Finding Community in ‘The Loft’ at Columbia High School

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Staff at The Loft — Back Row – left to right: Jacques Hryshko – FAMILYConnections Executive Director; Amanda Santana - FAMILYConnections Director of Programs; Nicholas Cousar, BA – The Loft – Youth Development Specialist; Gillian McGrath, LCSW- Manager of The Loft; Mark Halliday, MA – The Loft – Employment Specialist. Front Row left to right: Jennifer Stuart, LSW – Clinician; Pettrianne Morris-Covington, LCSW – Clinician.

Staff at The Loft. Back Row left to right: Jacques Hryshko, FAMILYConnections Executive Director; Amanda Santana; Nicholas Cousar; Gillian McGrath; Mark Halliday. Front Row left to right: Jennifer Stuart and Pettrianne Morris-Covington.


Walking into The Loft at Columbia High School is reminiscent of a college dorm. Kids are chatting on the couches, playing pool, or using the facility computers to study. A program of Family Connections (a social services non-profit headquartered in East Orange), The Loft is open as a space for all CHS students to relax, do homework, and find support for any facet of life they find overwhelming.

The Loft began 10 years ago and currently serves more than 400 students at CHS, or more than 20% of the school’s population. With six professional staff members, The Loft supports students with counseling on many issues, including depression, bullying, and family conflicts among others. While private guidance is financially inaccessible to most and comes with a stigma that prevents many kids from seeking help, at The Loft, students call the counselors by their first names as they receive services that are entirely free and voluntary (with parental consent). Loft Manager, Gillian McGrath, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, but there is nothing institutional about her warmth. The center aims to provide students with professional services in a tolerant, lively, and personal atmosphere.

As Amanda Picone, the former manager and current Family Connections’ Director of Programs, explained, “students are the owners of this program.” Board game afternoons, rock-climbing trips, and a ping pong table are  just a few signs of a community of student leaders who determine The Loft’s programs, which also include youth employment support, academic guidance, enrichment courses, and team-building trips.

One of The Loft’s main goals is to promote a culture of self-advocacy. The staff coaches students to speak up for themselves, whether it is with a teacher or a stranger, teaching the skills of appropriate advocacy before students become too aggressive or too passive. The Loft has mentored students to take initiative from CHS to town hall, such as when a group of students once spoke out at the Maplewood Town Council against the dismissal of a well-loved School Resource Officer. While it is hard to quantify this kind of success, one indication of The Loft’s popularity is that a  majority of student seek out the center on their own after hearing about it through friends and community members.

And that community is large; besides CHS, The Loft partners with various organizations and businesses, including with the Achieve Foundation‘s program for tutoring services and with local businesses to obtain entry-level jobs for students after they go through interview, resume and certification workshops.

While The Loft is a state-funded program, it is very much of its community and the staff see themselves as full partners with the district and the town.

This model is followed by more than 90 New Jersey programs as part of the school-based model of early-prevention services. Funding comes from New Jersey’s Division of Family and Community Partnerships which operates under the New Jersey Division of Children and Families.  A similar Family Connections program is located just five minutes away. The Hub at Maplewood Middle School works according to the same school-based model and offers all services except the youth employment program. With half the budget, The Hub serves over 300 students, around 40% of the school.

While both The Loft and The Hub operate with state funding, Family Connections also relies on private donations. Besides financial contributions, other ways to help these centers include  donations of school and hygiene supplies as well as volunteering as a tutor.

The Loft is truly a neighborhood project and neighborhood resource. It is open to all CHS students during all lunch periods and everyday after school as well as 9th period. Picone asked, “what adolescent can get through four years without an issue?” In answering that question, The Loft has found its mission

To learn more about FAMILYConnections and The Loft, visit

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