Long Branch is a medium-sized coastal city of about 30,000 people in Monmouth County, N.J. Our oceanfront and riverfront location attracts many visitors to our outdoor and recreational amenities. The Long Branch Free Public Library (LBFPL; www.longbranchlib.org), a Carnegie Library that celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2016, serves an extremely diverse community at the Jersey Shore.
I (Lisa Kelly) have been the outreach and publicity manager at LBFPL since 2013. Prior to this, staff member Tonya Garcia had developed the Fresh Start Reentry Program to provide people who are coming out of prison with computer and job search skills while respecting their need for confidentiality and special assistance. This grassroots library program grew into an award-winning, statewide initiative. In this article, I’ll tell the story of why Garcia began Fresh Start at LBFPL, how we promoted it, and why it merited a larger reach. Then my co-author (Tiffany McClary) will pick up the story, detailing how she expanded the marketing when the New Jersey State Library (NJSL) developed our program into a statewide project with the support of an IMLS grant.
How and Why Long Branch Launched the Fresh Start Program
Fresh Start originated in 2009 to help ex-offenders who were making the effort to rejoin their communities and become productive, employed citizens. It aimed to provide the skills and support this population needed to break the cycle of recidivism.
The program grew out of LBFPL‘s state-of-the-art, award-winning Virtual Career Center (VCC) and its Back to Work initiative after Garcia, creator of the VCC, noticed that many job seekers had previously been arrested or incarcerated. A $44,000 NJSL Literacy Grant provided the ability to I expand pre-existing job seeking services and to offer the re-entry program to returning citizens. Garcia, now LBFPL’s director, recalls that the Fresh Start program took the best of the “back-to-work services provided by the VCC and tailored it to ensure that the program was confidential, personal, and relevant to a large portion of the community that had previously been ignored or underserved.”
Garcia had originally launched the program with group counseling and assessment sessions, but quickly realized that individual sessions were more successful. Because members of this community view their prior arrest and background as very personal, Garcia decided that their journey would start with scheduling an informal, private conversation that included details of their arrest history, their expectations, and their level of computer skills. This helped build a trusting relationship with a library staff member. From there, the staffer and client would outline a plan tailored to meet that client’s needs.
Garcia explains, “Many of our previously incarcerated visitors were further disadvantaged by not having advanced computer skills, or even any basic computer skills like using email or internet searching. In many scenarios, technology had advanced by light years while time had stopped for many offenders living in a cell behind “the wall.”
Once Fresh Start clients completed their program sessions, staffers encouraged them to use the library’s Technology and Career Center to conduct job searches, complete online job applications, practice with mock interviews, and continue learning computer skills to advance their education and job skills.
LBFPL Promotes Fresh Start
When Garcia began the outreach for Fresh Start back in 2009, she used basic promotional tools-fliers, brochures, and word of-mouth referrals. They proved more effective than advertising in local newspapers. One of the very first steps Garcia took was reaching out to the Long Branch police station and Monmouth County social service agencies. She also mailed her brochures to local faith-based organizations . LBFPL formed partnerships with the managers of nearby halfway houses to offer re-entry and library services to their residents . Eventually, direct partnerships with the Monmouth County Probation office and the Monmouth County Re-Entry Task Force brought more recognition and referrals to our program. (More recently, LBFPL has partnered with state and county nonprofits that provide addiction services.)
Garcia remembers, “Marketing this home-grown program proved difficult in the beginning. Social media was an emerging marketing tool and not yet heavily used in libraries. Furthermore, the stigma of having an arrest history provided a significant challenge. What worked then is not much different, in my opinion, than what works now. Whether during a news interview or in written text, the message must be sincere and relevant. Word of mouth, networking, and in-print tools proved most beneficial.”
In 2016, LBFPL partnered with the Master of Social Work pro gram at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, which placed student interns in the library to provide supervised social work outreach to our community . Our first intern, Miles Logan, was tasked with refreshing and reinvigorating our Fresh Start program, since Garcia has become the library’s director. He updated the policies and procedures, resources, and outreach materials. Expanding the reach of Fresh tart was Logan’s most important goal, so he initiated a vital collaboration with the Monmouth County Re-Entry Task Force, chaired by Robert Kantor of the New Jersey State Parole Board and Randy Schwartz of GEO Reentry Services. By attending the task force’s monthly meetings, Logan was able to spread the word beyond Monmouth County to increase statewide awareness of our innovative, helpful program. (It’s important to note here that our Fresh Start services were open to all, not only Long Branch residents. Clients themselves frequently referred others who could benefit from the services.)
