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A 36 year old, Trenton-based nonprofit that fosters self-reliant families and healthy, sustainable communities.

Isles 35th Anniversary

A Look Back

In recognition of our 35th anniversary, Isles is sharing memories from 35 friends--volunteers, community members, donors, and colleagues--who have helped make our work possible. Stories will be posted below, and you can also follow them all with #Isles35th on facebook and twitter.

Harold Shapiro
President Emeritus & Professor of Economics and Public Affairs, Princeton University

When I first met Marty Johnson, I was very impressed by his dedication and commitment to helping those who needed help and had very few assets to rely on. Here was this young man who was 35 years younger than he is now, and he was undaunted by the obvious cliffs he had to climb in order to offer some useful services to the community. Isles was always thinking about new things in new ways and would not get pulled down if the last experiment was not as successful as anticipated. Its focus was genuinely on the people who needed help, and not on itself or its ideas; as far as I could see, there was no ego involved in this, which is rare. From the very beginning, it was clear to me that Isles was completely dedicated to doing something against all odds.

These are the things that have attracted me to Isles and encouraged me to, in some modest way, support them. I try to continue to be helpful in some small way. There are not enough people visiting Isles and seeing what they’re doing and who they’ve helped. Whether it’s helping high school students obtain their GED or teaching the city about lead or energy use, Isles is giving people a leg up in life if they are prepared and ready to take advantage of these opportunities. I’ve not come across any organization which has been so flexible, so innovative, both in the nature of its programs and how it mobilizes funding. For every organization like this that gets started, maybe one in a hundred celebrate a 35th anniversary. Good luck to Isles. I hope it’s around for a long time.

Debby D'Archangelo
Council for Relationships, CEO

In the mid-1990s, I left the private banking division of a Wall Street investment firm in order to help low-income, urban communities. I don't think that it's fair that some people in our society have so many more opportunities than others, and I wanted to help "level the playing field." I found a job available at Isles in the help wanted ads, learned about all that Isles does, and my five-and-a-half years working there followed.

The more things change at Isles, the more they seem to stay the same.  Although the organization has grown significantly in the number of programs offered and people served, Isles hasn't changed its essential mission of helping people help themselves.  It continues to be a cutting-edge organization which never stops learning and never stops helping others - people and organizations - learn.

Michele Minter
Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity at Princeton University

My husband Jeff Yuan and I first got involved with Isles about fifteen years ago after taking our children on a garden tour. We were moved by the gardeners' creativity, pride, and sense of ownership. From there we discovered the full range of remarkable programming that Isles leads. Isles has grown more complex and its projects evolve over time, but it stays grounded in its mission-- a belief that local residents should have the tools to shape their own future.

I was involved in the development of the current strategic plan, and the most striking area of innovation has been the recognition that Isles' experience equips it to influence policy and share best practices with other organizations and thought leaders. Isles understands that lasting change -- for individuals and for our region -- requires working on multiple fronts in a synergistic way. It empowers people, it supports other nonprofits, it partners with city and state governments. It is rigorously committed to real outcomes and yet it isn't afraid to innovate. It is playing a unique leadership role in our region. As a result, people's lives are changed for the better.

Jeanne Oswald
Former Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Training

After retiring from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education where I served as Executive Director, I was assisting on the Isles Capital Campaign Steering Committee. Marty and Liz asked me if I would oversee a new Green Job Training Center. I was reluctant to take on a new job after 30 years of working in education and state government, but I greatly admired Isles' longstanding commitment to Trenton and self-reliant communities, so I agreed to work only 3 to 6 months to kickstart the Center for Energy and Environmental Training (CEET). The mini-miracles that ensued were beyond my imagination and so inspiring that I devoted 4 years of my life to being part of Isles and its amazing work.

Trenton, like many urban centers, is faced with a myriad of issues and opportunities. Thankfully, Isles' efforts over 35 years have positively shaped the lives and futures of so many. The commitment and persistence of Isles moves Trenton (and other communities) toward self reliance, good health, and prosperity. We should all care, as we are, in fact, all in this together.

John Cross
Weatherization Manager, Ocean Community Economical Action Now, Inc.

In 2009, I was laid off after 23 years of service to a national cable company. I needed to reinvent myself. There were a lot of new opportunities in the solar energy field at the time, and I wanted to get involved, but I didn't have the training or certifications I needed. I found out about Isles, applied online, and I was granted a training seat for Solar.

With the knowledge I gained at Isles' Center for Energy and Environmental Training, I was able to successfully transition into a completely new industry. In fact, I went from CEET trainee to a full-time Isles employee. I helped manage Isles' weatherization program for several years before moving into my current position, as the Weatherization Manager at Ocean Community Economical Action Now. Over the years, I've seen first-hand how Isles keeps in step with what is required by the energy conservation industry. They are there to help get hard working people, who are caught up in the many lay-offs occurring throughout the state, to gainful employment.

