support the completion of the park.

Katzen’s friend, lawyer Jacob Perskie, volunteered his time by writing a contract for the city to accept the skatepark as a donation. This allowed 5th Pocket Skateparks, a Pennsylvania-based corporation specializing in park design and construction, to come on board to generate the architectural plans for the park, which could be built after approval by officials.

Once the plans were approved, Atlantic City’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino not only donated to the project, but offered the 5th Pocket creators complimentary rooms for three weeks so they could have a place to stay while building the park.

City council members even stopped by the construction site to show their support.

“When we get to do projects like this, it pulls everybody together,” says Katzen. “There’s less of a divide between the city officials when you see the mayor come out here with Councilmen Fauntleroy and Cheng.”

“We were very lucky to have all the support of the community members,” Katzen says.

As the process was nearing its final stages, Skate AC felt their vision for the park would not be fully achieved without contributions from local artists.

Fortunately, through Katzen’s involvement with the Atlantic City Arts Foundation, five artists became quickly available to help, fully willing to lend their talents by painting murals all over the newly-restored park.

One of the Arts Foundation artists, Christian Correa, says each painter was simply encouraged to express him or herself through their work. One of his murals, called “Stay Not Normal,” was inspired by the creative process experienced by both skaters and artists.

“It kind of feels organic to the space,” says Correa. “I think it’s cool that this was a thought, and that this brings the arts and skate communities together.”

Katzen says the responses to the artwork have been so positive that the artists have come out in subsequent weeks to continue the murals. Eventually, they want to fill up the entire park with paint.

“While we were painting, people were here skating,” Katzen says. “They were asking, ‘Can we skate, is it dry yet?’… They’ve been waiting so many years to have this park that we didn’t want to make them wait any longer.”

So far, the impact of the park on the community has been far and wide. Before it was even finished, people were visiting Back Sov with their families and friends to see the progress that was made.

Every afternoon, when school is dismissed, 20-30 kids run out to the park with skateboards and scooters, and even basketballs.

“When you give them a place that’s for them, they will respect it,” says Katzen. “They appreciate all the efforts.”

Forslund says that the skatepark was not created only for local skaters, but for the entire community. He believes that these types of projects help bring Atlantic City back to its roots as a family-oriented area.

Jason Thomas, 25, of Egg Harbor Township, brings his three-year-old son, Tristan, to Back Sov as often as he can.

“It’s so awesome that I can bring my son there to learn how to skate, while being around the great people that go there,” Thomas says. “This is something that is special for kids… it gives them a safe place to be.”

The Skate AC team plans to expand this venture by giving to the community more safe, public spaces that promote values of creativity and athleticism.

“There is a lot of potential in the formula we used to do this,” says Klotz. “The struggles it took hopefully inspire people to know you can make amazing things happen with love and your imagination.”

“Down the line, the idea is that this inspires everyday people,” says Katzen.

“Having a park like this, having a place that’s their own - that’s something that they can remember and pass down.”

This story is part of Stories of Atlantic City, a collaborative reporting focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. The project was produced in partnership with Free Press, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, ivoh (Images of Voices and Hope), Stockton University, Authentic City Partners and ThisIsAC co-founder Evan Sanchez, Grace & Glory Yoga and The Leadership Studio co-founder Alexandra Nunzi, Press of Atlantic City, Route 40, SJNtv and Breaking AC. Stories of Atlantic City is funded with a grant from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. To read other stories produced as part of the project, visit www.storiesofac.com.

Alexa Taylor, Student Collaborator
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Alexa Bonsera-Taylor.

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Taking Atlantic City Jazz History into the Future Through Music Education

726 Indiana Avenue in Atlantic City, home of the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation.  
Photo credit: Shannon Joyce
By Shannon Joyce, Student Collaborator

“They don’t have a beach; we have a beach,” says Henrietta Shelton in a voice full of emotion as she speaks to an attentive audience at the Stockton University Atlantic City campus during a rainy April morning. “They don’t have the Atlantic Ocean; they don’t have a boardwalk. So what are we missing?” In this presentation specially prepared for Stockton’s African American Cultural Heritage event, Shelton questions why the Atlantic City jazz scene is not up to par with major cities, especially after its forgotten heyday.

