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The Business of Helping People: Innovative Alumni Who Find New Pathways in Their Field
November 16, 2018

By: Aimee Labrie 

The dream of Sonia Singh, NCAS '12, MSW '13, was to one day open her own practice. Knowing she would face obstacles, she remained determined to build her own path to an independent private practice. 

Jeff Fleischer RC '75, MSW '77 grew up in Newark and saw first hand the struggles of families in his neighborhood and surrounding cities. While earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology and social work, Fleischer became involved first as a Big Brother for Rutgers Community Action, and then operating an after school youth center in New Brunswick for the community. 

For Christina Serrano MSW '15, starting a business was the furthest thing from her mind as an undergraduate. Her main goal was to help others. It wasn't until her life partner, Aaron, a long distance tractor trailer driver, started having health problems that the idea of Juice for Us began to take shape.

All three alumni have taken entrepreneurial steps to arrive where they are today. Along with their desire to help others, they share common characteristics—all exhibited the patience and determination needed to forge ahead despite various obstacles. Uniformly, they credit their experiences at Rutgers as providing direction as they moved beyond the more traditional frameworks of their fields to become leaders with a vision for success.

At first, Sonia's direction seemed fairly straightforward. After graduation, she worked as an outpatient therapist in a large clinic. She soon found the hours, politics, and paperwork were burdensome, and felt her skills as a clinician were not being fully utilized. 

At the same time, she knew that starting a private practice would be challenging. She began slowly—by searching for resources and people who could help her make the transition from a group dynamic to her own private practice. 

"I took an all out approach," she says. "I joined NASW to network, and I started looking for people who were successful in their private practices and asked them for help. I scoured the web for Facebook groups to join, and I read every book I could put my hands on about private practice."  

She didn't hesitate to ask lots of questions—how did they get started? What was the overhead like for an office? What did they wish they had done differently from the beginning? "Everyone I was talking to had something to offer me, and I took it all in."

One of the things she realized from those conversations was that in order to be successful, she would have to develop a business plan, a personal brand, a website, and marketing skills to stand out. "I also had to know my own limitations. I wasn't equipped to build a personal brand or to create a web presence, so I knew I would have to invest financially in getting those pieces in place." 

She never questioned reaching out to others who knew more. "If you have a private practice, you have to get comfortable with outsourcing and recognizing what is actually feasible given your limited time and resources."

After about two years where she continued to balance a part-time job to support her newly-founded practice, Sonia has built a solid client base and is now owner of the Center of Inner Transformations, LLC, in East Brunswick, NJ.   

She credits Rutgers for helping her to succeed. "If it wasn't for the clinical skills that Rutgers gave me, I wouldn't be the clinician I am. You can't have mediocre skills, because you won't get referrals or clients who return. Being a part of ACT was the best decision I ever made, because the program prepared me for what I do today." 

Standing Image of Jeff Jeff had no idea as an undergraduate social work student that his professional life would lead him where he is today: CEO of Youth Advocate Program (YAP), an organization he has been with for 33 years. 

He credits the School for putting him on this path. "I had great experiences at Rutgers," he explains. "I was part of the Perth Amboy student unit, led by Dr. Marcos Leiderman and Professor Abe Espada. They assigned five students to work in the Low Income Stockton Street Homes in Perth Amboy. Back then, mail wasn't delivered, windows and elevators were not repaired, and violence and drugs were everywhere. We were engaged in the building, in community organizing, and in getting older kids in the complex to supervise the smaller children. We also organized individual counseling and gang outreach, and went to court with kids who got into trouble." 

At first, Jeff worked in New York with youth involved in gangs, and in 1981, found himself as a youth center director at La Casa de don Pedro in Newark. This work led him to hear more about YAP, and, in 1985, he was hired on to the then fairly small staff. "I was drawn to the mission to keep families together and at-risk youth out of institutions, detention centers, or psych wards."  

Under his leadership, YAP has honed its focus on providing individualized care for each person by underscoring the individual's unique skills and interests. "For example, we had a gang member who was really good at math who we paid to tutor younger kids. Another youth was good at fixing bikes, so he started fixing up abandoned bikes for other kids to ride," he explains.  

