By: Christian Oberly
Video and additional reporting by: Isaiah Showell
BRIDGETON, N.J. — “This is beautiful,” said Bridgeton Mayor Albert B. Kelly as he stepped up to the podium on Wednesday evening. The mayor was addressing a packed room full of guests, local dignitaries, and community members — all gathered for the ribbon cutting of Rowan College of South Jersey’s new Alms Center location in Bridgeton.
“To see all of you here in support of the college, and what is happening here in the great city of Bridgeton — this is a dream come true for me,” he said, to thunderous applause. “I’ve been mayor of our great city for ten years now. And even before that, we talked about how we could have a college in our community to help lift up the city, and move the city to an even greater destiny.”
“Who ever thought that when this building was created, that a college would be here? Reverend Morgan, thank you very much,” Kelly said, as many in the audience turned to smile and wave at the other Albert in the room: Pastor Albert L. Morgan.
Morgan, who, along with his church congregation at Union Baptist, built the Alms Center and laid the literal foundation for the events that have allowed Rowan College to come to Bridgeton.
Kelly continued, “By the college being here, the visionaries of Pastor Morgan, President Keating, Melissa Helmbrecht — it takes many visions and many people to make something like this happen. And so I’m just thankful that this is happening in our community.”
“With this many people here…I feel like taking up an offering,” Morgan joked, eliciting laughter from many. “I want to thank the members of our church and the community for making all of this possible. I graduated from Glassboro [State College] — now Rowan [University] — in 1972. And now to have it be here, in Bridgeton — and I want to thank the Mayor, and Melissa [Helmbrecht], everybody who had a part in this for making this dream happen.”
Melissa Helmbrecht stepped up to speak after the pastor. She serves as the Executive Director of Give Something Back, an organization which has already invested hundreds of thousands of dollars toward 60 full-ride scholarships for Bridgeton High School students. She is also the founder of Hopeloft in Downtown Bridgeton.
“I would be here a long time if I thanked everybody who worked so hard to make this possible. Almost everyone in this room did something that ended up being pivotal or integral,” Helmbrecht began. “There are probably lots of people in this city that took Fred Keating aside and asked him to expand here into Bridgeton. But he committed on the spot, and this was years ago. He said, ‘If I ever have anything to do with Bridgeton, I promise you that there will be a Rowan College in Bridgeton.’ And the Dr. Keating that I’ve come to know is a man who is unwavering in his commitment, who keeps his promises, who ignores the noise — as Bill Belichick tells us to do — and he’s just a ‘get it done’ kind of person and we’re really lucky to have him in this community.”
From her Hopeloft headquarters on East Commerce Street, Helmbrecht has been fastidiously working to bring a college campus to Bridgeton for over three years now. Going as far as to purchase and take over the operation of the STEAMworks building from Cumberland County College in 2018 when the college could no longer sustain it.
After the merger of Rowan College of Gloucester County and Cumberland County College last year, the planets finally aligned for bringing an extension of Rowan College to Bridgeton.
During an impromptu meeting with Mayor Kelly, Claire Miller of Cumberland Mutual, and local realtor Bob Thompson last year, Helmbrecht explained that the final roadblock was a financial one: for Rowan College to utilize classroom space in the Alms Center, the building’s mortgage would need to be paid off. Thompson instantly offered to take care of it.
“Bob Thompson followed through on his promise, which makes this financially feasible. So, the next time you see Bob Thompson, give him a big hug,” Helmbrecht said. “Thank you, also, to Brigette Satchell and Terrence Hardee — two people who I’ve known a long time — who were advocates for Bridgeton long before we even started talking about this who’ve worked tirelessly to pull this together.”
“Today does mark an important milestone for our community,” Helmbrecht continued, “to have Rowan College here now in the heart of this neighborhood, housed at the beloved Alms Center, we fulfill the dreams of so many neighborhood families who have long desired to have access to local, affordable education that meets their unique needs and helps them achieve their goals.”
