Father’s Day: Dad’s Making a Difference
It’s Father’s Day, so we’re highlighting amazing dads making a difference who deserve some recognition for all that they do to bring a little more “good” to the Jersey City community.
Frank “Educational” Gilmore, Founder of the Educational Gilmore Community Learning Center
Everyone, especially our city’s youth, deserve a safe space to get away from a bad situation and receive a little guidance from someone who knows exactly what they’re going through. Jersey City native, Frank “Educational” Gilmore, saw his fair share of dangerous situations while growing up on the streets of JC, and now, a proud father of five, he wants to give youths on a similar life trajectory a chance to turn it around and inspire them to follow a different path. So Gilmore, in addition to being on the front line working with countless city organizations – including the Jersey City Anti-Violence Coalition, the Royal Men Foundation, and Black Men United – opened the Educational Gilmore Community Learning Center in 2018 for at-risk youth.
The Educational Center is geared towards those who struggle academically and provides tutoring through partnerships with local colleges that supply tutors to help the kids with math, reading, writing, and language arts. But at its heart, it’s a safe place where, a lot of times, kids go to just to get out of their house and away from their parents for a few hours through the afterschool program that Gilmore’s wife, Sylvia, is involved in running. A portion of the center is devoted to mentoring, with both group sessions for kids ages 7-10, and one-on-one meetings with Gilmore and staff for older kids from age 14-18.
“It was extremely important for me to start a center to provide a safe haven because I know first-hand what can happen if a youth comes from a broken home and doesn’t have a safe space where they can express themselves in a manner that is maybe deemed unnecessary at home or need an outlet outside of school hours,” said Gilmore.
The Center has been closed during COVID, but Gilmore is still making his rounds to his mentees houses to making sure they are in good spirits as well as seeing what he can do to help families that were already burdened and facing challenges.
“We continue to provide services even in a pandemic because the work that we do is already a life or death situation,” said Gilmore. “This experience has been the ugliest, most beautiful, craziest, calmest, fastest, slowest thing I’ve ever witnessed in my life. It allowed me for one to reassess some things. I’ve been able to spend more time with my younger kids and family, and I think, “Wow, I do so much trying to help everyone else out, sometimes I forget I have a family at home too, so this has been a very humbling experience for me.”
For Gilmore, he hopes raising his five kids – My-lia, Sa’daiah, Frank Jr., Sanai, and Symere – in Jersey City instills in them the same determination, strength, and pride he felt while growing up.
“I’m from here and I’m a product of the community on both sides, the bad part and the good part, so it’s important for me to raise my kids here,” said Gilmore. “Jersey City is a very diverse place. It’s the biggest small city in the world, and if your kids can make it here, they can make it anywhere.”
Peter Gagnon, Filmmaker and Member of Free Mom (Dad) Hugs
Loving your children should come as a no-brainer, but for some kids who come out to their parents as being part of the LGBTQ+ community, the unfortunate truth is many do not receive the love and support they deserve. For Jersey City father of three Peter Gagnon, when his son Flynn came out last year as gay in middle school, there wasn’t a single hesitation for Gagnon to accept and love him for living his true self and instead of pushing him away, looked for ways to further unconditionally support his son to the best of his ability. In addition to joining the Dragon Dads Facebook group for dads of LGBTQ+ kids, Gagnon and his wife Catalina Aranguren helped Flynn set up a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) at his school, which lead Flynn to win an award from JC Pride and the city for his work as a youth activist that is proudly displayed on the family mantle. Aranguren and Flynn also started Pride Alliance JC and hosted a panel featuring speakers from all corners of the LGBTQ+ spectrum, representatives from PFLAG and Hudson City Pride, and even Jersey City’s First Poet Laureate Rashad Wright.
“What’s shocking to me, is that people are amazed that we do this and I don’t understand why it’s unusual to let our boys be who they are and why we volunteer. Having a child, I can’t imagine not being that way,” said Gagnon. “I would do nothing less than give my life to protect this child. So, I don’t get the parents that are so willing to throw it away.”
During the 2019 Jersey City Pride Festival, Gagnon and Aranguren volunteered at a booth with Free Mom Hugs, an organization of parents and allies of the LGBTQ+ community who travel to festivals, colleges, community events, and more to educate as well as give lots of hugs to anyone who needs them. Donning “Free Mom Hugs” and “Free Dad Hugs” shirts, they spent the day with the group literally embracing the community and providing comfort to those who might not be as lucky and Flynn and his brothers, Drake and Rhys, to have such accepting parents.
“I had no idea how emotional the day was going to be. I was crying all day,” said Gagnon. “For such a small kindness on a regular day to day basis, you don’t realize how powerful that singular moment is.”