YAP now serves more than 19,000 families annually in 23 states, 30 major U.S. cities, and several foreign countries. In New Jersey alone, Jeff was part of a movement that collaborated with colleagues and partners to create significant changes in the New Jersey Child Welfare System, such as the passage of the Bring Our Children Home Act, legislation that reduced the state's practice of sending youth to out-of-state institutions and encouraged family and community-based care for at-risk youth in their own neighborhoods. Today, Jeff and YAP are part of a movement to shut down the state’s youth prisons. "Nationwide, YAP is committed to reducing racial disparities in our juvenile justice systems," he says.

Though the job is difficult at times, he focuses on the benefits. "You can help a large majority of kids with the right approach. Even if you can't assist them right away, you often get another chance in the future. I see many former youth now, and they are using lessons that they learned. You have good days and bad days, but on the whole, the balance is very positive." 

Like Sonia, Jeff recognizes that a large part of his success required him to include the voices of the youth and families from communities around him. "You don't have to go it alone. What I learned at Rutgers is that together, we can forge coalitions and partnerships to change our human service systems so they empower families and communities." 

Standing image of Christina In 2016, Christina and Aaron realized they needed a lifestyle change when Aaron learned he was pre-diabetic. Other health issues in their immediate family underscored the importance of radically altering their eating patterns.  

First, the couple switched to a plant-based, vegan diet and noticed an immediate positive impact on their health and well-being.  As Christina recalls,"We went from eating out a lot and consuming processed foods to juicing and adding locally grown fruits and vegetables to our meals. Almost immediately, we noticed a change in our energy level and overall sense of well-being. 

These changes opened up another possibility. What if they could bring idea of making small changes in one’s daily eating habits to prevent illness to people in their community? And just like that, the idea for Juice for Us began to flourish. 

Christina had worked for 13 years at Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey, a community mental health agency. While she found her role to be fulfilling, she had a feeling that her purpose was pulling her elsewhere. "Both of us had been thinking about starting a business for a while, and when we began significantly altering our approach to eating, I had an instinct that the two could be combined somehow." 

Aaron conceived of the initial idea of Juice for Us, and the couple sat down to formulate the concept of a mobile juice company as a way to bring healthy juice to underrepresented communities, especially those with food deserts and their hometowns of Carteret and New Brunswick. 

"Healthy eating choices don't exist here. It's primarily an industrial area," says Christina. "There are parts of Carteret that have very limited fresh fruit or vegetables available, let alone a juice or smoothie shop. Aaron and I knew we weren't the only people in the area who would like more options."

However, Christina didn't want to jump into anything without being financially prepared. She continued to work full time, to save money, and to insist they go through their expenses to figure out ways to cut costs and pay down debt. The couple even took a business class at NJSDBC at Rutgers that helped them to develop a solid and reasonable business plan.

Eventually, Aaron found a former hot dog truck on Craigslist for an affordable price. After transforming the truck with bright paint colors and bringing it up to proper health and safety codes, they were ready to roll out a small menu of juices and smoothies. 

"We are at various locations throughout the week including Bradley Beach, Woodbridge Mall, and the East Orange Farmer's Market. Our ultimate goal is to have a steady presence at a specific location and also to continue to travel where there is a need."

As a student, Christina was part of the MAP program, and she credits Professor William Waldman for having a large impact on her trajectory. "He shared his professional journey with us, and his teaching style was to show us that you can use the skills that you were given, and the ones you learn, to make a difference in the world.

"I honestly believe that there is no other degree program than social work that has the most amount of transferrable skills," Christina says. "It is important for people, especially women, to listen to our inner voices. We have a sense of what we want, but often, out of fear, we choose to stay where we are. This experience has taught me that it's okay to go for it. You have to make that leap."

Juice for Us has several vibrant (and delicious) smoothie and cold-pressed juice options: Pina Coco, Brekkie for Champs, Mango Creamsicle, Minty Melon Cooler. Their goal is to expand the menu into more vegan food options, but they are taking it slowly.  

She offers advice for fellow alumni who may be thinking about making a similar life and/or career change. "We see issues and we get overwhelmed. But you can make a difference, even if it's one person at a time. You have more resources around you than you might realize. Don't be afraid to open yourself up to any possibility."  

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