President of Rowan College of South Jersey, Dr. Fred Keating echoed the sentiments of the other community leaders who spoke at the event.
“Bridgeton needs this, Bridgeton wants this, Bridgeton deserves this,” said Keating. “There was never any hesitation or doubt.” Pointing to the newly-minted sign on the wall above the Alms Center staircase, Keating said, “That sign up there that says [Rowan College of South Jersey] is opportunity. One word, that’s all we have to focus on: Opportunity. Our job is to bring it here; the job of this community is to embrace it, use it, and take it […] education is the key.”
Keating stressed the need for support in the community to help ensure the new RCSJ location’s success.
“I pledge to you what I said to the mayor the day I met him: We will come, if you want us to come, but in coming you have to help and support us — and we will expand it, and we will grow it, and if this kind of interest comes, we will make this an educational center. This is now an ‘Eds and Meds’ community. Inspira is here, the college is here — opportunity is here. We’re going to beg the people of this city to embrace it. I can’t do it without you.”
The ceremonial ribbon was ultimately cut by Jennifer Cruz, an allied health student at RCSJ who has benefited from their Workforce Development programs. After receiving her medical assistant certification from RCSJ, she began an externship with Mullica Hill Medical Associates and has been working there for the past year. She’s back in school as well, working on her degree in medical coding and billing at RCSJ.
“I can say that life’s been going pretty good for me lately, and I’m very grateful for all of this. And my favorite thing to say is that it’s never too late to want to get ahead in life.”
Several other figures spoke throughout the evening’s event. After Mayor Kelly’s initial remarks, Cumberland County Freeholder Director Joseph Derella went up to address the audience and explained some of the ways that having a college campus in Bridgeton will benefit the city — citing studies that show how crime and unemployment statistics improve in communities with better access to educational opportunities.
The event’s emcee, RCSJ Vice President Jim Piccone, used some of the time between introductions to deliver more thanks, including a shout out to several RCSJ board members in attendance: Gene Concordia, Ruby Love, and Benjamin Griffith.
“We are developing our strategic plan, and Workforce [Development] is really going to be the center,” Piccone said. “With this being said, we’d like to have a wonderful relationship with the Bridgeton Area Chamber of Commerce and all the chambers of commerce [in the area].” He introduced the BACC’s new chairperson, Carol Musso, who took over the position only three weeks ago.
“We are very excited that Rowan College of South Jersey has focused on expanding the workforce development programs to the western side of Cumberland County. The residents will be given educational opportunities and career training in high-demand industries, which include: healthcare, advanced manufacturing, transportation, logistics, and many more,” said Musso. “The community partnerships between Rowan College of South Jersey and the Alms Center will truly be an asset to all of our students and businesses in Cumberland County.”
Many other prominent members of the community were in attendance, including Cumberland County Freeholders Jim Quinn and Jack Surrency, former Freeholder Director Bill Whelan, Alms Center employees Mary and Bob Hadley, County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, CASA board members Arthur Horn, James Sampson, and Scott Edmonds, members of the Bridgeton Main Street Association, and newly-elected City Council President Ed Bethea, and more.
When the ceremony concluded, the open house portion of the event began and guests were invited to tour the Alms Center facility and learn more about the programs and classes that will be offered there, including: High School Equivalency prep, HiSet testing for New Jersey high school diplomas, Career Training programs in healthcare and advanced manufacturing, workshops for displaced homemakers, and more.
Bringing a college campus to Bridgeton is an exceptional feat that required the work of many people to be accomplished — too many to mention here. But, as President Keating and Mayor Kelly stressed: It will take an entire community’s support to keep that campus here.
“And I want you to make sure that you share this with other people in our community so that they can start taking classes here, in the Great City of Bridgeton. And who knows what will happen from here? But we’ve got to start someplace,” Kelly concluded.