Alain Mentha, Executive Director of Welcome Home Jersey City
Welcome Home Jersey City is a community-based nonprofit organization that provides educational, employment and material support for refugees, asylees and asylum-seekers in the Jersey City area. This includes help with homework, providing education, employment, and material resources, from furniture to help with rent money to food. The organization also ran a successful laptop drive as COVID hit to provide 50 families with laptops, some receiving more than one to account for multiple children in the house. In addition to giving the families laptops, Executive Director Alain Mentha and team ensured the families had WIFI and a basic understanding of how to use the laptops, log in the school sites, conduct Zoom meetings, etc.
Now, between working full-time and checking in on his Welcome Home families, Mentha also has the responsibility of taking on new roles at home for his 10-year-old daughter Amelie.
“It’s a challenging time to be a parent,” said Mentha. “It’s been a learning experience for me and an opportunity to examine myself, my own assumptions, and my own privilege in terms of gender and other factors. This time has really shown some searing inequities in our society as well as highlighted mundane stuff at home that I took for granted.”
One important part of Mentha’s work through Welcome Home that he brings Amelia into, outside of enrolling her in The Ethical Community Charter School (TECCS), is immersing her in what life is like outside her family’s middle-class bubble in order to fully understand and better empathize with others.
“One of things that changed me while working with refugees was seeing the south side of town where our clients are resettled,” said Mentha. “I saw how different those neighborhoods are and so did my daughter. She has learned to play with kids, who don’t speak English well, who eat food that’s very different from our food. I think that’s the most important thing she’s gained from working with refugees along with the understanding of her own privilege, which is something we talk about a lot.”
While in-person meetings and events have been cancelled indefinitely, Welcome Home is still finding ways to virtually keep families engaged and caught up on literacy, ESL, and math lessons, as well as spreading the stories of refugees. On World Refugee Day on Saturday, June 20, they hosted a Facebook Watch party event in partnership with the Golden Door Film Festival and other area refugee groups to stream international films and promote their causes. They also created fundraising t-shirts promoting the essential work refugees do for our community, now available on their website.
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Sam Mikhail, CEO of Jungle Communications and EverthingJerseyCity.com
When you think of someone who truly loves Jersey City for everything it is and represents, father of three Sam Mikhail should be the first person who comes to mind. He should also immediately come to mind if you mention “humble” because Sam is as humble as they come and truly hates the spotlight. So much so, we went behind his back to interview his wife, Francine, about his contributions to the community because we can’t highlight great Jersey City dads and not include him (surprise, Sam!).
Born in Egypt and brought to Jersey City at three months old by his parents looking for a better life for their family, Mikhail has spent his life in service to Jersey City and its citizens. His local efforts include organizing over 40 local churches to work together through X-stream Impact for a five-day festival in Lincoln Park, being a board member of Hope Center Academy, volunteering for Street2Street, and more.
“As his wife of 23 years, I not only love and respect the man he is, but I admire him,” said Francine. “His generosity is an inspiration to our kids, especially. Our daughter Selah is for sure going to be president of the United States someday. She is definitely a leader and takes after her father.”
In 2001, he and Francine started their own marketing agency, Jungle Communications, after Mikhail, through his work in radio, heard the plight of local business owners in need of advertising but not having the money to afford the extreme prices of billboards in the area. He knew there was always room for negotiating and went about finding low-cost ways to get the word out. One way was through the emerging platform of websites and, eventually, social media. Their business grew by word of mouth and the pair spent almost 20 years solely focused on their clients and their advertising needs. The real dream, however, was to create a website where Mikhail could promote the good in Jersey City and the businesses he loved himself at no cost to them. In September 2019, they finally made the dream a reality with the launch of EJC, featuring articles, guides, and resources for all aspects of life in Jersey City, from dining to raising families to sharing inspiring stories of our neighbors and more.
“Everything Jersey City came out of us wanting to highlight all of the good people of Jersey City and showcasing what they’re doing, the businesses and making sure that they are supported and able to grow,” said Franny. “We were so sure we wanted something that showed the good side of Jersey City because a lot of times you hear all the negative stuff. I love Jersey City. I’ve been here all my life and we’ve been through some tough times, but I know there’s so much good going on here and a lot of good growing here, so we said it’s time to do this.”
The family of five lives on the same street Mikhail grew up on, right across from his childhood home in fact. For the Mikhails, it was a no-brainer that they’d raise their kids in the same city they came up in and love.
“It’s tough but very rewarding,” said Francine. “We always wanted our kids to grow up like we did where you have friends from all around the world and you’re all just playing together and learning about their culture while you’re young. They’re just learning it organically. Our kids are kind and thoughtful people, and ready to change the world.”
