Student Working Professionals: Bright Horizons
Founded in 2009, Student Working Professionals (SWP) is a non-profit organization that provides all youth real-world internships in the fields of accounting, business consultation, marketing and sales – to name a few. The program offers practical experience and cultural growth, giving young adults a view of the world hands on. But unlike many of today’s internship programs, SWP is so much more.
Built on the principles of social entrepreneurship, participants are coached through a series of tiers based upon performance, accountability and service. Life skills are learned alongside the underlying social and professional skills needed to advance in today’s workplace and society as a whole. The SWP teach-learn philosophy encourages youth to not only gain experience but pay-it-forward by sharing their skills with the others around them. The culture and systems instilled are life long and life changing, as together they develop youth into well-rounded and open-minded adults with valuable true-life skills and a solid basis for success.
SWP is the brainchild of Dan Ruotolo, an idea that began growing back in 1991. As founder and chairman, he recognized that he alone could not bring this vision to life and has since built an amazing team of likeminded and motivated individuals who work together to change the lives of youth of all ages and backgrounds. SWP has helped several hundred aspiring young adults from Rowan University, Rutgers University, RCBC and area high schools over the past decade. Dan went on to take the principles and culture of SWP and run a successful series of one-week Leadership Camps focused on community projects selected by the participants themselves.
As SWP expanded so did Dan’s vision with the creation of SWP Bright Horizons, a program dedicated to providing these same life, professional and social skills to youth with special needs including those with autism and other learning and social disabilities. The name “Bright Horizons” is as unique as the program itself having been created by the young participants as a group led by Devon and Austin.
I had the opportunity to experience the SWP Bright Horizons program up close as I spent an afternoon on-site with the team and a group of YALE students, who spend two to three days a week at the NOW! Financial Network office. Throughout the day, they are tasked with real world jobs and mentored by professionals in the areas of business such as bookkeeping and accounting, digital scanning and paperless process implementation as well as life skills including culinary planning and execution. They have started their own successful (and now thriving) EBay business. During my visit, I sat down with several members of the SWP Bright Horizons team.
Dee is the leader of the Culinary Program. For her, it not just what to eat but how to eat. She teaches her students to plan, budget and successfully shop for both quality and value. The youth are taught to coordinate for themselves but also accommodate others and how to serve. “Here they have the opportunity to discover their passion like any other kid. They have the opportunity to learn that they have skills. These are kids that had always been told and never asked. This gives them a foundation of self-confidence, a place where they can make mistakes and know it’s ok.”
James is the coordinator with YALE and he runs the digital systems and accounting institute divisions within SWP Bright Horizons. Students are provided a series of available tasks to find those in which they feel most comfortable and offer the best personal fit for their skills. Once they master the assigned task, they are allowed to advance in accordance to their abilities. Like the SWP Program, Bright Horizons shares the same foundation of social entrepreneurship and teach-learn philosophy. Those who have been in the program longer, and have successfully mastered a skill, share what they have learned and become a resource to others who are newer to the program. They gain social skills and self-confidence while contributing real work product through the NOW Financial Network and earning a wage. Several graduates have successfully advanced to positions working with the professional accounting and administrative team at the NOW! Financial Network. Speaking with James was truly a pleasure. He loves what he does, and it shows. “It becomes personal to you. You get to wake up every morning feeling like you are going to accomplish something.”
Sean one of the YALE students participating in the program now leads the EBay Business Division. In this role, he researches sellable items, obtains comps, uploads items for sale and monitors the bid process. Once an item sells, he also facilitates shipping and packaging. Sean has learned a lot about business but also about himself. He understands how to prioritize tasks and coordinate with others successfully. Now he’s looking within the program for support staff for his team. Sean is a true testament of the program and what can be accomplished. He says that being in the office is “good” and calls it a “confidence booster.”
What I experienced first-hand is just one of many SWP Bright Horizons success stories. The results among the students has been tremendous; the response of local businesses, parents and the community equally as positive.
When it comes to the man behind the vision, Dan Ruotolo does not talk about himself but instead about what he has accomplished here and how it can be replicated to benefit others. He steps aside to let those who support him shine in their roles much as they allow the children to flourish. These students and young adults are being trained to become contributing members of society and no longer being relegated to lesser roles or cast aside.
Looking ahead, the horizons are equally as bright. In the Summer of 2018, the program will launch a new location at Someplace Special in Glassboro and expand its areas of learning to include music, gardening and art. We cannot wait to see what the SWP Bright Horizons team can accomplish!