Although jazz may be historically associated with New Orleans or Chicago, Atlantic City's jazz clubs had their pinnacle days of glory from the 30's to the 60's when legendary singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie came to perform before local clubs went dark. Now, a committed group of city music enthusiasts are working to revitalize the jazz scene. The music genre is seen as a valuable art form that represents black heritage, and an opportunity to bring Atlantic City forward by reaching into the past.

Shelton founded the Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation in 2000 to keep the legacy of a historical landmark in Atlantic City alive. Chicken Bone Beach, the once-segregated Missouri Avenue Beach, was nicknamed by locals. Black families brought fried chicken to eat by the ocean, then buried the bones in the sand. Shelton does not find the nickname derogatory; growing up, she witnessed the beach bring comradery among the black community. Similar unity happens through black culture and jazz, says Shelton. The foundation also hosts jazz concerts and summer camps for local youth hoping to revive the jazz scene in Atlantic City through music education.

“Jazz gives me the same vibes that Chicken Bone Beach gave us,” says Shelton.

Atlantic City’s Past Jazz Scene

The salty air of the ocean and the cawing of seagulls greeted Jane Stark on her first visit to Atlantic City in 1963, 15 years before the city’s first casino appeared.

The Atlantic Ocean was merely the first of this student’s sights during her weekend getaway. Stark, a white undergrad, was not a top-40 girl, nor did she care for rock’n’roll. Instead, she was a fan of jazz by black musicians. Her music guru friends were eager to introduce her to the jazz scene in the resort town.

Stark and her friends ventured over to the renowned Kentucky Avenue, the “black side” of the racial divide during a segregated Atlantic City.

With music on almost every street corner, the atmosphere in AC had a kinship to Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Men in their best suits and women wearing their favorite glam roamed the streets to their club of choice. Some stopped at the 500 Club for Frank Sinatra or Skinny D'Amato. Others visited the Wonder Gardens to see Dizzy Gillespie or Brother Jack McDuff.

Stark’s group of friends chose Club Harlem. When they arrived at “the place to be” on a Friday night, the line to get in was phenomenally long as fans waited to hear this weekend's shows. Numerous headliners regularly performed at the premier jazz club for black artists, including Louie Armstrong, Sammy Davis Jr., and Chris Columbo, who later became Stark’s friend.

In 1979, Stark moved to this resort and gambling center after being hired as entertainment publicist for Tropicana Atlantic City. In 1992, she publicly thanked Columbo at the Showboat after being honored as Business Woman of the Year by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce.

“If it hadn't been for Chris and his music, I never would have come to Atlantic City as a permanent resident,” she said.

Videography by Kedar Dockery, AdaptiveAC collaborator

Atlantic City’s Present Jazz Scene

“Once again ladies and gentleman, The Eddie Morgan Trio,” the emcee announces as Eddie Morgan, Daryl Robinson and Jeff Burnside take center stage at Kelsey’s on Pacific Avenue in 2014.

The calming sound of the keys and drums fill the air before Morgan’s trumpet erupts among the chattering crowd. On the right beat, vocals begin.

“Ain't no sunshine when she's gone … It's not warm when she's away,” Morgan sings into the microphone.

Morgan, an Atlantic City native, knows the ins and outs of the local jazz scene as he is a performer by night and music teacher by day. Launched in 1993, The Eddie Morgan Trio is a local band that performs renditions of jazz standards that old souls know by heart, and modern music in a jazzy way. Today, one of their prime venues is Kelsey’s, a club established in 2012 that serves soul food and features live jazz music.

Morgan wishes he could get more gigs, but it has become more and more difficult for local bands, especially jazz artists, to find work. He recalls that by the late 1970’s, Kentucky Avenue’s heyday was overlooked as the city’s casino era moved forward.

