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

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

Alexa Taylor, Student Collaborator
To Contact Alexa Taylor:




Alexa Bonsera-Taylor.

To Contact Luke Miller:
Instagram: lukemillerfilm

Personal: lukemillz18

Twitter: @lukemillz10

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

Shannon Joyce, Student Collaborator
To Contact Shannon Joyce:




Shannon Joyce, Freelance Writer


Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Overcoming Mental Health Stigma with Holistic Healing in Atlantic City

Deon Davis, AC native.
Photo credit: Ray Nunzi
By Katelyn Woolford, Student Collaborator

May 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of Mental Health Awareness Month, a national event for fighting stigma, providing support, educating the public and advocating for policies

that help people with mental illness and their families. Over the years, community leaders in Atlantic City have been working towards responding to mental illness. In February 2019, Indra Owens, counselor and the co-founder of Princess Inc., a city nonprofit that fosters mentoring, education, empowerment and community service, partnered with the Leadership Studio to create a yoga therapy program to assist community members coping with trauma.

Seeking mental health treatment can be a daunting task that many feel as though they cannot handle, according to Philadelphia psychiatrists Delane Casiano and Karriem Salaam, co-authors of the book, “Mind Matters: A Resource Guide to Psychiatry for Black Communities.” There are a lot of options to explore, such as traditional methods like medication, therapy, or more holistic methods such as meditation, yoga, and other forms of exercise.

There are many reasons why people of color may not seek mental health treatment, according to Casiano and Salaam. Treatment may not be accessible, there might be language barriers and stigma plays a major role. People could have a hard time finding someone in the mental health care system that looks like them or comes from their community, which creates a cultural boundary between patient and professional.

Mental Health in the U.S.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about one in five Americans live with a mental illness (46.6 million in 2017). Stigma around treatment has greatly harmed those who need treatment the most. Representation of mental health and those who have an illness can prevent people from getting treatment. Friends’ and family members’ opinions can be a major factor in seeking services also.

The Community Leaders in Atlantic City

Owens earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Temple University, then completed her master’s degree in school counseling. She started a therapy program called “Journey to Inner Peace: Mindfulness to Transcend Trauma” at the Leadership Studio on South Tennessee Avenue. Having a program in the city is important because “people here rarely go offshore except to go to the Hamilton Mall,” said Owens, who saw a need for local healing.

The program first ran on Wednesday nights, from February to April, offering a place in AC to practice yoga for residents new to this mindful exercise. The sessions revolved around some light yoga practices led by mindfulness teacher Andrea Nelson, incorporating coping mechanisms and ways to become stronger in order to improve mental health. Diverse members of the AC community attended the first run of the program, demonstrating a thirst for non-invasive, alternative mental health wellness strategies.

According to Georgetown Law’s report on how “Yoga Helps At-Risk Girls Cope with Trauma,” yoga changes how someone’s body is impacted by the harmful effects of trauma.

Creating an unconventional and new approach to mental health treatment may increase the amount of people willing to try it. This may lead to further, more official and formal treatment, or an awareness of the potential, since many continue to neglect their own health. Owens stated that being in an environment that is filled with uneasiness, rather than acceptance, can make someone not feel comfortable enough to open up.

Owens is hopeful that Atlantic City residents who deal with a multitude of different traumas will connect to someone who has experience living in the city. As Alexandra Nunzi, founder and CEO of the Leadership Studio said, “It does take someone of the community to say ‘Listen, I’m worth this, and you’re certainly worth this.’”

Owens has now established a sense of trust with people of the community. Pairing with the Leadership Studio’s holistic approach created a strong balance for helping residents.

A Student’s Perspective

Deon Davis, a Communication Studies major and Student Trustee at Stockton University, was born and raised in Atlantic City. He participated in the Champions of Youth program at the Leadership Studio, which helps local youth experience the world through mentorship and travel. In his 22 years, he has seen casinos open, close, and become vibrant again. It was troubling to watch the fallout of businesses closing, since it can take away tourist revenue and impact the residents' everyday lives.

Being in college is stressful, and many students neglect their mental health, only focusing on their physical wellness. Davis shared, “I realized in my time at college that there’s a lot of factors playing into your ability to keep up with everything. It’s something that we don’t take inventory of. People work out regularly, or have a certain diet that they follow. But they neglect the mental part of their overall well being.” Outside of a college setting, many people still do not take care of the mental part of their health, said Davis.

Davis also believes formal and informal care fit well with each other, and should be brought together to create a happy medium for successful treatment. “Informal care is what a lot of people where I’m from do because they don’t think they are entitled to it [formal care], or it’s not for them because of stigmas that are put in place.”

What’s Next?

Owens and the Leadership Studio are restarting their program this summer. Since so many community members attended the first sessions of the program, it demonstrated that a judgement-free space as a therapy option is needed. Talking is the first step to healing, and the success of this program brings hope to the community.

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

Katelyn Woolford, Student Collaborator