By Ande Richards
Inside a three-story building nestled in an industrial area in Kearny is a celebration for the grand opening of the Francine A. LeFrak Wellness Center at the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC). A congregation of state senators, assembly members, mayors, physicians, medical directors, a commissioner and a judge were all on hand to commemorate the opening.
At the NJRC, women enrolled in their training programs will have access to preventative health care, with the support of medical providers from across the state. The new facility will help women recently out of prison get much-needed medical, dental and mental health services that they did not have access to while incarcerated.
NJRC executive director, former Gov. McGreevey, hosted the inaugural event with his usual good humor and aplomb. He introduced clients Lina Wright and Jessica Cedeño to the crowd.
Wright served time at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County and was released from prison in July 2021. She found out about the reentry program through her church, enrolled and earned her Occupational Safety and Health Administration 30 certification and her Flagger Certification card.
She gave a harrowing account of her experiences at Mahan that revealed little physical health care and no mental health treatment. She says she is looking forward to getting services at the clinic.
Jessica Cedeño has suffered from addiction for almost her entire life. She managed sobriety for four years and then relapsed into addiction for six long years. She is currently two years sober. She also received minimal health care services during her bouts with addiction.
She remembers having five seizures and not being able to get treated because no one believed her cries for help. She is grateful for the NJRC because she feels like she has a purpose. She is training as a peer recovery specialist.
“Francine LeFrak,” McGreevey said at the opening ceremony, “has been a steadfast advocate for our women program participants.”
LeFrak, a former film producer turned philanthropist and social entrepreneur continues to deepen her philanthropic work with formerly incarcerated women.
Several guests spoke about their collaboration with McGreevey and his team, while others were more philosophical about their involvement and the service they will be providing to the women.
Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos quoted from Dr. King’s letter from Birmingham jail, “Injustice anywhere Is a threat to justice everywhere.” Santos said it means living the philosophy of radical inclusivity to make sure no one is left behind, to make sure that they have skills, they can pursue their lives, they can pursue the same rights that we all have, that they are able to pursue a job and pursue happiness.
He said everyone there contributed to improving lives and that they were a part of that network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny that Dr. King wrote about.
Dr. Shankar Iyer didn’t know what he was getting into when he became part of the coalition of medical providers involved with the wellness center but went along for the ride. He noted that it normally takes about two to three years to set up a dental practice, but the NJRC team set up the dentistry area in a record-breaking two months.
Iyer pointed out that there are correlations between poor oral health and heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and low birth weight and that his goal is to have people keep their teeth for life. He wants all his clients to have the best smile so they put their best selves forward in society.
Dr. Su Wang shared a tweet with the audience. The internist at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center said this is a story of a friend and colleague’s father. Her friend’s dad was diagnosed with Hepatitis C in 1998, 15 plus years after he stopped injecting drugs. He was ashamed about his time in prison and having the disease increased his feelings of shame. He had treatment in 2015 and now has the best health of his life in his 60s.
Wang said, “I think we can’t talk about the health of people who have experienced incarceration without talking about viral hepatitis. We now have cures for Hep C. It’s the leading cause of liver cancer. I’m so grateful for Gov. McGreevey recognizing that we need to screen people and provide them the treatment.”
Shuvendu Sen, the vice-chair of research at Hackensack Meridian Jersey Shore University Medical Center, said physicians will be challenged to show compassion for their patients and that in modern-day practice, doctors are in a rush to take care of signs and symptoms but fail to see the person behind the patient.
“Their medical disorders are invariably entwined with the social problems that they have, the tremendous stress, they come with trauma, domestic issues and financial hardships.”
New Jersey lobbyist Jeannine LaRue extended her thoughts to the former governor.
“Governor, being elected was one corner of your life. But the way you are changing lives every single day now, this is the real world. And I am just so proud to be a part of this. Every time I get that email from you and I know I got to travel for an hour, I’m like no, but once I get here, it feels so good.”
Assemblyman Raj Mukherji pledged the undying support and efforts of his office. He said they would meet in a few weeks to see what legislatively his office can do to support the efforts of the former governor’s reentry program.
McGreevey ended the event with gratitude and intention. “I just want to say thank you to everyone. This happens, because we’re all dedicated to this. And most importantly, what we believe is that every person should be entitled to the best health care we would want for our family. And this team is going to make sure that this is a reality.”
Ande Richards is new to New Jersey. She wants to hear from New Jersey’s communities of color, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ communities, and those who feel underserved by traditional media. She may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Instagram @angelcitygirl or Twitter @anderichards.
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