Morgan explains that there were once many opportunities for professional musicians in AC. In 1978 musicians were excited about the opening of Atlantic City’s first casino, Resorts International. Regulations required showrooms seating 350 or more to use live musicians. A few years later the law was lifted after casinos claimed it to be too costly; tapes were a more viable option. As more casinos opened, showrooms shifted their focus and less opportunities became available for local musicians to perform. This forever altered the music scene of Atlantic City, Morgan remembers.

Today, there is a lot of live music in a city that touts the “Do AC” slogan, as venues such as the Hard Rock, Golden Nugget, Tropicana, Borgata and Boardwalk Hall frequently draw in big names. However, Morgan notices that casinos tend to feature performers from major cities instead of locally-based groups like his Trio. For jazz musicians specifically, the scene is even more limited now that the pinnacle glory days of Kentucky Avenue are gone. Like Stark and Shelton, Morgan doesn’t want that history to be forgotten, and he loves to share his knowledge with younger generations.

Morgan teaches general music at Leeds Avenue Elementary School in Pleasantville, a suburban town outside of Atlantic City. In April, Jazz Appreciation Month, he takes the opportunity to talk to his class about the genre with roots from blues and ragtime.

“To see the music of their culture helps you gain an insight as to the way they feel ... the way they think,” he lectures, and adds how jazz originated in the early twentieth century from the black communities of New Orleans.

A study of children ages 8 to 11 found that those who had extra-curricular music classes developed higher verbal IQ and visual abilities compared to those with no musical training, cited by the National Association of Music Merchants. Morgan finds that students who study music learn to be more focused, resulting in greater academic success.

With most of the jazz scene in Atlantic City obsolete, and fewer opportunities for younger generations to learn about music, Morgan feels a wave of discouragement. Then hope comes along.

Atlantic City’s Future Jazz Scene

An abandoned, white shuttered row home aching with blight sits at 726 Indiana Ave., to the left of the Atlantic City Fire Station. The floor of its porch is bright red, screaming for someone to visit.

“They said ‘we’ll tell you when settlement is; you have the house,’” Shelton says during a tour of the property one recent afternoon. Chicken Bone Beach Historical Foundation was offered the house by Well Fargo Bank through its Community and Urban Stabilization Program in 2016, and didn’t have to pay a dime.

Shelton is transforming it into the Chicken Bone Beach Youth Institute for Jazz Studies, which will offer year-round music and art lessons to children in Atlantic City. The top floor is going to be a soundproof recording studio used to generate money to keep the school open. As the house remains gutted on the inside, Shelton fundraises and seeks donations and grants to make her dream project soar into the future.

“The babies made this,” she says about the Jazz Institute Coloring Book, created by students to raise money for the future studio. Two drawings of Gloria Lynne, a famous jazz singer, by students Maryam Bibi and Millie Kelly are in the middle of the book. Lynne and other jazz superstars performed at the Chicken Bone Beach Jazz on the Beach Series at the boardwalk amphitheater Kennedy Plaza in 2001.

“This is where the babies are going to do their gardening,” Shelton gestures at the backyard of the soon-to-be jazz house, where students will support a planned community vegetable garden. Eight garden boxes are lined up within a fence. Next door, jugs sit at the end of the fire station’s gutters to collect water for the garden.

“And my vision is having these babies play in the summertime,” Shelton says while gazing at the lackluster landscape around the block, which she hopes to transform into a community park.

“I want to carry recognition to Chicken Bone Beach, and talk about the unity and camaraderie that was on that beach,” she said. “And I can do it through jazz. Jazz artists improvise, and they create at that moment, beautiful music on stage. The song he plays today is not the song he plays tomorrow.”
Stories of Atlantic City is a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. The project was produced in partnership with Free Press, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, ivoh (Images of Voices and Hope), Stockton University, Authentic City Partners and ThisIsAC co-founder Evan Sanchez, Grace & Glory Yoga and The Leadership Studio co-founder Alexandra Nunzi, Press of Atlantic City, Route 40, SJNtv and Breaking AC.

Stories of Atlantic City is supported by Stockton University with funding from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
To read more about the project, visit www.storiesofac.com.

Shannon Joyce, Student Collaborator
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Shannon Joyce, Freelance Writer