Sharon Singleton, Bonnie Brae, Liberty Corner, New Jersey
Sharon Singleton and staff at Bonnie Brae are creating opportunities for success in all aspects of life for their young residents. Bonnie Brae, a nationally accredited Residential Treatment Center located in northern New Jersey, provides a home, treatment and education to boys and young men in crisis ages 8 to 21. Bonnie Brae staff consists of specialized and highly trained clinicians, educators and residential staff who give individualized care and education to the residents who live at their facility. A majority of Bonnie Brae’s residents have suffered abuse, neglect or abandonment and require treatment in order to become equipped to pursue successful futures. Part of their vision is to “empower youth and their families to achieve small victories every day through comprehensive care and education.” However, it is apparent that Bonnie Brae is helping these young men achieve far greater life changing victories.
As the Structured Learning Experience Coordinator, Singleton says that an integral part of her job is preparing her students for transition and discharge, including life skills such as teamwork, self-advocacy, building interpersonal relationships. “Many of these boys have endured abuse a typical person only hears of or sees on television. They are survivors. With so much to overcome, treatment is at the forefront. When they leave us to return home, they are prepared with the tools to cope with stresses and disappointments, but possibly not to gain and maintain employment,” she adds. Singleton explains that while treatment is the most important aspect for the residents; she is striving to create more opportunities for them to learn technical and soft skills.
The young men are given opportunities to gain some employment experience and become marketable in an economy where it can be difficult to secure a job. Part of the novelty of Bonnie Brae’s work experience program is that they are giving their residents a controlled environment to help build crucial skills (personal management, teamwork, responsibility, emotional well-being) as they learn and practice technical skills that can be translated into a job after they leave. Their work experience program is tiered to meet the needs of their treatment center but still create experiences similar to the real world. “We’re not just throwing them to the wolves and seeing if they fail so to speak. It may not be money related but it is still work experience,” says Singleton.
On the grounds of the center, Singleton, Jason Bossart and the maintenance staff have found ways to create opportunities for work. Residents at Stage 1 are involved in seasonal work such as raking leaves, tending landscape and changing smoke detectors and lights. Singleton explains these tasks could be done by their maintenance crew; however, the maintenance crew works with the students to get them interested in work. Residents who meet their self-assessment requirement, treatment assessment criteria, and demonstrate competence in fulfilling life skills and tasks are allowed to fill out applications to go off grounds with community volunteers. Many of the residents at Stage 2 gain work experience volunteering at national parks, picking vegetables for food banks, working to clean up the local Raritan River, and facilitating as exhibit experts at the Liberty Science Center.
In 2008, Singleton and the rest of the education staff came together to think outside of the box to create a new program that would increase job skills and provide their young men with employment experience similar to the real world prior to their discharge from Bonnie Brae. Inspiration came following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina when Singleton’s father traveled with a group from Habitat for Humanity to help rebuild homes. Seeing the positive impact this had on her father, Singleton and her colleagues devised a program called Brae Builders. Students in the Brae Builders program go offsite to work with local Habitat for Humanity chapters and gain experiences with technical skills related to construction and enhance their soft skills to become more confident in themselves outside of Bonnie Brae. Within the Brae Builders program, Singleton explains that young men who apply and are accepted are given the title of apprentice and then enrolled into CareerSafe Safety Awareness Training courses while they begin learning under more experienced students in the program. “Once they finish the five-hour course, they receive a new work shirt in a different color which signifies they are journeymen,” says Singleton.
Students who are interested in a promotion are provided the opportunity to complete OSHA 10-Hour safety training and receive the title of Master Brae Builder. With the guidance of Mr. Kenneth Imy and Mr. Matthew Roberts over the past year, the different roles within the Brae Builder program have become more solidified. “Our Master Brae Builders are leaders in the program; they are given a raise, more responsibilities and a chance to be crew leaders. Receiving the OSHA training credential is a time consuming and daunting task for anyone; especially for those with learning difficulties. I am incredibly proud of each resident who completes it,” she explains. Singleton made the decision to use a five-hour safety training course as an introductory program for more in depth workplace safety training because many of her students are not working at their current grade level and have often missed large portions of school. “Without the knowledge of safety, we would not be able to say that we are incident free after almost 100 boys have gone through the program. Safety has always been and will remain a priority. It is especially important because there is a sense of immortality with young adults and the workplace inexperience adds to the potential for injuries.”
Over the past eight years, Brae Builders have worked with Habitat for Humanity two days a week, rain or snow, to help build houses. “It is an intensive program. This opportunity not only offers them the chance to learn some vocational skills, but also the incredibly important social skills that some of the boys are lacking,” describes Singleton. To date, the Brae Builders have built over 40 homes and has proven to be successful outside of Bonnie Brae. Singleton shares that they keep up with their residents at one-year and three-year post-discharge, and those young men that have participated in Brae Builders are proving to be more successful. “We are not a vocational technical school. We have to consistently work with students to keep their skills sets. I encourage those who do not want to be in Brae Builders to take the OSHA 10-Hour General Industry course anyway because it is broad across so many career fields.”
Because of the success of the Brae Builders program, Singleton shares that Bonnie Brae have expanded this concept to meet the needs and interests of more residents. By giving them this valuable work experience, Singleton hopes to offer her students as many tools as possible to be successful. “Most of our residents come to us feeling like failures…when they see they become certified because of something they put the time and effort into…it is impactful. The young men who were once truant in their previous schools have now become eager to participate and obtain certifications and credentials. That, in itself, is success that impacts them all.”
Many of the students earn credentials in CareerSafe Cyber Safety Awareness Training and acquire a Food Handler’s Card in addition to their workplace safety training. ”It’s amazing to see how proud they are to see their credentials. They have completed it themselves, done this for themselves. It isn’t about me or their treatment…I want them to know that whatever they do here is for them,” says Singleton, “We’re trying to implement a ladder of success. The teamwork they form as a result and the willingness to aspire to be more than our boys thought they could be – will be our biggest accomplishment. It is a reality that they will leave us and we are [working to] to provide them with the necessary tools to succeed.”
This year, Bonnie Brae celebrates its 100 years of service having changed the lives of over 10,000 boys and young men. CareerSafe is proud to work with such an inspiring facility as they prepare young men for their future careers and lives.