Douglass W. Moreland
US Air Force Airman, former IYI student

When I first moved to Trenton, I was looking for a school to attend. My dad was about to enroll me into Trenton High until my aunt mentioned Isles Youth Institute. She talked about how they could help me graduate because at the time I saw school as a waste of time and wanted nothing to do with it. Lucky for me, they came through.

Isles showed me that I was going to obtain nothing in life if I didn’t put in any work for it. I rarely showed up to school, and when I did go, I didn’t want to do my work. I didn’t care about the future. I never expected that I would ever become anything, so I never tried to be anything. I often isolated myself from people who tried to help me because it made me feel horrible knowing that other people put in more effort for me than me, but Isles kept at it. In the end, they changed my life for the better.

I hope they are able to continue helping people the same way they helped me. I know it’s not easy since I’m part of the generation that seems to have no goals in life other than live one day at a time. A generation that needs help even if people don’t want to admit it, but I’m glad Isles was there for me. 

Ed Butler
Trenton School Board

I learned about Isles through Liz Johnson, the first Recreation and Natural Resource Director at the City of Trenton. I worked for Liz before I left the state to go to Charles F. Hickey—the largest juvenile facility for children in the nation. I was running this private, for-profit corrections facility, but I didn’t like what I was doing. I wanted to divert young people from jail, rather than catch them when in jail. Through Liz, I met Marty and learned about Isles YouthBuild. My background in the Juvenile Justice Commission as well as in education and recreation made me feel that YouthBuild would be a good fit for me.

The opportunity came around as Isles was looking for a new leader at YouthBuild. At the time, they had primarily one grant (a YouthBuild federal grant). Around 2001, I came in, established relationships with the Board of Education, found teachers, and increased funding. I established a relationship with the Juvenile Justice Commission to recruit kids and support. I created a YouthBuild residential center. I established a close relationship with Dorothy Stoneman at YouthBuild USA. I built strong relationships across the state resulting in additional money, and we had close to 200 kids. 

I was told a long time ago that Isles is a sleeping giant, and that when it realizes its potential, it will become more than a community leader— it will be a community changer. I’ve seen Isles grow and become more influential—not just in education, but also in housing, gardens, etc. It is now in a seat of influence, and when you give them a grant, you know they’re going to take care of it with integrity. My hope is for YouthBuild—that it would become an alternative school for the Trenton School Board. Right now kids are being sent out of the school district for alternative school. It’s easy to take kids out of environment, but harder to change kids in their current environment. However, it is more sustainable to do it that way so that kids can learn about the resources around them and how to use them to sustain themselves.

Andre Thomas
Isles Training Manager, Center for Energy and Environmental Training

I’ve been with Isles for 15 years now. When I first learned about Isles and its mission of fostering self-reliance, I felt that it was something I really believed in and could get behind.

I started out with YouthBuild, mentoring and training young people, something I still care a lot about. After a couple years, Isles began creating a new green job training center for unemployed and underemployed adults, which was exciting because it was keeping up with what was going on around us in the green energy and environmental field. They saw how my skill sets might benefit that effort, so I began training to become a Training Manager at CEET. There are great things that happen because of CEET. We train unemployed adults, they get hired, and then a little later down the line, we see them return in a company car, on the company’s dime. They’re now valuable employees and their workplaces want to continue to invest in them. It’s amazing to be a part of that cycle.

I’m able to grow and try different things at Isles because it is such a comprehensive organization. Even though I’m part of CEET now, I go downstairs all the time to interact with the youth. I tell them about what I do now, try to gauge their interest so I can see if this is something they might want to be a part of. I look at them, their hardships and obstacles, and I’m reminded of my past; I want them to see where I am now, so they can see what their future could look like.

Reverend Art Stanley

In the early 1980’s, I was the Director of TEAM (Trenton Ecumenical Area Ministry). I recall Marty Johnson, a recent graduate from Princeton University, approaching us about partnering around an urban redevelopment project in Trenton. He convinced us of the soundness and validity of the project, and thus began a supportive relationship that continued for several years.

One of the early projects of Isles was urban gardening. Marty secured a well-qualified Director for the project named Elizabeth Lewis (Liz) who led “The Greening of Trenton” (Trenton Times, July 3, 1983). With her skill and enthusiasm, Liz soon had corn and beans sprouting in the city and fresh lettuce on many-a kitchen table. It was no surprise to us that Marty was quite impressed with Liz…

I recall one other early relationship with Isles when Marty asked me to assist in helping to form a Board of Directors for the fledgling organization. We drew upon proven urban activist leaders of the community who agreed to serve, and soon had an energetic and functioning Board. Marty’s vision and steady leadership provided the impetus for an enthusiastic group of folks who began to see “possibilities” where others saw despair.Over the years, I have followed the development of Isles with great interest and commend Marty Johnson and the organization for all that has been accomplished. It was a privilege to play a small role in the birth of such an important and vital organization. Congratulations to all!