Clarence “Coach C” Collins, At-Risk Mentor at University Academy Charter High School
If you ask any youth in Jersey City, you have a 1 in 4 chance of hearing a great “Coach C” story from them about how he changed their life for the better. That’s Clarence “Coach C” Collins’ estimate, anyway. Since he moved to Jersey City 18 years ago with wife Elaine, Coach C has devoted himself to mentoring the young people of the city, using his own experience of becoming a father at 15 and having to endure the stress of growing up too fast to influence and become a father figure to thousands of kids across the city. He started with an annual Father’s Day dinner at his home to expose young men who generally did not have a father at home to what a healthy household without anger or violence should be like. The event started with 20 attendees and quickly climbed to a whopping 60 people gathering in his backyard as the years passed.
“I started doing outreach work and getting phone calls about how ‘my kid is out in the street involved with this gang and running around with nothing to do, can you come up with something?’ So, I knew I had to put all 10 toes down and give back to these kids,” he said.
The father of three and grandfather of seven is enjoying watching four of his grandchildren be raised and thrive in Jersey City. His grandson Jamill, age 11, lead the city for years in pages read at the local library and was recently accepted at Academy 1, and his granddaughter, 16-year-old Aniiyah, attends University Academy Charter High School where he works as the first-ever full-time mentor on staff.
“Aniiyah, our pride and joy, is an entrepreneur with hair braiding. She has an outgoing spirit that me and my wife have,” he said. “It’s been a blessing to see her grow in that magnitude and take on the principles that we promote at our house on a daily basis.”
Coach C was hired by Department of Recreation for security in one of the roughest areas of the city. No one wanted to work there, however, “they put me there and that was the best thing that could have happened because then I was able to connect with these kids,” said Coach C. “Some of my closest relationships with my mentees today came from that job.” He was then able to work with the Director to change the hiring process to cover all four corners of Jersey City and bring in new kids for internship in the department from other wards who never had the opportunity in years past.
Later, Coach C took his position as official at-risk mentor at University Academy and became a liaison to the community to bring in people to meet the students for lectures and job and internship connections get jobs and internships. Many of the students have worked or still work for the city thanks to Coach C’s guidance through the mentorship program.
“For me for these kids, I thought it was very important for them to have a male figure in their lives,” said Coach C. “Being able to connect is important, especially when most don’t have dads at home and mom’s struggling as the superhero. I wanted to show the importance of fatherhood and what that looks like.”
All told, he estimates his outreach has allowed him to meet upwards of 3,000 kids in Jersey City. “The beauty of it is this is my calling, I realized this is my assignment, I’m supposed to give back,” he said.
The man with over 1,300 contacts in his phone of kids he’s mentored from all over Jersey City has a lot of good fatherly advice to give anyone in need of a little direction.
“Even if you don’t go down the straight path, it’s not about how you start, it’s where you end up and how you finish the game,” said Coach C. “Always be present, be consistent, be reliable, and just remember to mention that word ‘love’ and how important those four letters are.”
Read more about Coach C’s impact on the youth of Jersey City here.
Kaz Ortiz, Elder at Grace Gospel Chapel
Places of worship closing during quarantine for the indiscernible future left church-goers with a sense of loss after being cut off from their support system. Elder Kaz Ortiz and his church, Grace Gospel Chapel, in The Heights wasn’t about to leave their fellowship and neighborhood hanging. The sign outside was changed to, “NEIGHBORS WE MISS YOU!” with a phone number for anyone to text prayer requests to, bringing a strong connection back to the community where COVID threatened to severe it.
Growing up in Jersey City, Ortiz’s community had that family atmosphere where everyone watched out for each other and their children in a neighborhood full of diversity and cultural ethnicities that “made it vibrant.” And while Ortiz, his wife Rosie, and his kids Cassie and Philip now live in North Arlington, they spend an important part of their lives with their church family in The Heights.
“My kids grew up around all the cultures in Jersey City, which I believe made them more well-rounded and understanding of who they are as Latinos and Puerto Ricans, but also took in all the love and the acceptance that other cultures bring,” said Ortiz.
As one of three elders at Grace Gospel Chapel – a non-denominational, Christian chapel Ortiz has been attending since he was 18 – he volunteers for preaching about acceptance and respect, teaching free Vacation Bible School (coming virtually in August), and counseling for married couples/pre-cana for soon-to-be married couples to learn and be reminded of the Biblical principles of marriage, how to be a good wife and husband, and how to resolve conflict in a healthy way.
“Sometimes we need to be careful of the things we grow up learning from the streets, or are influenced by on social media,” said Ortiz. “Young Christians can learn and then contribute their uniqueness as individuals to help others see how to have a Christian marriage that survives in a city environment where there are different opinions to contend with.”
