First Cook-Off Commencement Celebrates Graduates of Brookdale Community College Culinary Arts Program in Partnership with NJ Reentry and Fulfill at JBJ Soul Kitchen 

The Brookdale Community College Culinary Arts Program, in partnership with NJ Reentry and Fulfill, celebrated its first-ever Cook-Off Commencement at JBJ Soul Kitchen on September 28. Inspiring speeches, recognition from community partners, and the proud graduation of culinary program students marked the event. The ceremony was presided over by Chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NLRC) Governor James McGreevy, who welcomed attendees and introduced Dorothea Hurley Bongiovi, a Brookdale alum and co-founder of JBJ Soul Kitchen.

Remarks were made by partners NJ Reentry COO Robert Carter, Culinary Arts Program Director Alan Esquite-Hernandez, Senator Vin Gopal, Monmouth County Prosecutor Raymond Santiago, Brookdale President Dr. David M. Stout, Fulfill CEO Triada Stampas, Monmouth County Warden Victor Iannello, Red Bank Mayor William Portman, Asbury Park Mayor John B. Moor, and Brookdale Continuing and Professional Development Acting Dean Susan Pagano. Graduates of the program received commendations on behalf of Senator Vin Gopal and Assemblywomen Kim Eulner and Marilyn Piperno.

In his opening remarks, Governor McGreevy highlighted the importance of community and collaboration as he thanked Hurley and all the partners that made this program possible. “We all need a lot more of that in this world and in our beloved country.” Hurley spoke about the mission of JBJ Soul Kitchen, saying, “We use food as the vehicle to connect people to resources in our area. We love our partnership with NJ Reentry and have always been open to breaking down barriers and bringing the community together.”

There were eight graduates of the culinary program. Three of them shared their thoughts and gratitude during the ceremony:
Graduate 1: “I want to thank you guys for giving me a chance at life. This program has helped me see my future going straight up to the top.”
Graduate 2: “This is the first time I ever gave myself a chance. I know I can do something great with my life, and I appreciate this program.”
Graduate 3: “I’ve been fighting my whole life, but I’m not going to stop swinging.”

Acknowledging the collaborative effort of various partners who contributed to the program’s success, the President of Brookdale Community College Dr. David M. Stout, expressed his gratitude for the opportunity NJ Reentry and Fulfill provided. He emphasized that “Brookdale’s mission is to provide pathways and opportunities for diverse communities to succeed.”

NJ Reentry’s CEO, Robert Carter, reflected on the program’s inception and its significance for individuals seeking to reintegrate into society. He praised the graduates’ dedication and the collaboration of all involved parties in breaking down barriers to success.

“The graduates put their trust in New Jersey Reentry, they put their trust in Fulfill, and they put their trust in Brookdale,” said Executive Chef Anthony Spaziano, the instructor from Brookdale. “It was the program’s inaugural journey, and we encountered some stumbling blocks along the way. But we made it through because these individuals persevered. They showed up every single time and put in the effort.”

In the program’s conclusion, the graduate chefs prepared a food tasting for the guests and Governor McGreevy praised the graduates for their unwavering determination and underscored the profound impact of education and community support in tackling societal issues. He emphasized the significance of providing second chances and equal opportunities to everyone.