Fatherhood and preaching go hand in hand. Ortiz says he needs to be a good shepherd at home and in the church, and while preaching connects him to his church community, what keeps him connected at home is making sure the family gathers around the table to eat together and share their feelings from the day, even if the topic is hard, especially during these uncertain times.
“It’s important that we eat meals and talk about what’s happening. We talk to our kids about fear and anxiety and ask how their friends are doing. That can only be done, at least from my perspective, by having dinner together at the dinner table,” he said. “I pray that everything going on is forcing people to get back to the dinner table together and ask, ‘how’s your day,’ ‘how’s school going,’ so that we can encourage each other and alleviate fears because we all have them, even as adults.”
David Trotta, Chef and Owner of Whealth Kitchen
When COVID hit, our local restaurants and bars were forced to close or pivot quickly to figure out a way to stay open despite foot traffic reducing to zero. While his physical restaurant had to close but meal preparations for delivery meal plans continued, David Trotta, chef and owner of Whealth Kitchen, took COVID as an opportunity to support those at-risk of becoming food insecure under quarantine with his newly launched meal plan program. For every meal or meal plan bought, meals were given for free to people in need in the community, eventually reaching 200 to 500 meal deliveries a week all over Hudson County and beyond at its peak.
Whealth Kitchen offers meal plans and deliveries and groceries, which were a new element added to the café during COVID and will now become the main focus with Whealth opening to the public one day each week, starting Friday, June 19, rebranded as a farm-to-table ingredient retail storefront. The meal plans feature seasonally dictated, healthy bulk meals made with ingredients from local farms that Trotta picks up himself each week with everything needed to mix and match prepped entrees and sides for days, no cooking required. Now, in addition to meals for meals, buying groceries will also trigger a food delivery, which Trotta does not plan on stopping even after the pandemic has cleared.
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Despite the physical café unfortunately closing during COVID and the meal service taking off in a big way, a reason to take it easy in the morning instead of being in the kitchen by 6:30 a.m. every day couldn’t have come at a better time as Trotta and his wife Annie adjusted to life with their infant son, Wells, who just turned one year old.
“It’s so cool to wake up, be with my son, make coffee for my wife, for us to hang out as a family for two hours, then go to work. I’ve never had that. And if my wife needs help or has meetings, I can go into work a little bit later.”
Going from not being able to see his son much in the first months of life to having a daily routine together is a blessing for Trotta, who looks forward to raising his son in the city he serves.
“What Jersey City’s known for, its amazing diversity, is what I want him to experience and be able to understand that there’s a lot more out there than in the small world we often grow up in,” said Trotta. “Being a city of diversity and energy and change, he’s going to see that he can do anything as long as he prides himself and helps people and does great things.”
Norbert Sygdziak, Founder of RideAlong
Ask any parent and they’ll say their number one concern for their children is their safety. However, as working parents, hard decisions often have to be made about work/life balance, especially when it comes to getting and picking up the kids from school in a safe, timely manner. Those who cannot see them off at the school door have to rely on the bus system or send their kids on foot, raising concerns about safety and causing undo work or budget stress to find other methods to deliver them reliably and safely every day.
As a dad raising two young boys in Jersey City, Norbert Sygdziak wanted a fool-proof, safer alternative to getting his and his community’s children to and from school. He founded RideAlong, a school transportation car service strictly for children in Jersey City that works closely with parents to get to know their assigned drivers and plan pick-up and drop-off times that follow their family’s schedule that can adjust quickly with any unforeseen hiccups.
“I’m passionate about our company because I believe every child across the country should have the same start and finish to a day,” said Sygdziak. “Parents should not have to choose if their child should take a safer way home. It should be a given. So, we have created a model that helps parents make that decision easier.”
Like many businesses, RideAlong operations have shut down with the pandemic, but Sygdziak, as a father, is looking on the bright side. “It has not been easy…But we find the silver lining through all of this. We realized we will probably never get this much time together again. This is our chance to create long memories instead of piecing together after-work memories with our kids.”
RideAlong needed to pivot its business model for the time being while kids were safe at home in a way that would still benefit the community, so Sygdziak worked with local organizations to see how he could help. Instead of children, drivers picked up and dropped food to hospitals, provided rides to healthcare heroes, delivered virtual graduation packages on behalf of schools, and more with no plans of stopping once RideAlong is back up to full capacity.
“We are committed to our communities and are involved daily, from donating money to purchasing books for a library at the PS16 annex, to volunteering our efforts with local hospitals,” said Sygdziak. “We have learned through this that the volunteer efforts will not go away for us. It has become part of our DNA.”
Know a Jersey City dad doing good? Let us know on social @everythingjerseycity!