In spring 2017, LBFPL became the first library in New Jersey to hire a full-time social worker. David Perez, who holds a master’s in social work, became the Fresh Start coordinator, and he embraced the challenge of continuing its growth and expanding its reach. He attends the monthly Monmouth County Re-Entry Task Force meetings and networks with re-entry organizations, the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, substance abuse groups, social service agencies, and other coalition members, including potential employers. Perez has presented virtually at the Monmouth County Drug Court, engaging with more than 100 drug court participants. He states, “This is how we get the word out. We go out into the community and tell them what we have to offer. Word of mouth has always been the most effective method of outreach. “
Fresh Start has received a great deal of state and national recognition, including mention in the 2013 Library Journal article “Prison and Libraries: Public Service Inside and Out” and the 2020 NJ Spotlight News video feature “NJ Library Program Looks to Provide ‘Fresh Start’ for Formerly-Incarcerated” It also garnered the NJSL Innovation Award in 2014.
In the 12 years of Fresh Start‘s existence, more than 170 clients have participated in and utilized various components of the program. Dozens have returned to the library to share their individual success stories of finding jobs or gaining the confidence to return to school.
The Transition From Local to Statewide Outreach
To broaden the efforts of LBFPL’s Fresh Start program, NJSL adopted it. NJSL applied for and received a National Leadership Grant from IMLS totaling $628,774. In partnership with LBFPL, the New Jersey State Parole Board, and the New Jersey Department of Labor & Workforce Development, NJSL expanded the program to six more public libraries. The statewide version, called Fresh Start@Your Library, launched in January 2020. (In September 2020, it expanded to include the Free Library of Philadelphia.)
As the director of communications, marketing, and outreach at NJSL, I (Tiffany McClary) was tasked with developing and executing a full-scale public-awareness campaign for this initiative. Although those in the Long Branch area were familiar with Fresh Start, I knew that raising awareness across the state was going to be a heavy lift. Typically, my office focuses our marketing efforts on the New Jersey library community. As a state agency, we do not have the funding or capacity to reach every single community in the state. Therefore, we rely on the 450-plus public library outlets to promote library services and programs within their own communities. The role of my office is to provide information, resources and support to libraries so they’re positioned to do their own marketing. So, the prospect of grant-funding is always an exciting opportunity for us to participate in more public-facing outreach.
Establishing the Brand
When the project was handed over to us, one of the first things we did was create a brand. Although we were adopting LBFPL’s program, it was important for us to distinguish this statewide initiative as its own standalone program that included but was not limited to the Long Branch community. It was vital for NJSL to develop a branding strategy, and as marketers, we know that starts with a great, eye-catching logo. After multiple internal brainstorming sessions, the team landed on the theme for the logo: a sun rising over an urban landscape. We felt that this captured the essence of the program, signifying a bright, new day-in other words, a fresh start.
The next step was creating a suite of marketing collateral for each participating library to use locally. This included informational brochures and fliers as well as tablecloths, 6-foot-tall pop-up banners, and tabletop signage for events. We also wanted to provide participants with branded giveaway items. Respecting the seriousness of the participants’ journey, we steered away from the “gimmicky” give aways and offered practical, useful items. Each participant who visited a library received a daily planner, a folder to store their paperwork, a pen, and a card/ID holder that attaches to the back of a cellphone, all emblazoned with the new logo.
Media Relations Strategy and Results
Our media outreach was aimed at three audiences: returning citizens, state legislators, and local businesses that were interest ed in hiring returning citizens. While the New Jersey State Parole Board did assist with sending referrals to the program, most participants came through word of mouth. Gov. Phil Murphy wrote NJSL a letter of support, which gave the program credibility within state government, and the legislators in each district with a participating library were excited to see this program coming to their communities. To get on the radar of the business community, we reached out to our business partners and asked them to send out information about the program to their various membership groups.
In my 16-plus years in the public relations and marketing industry, I have learned that the best way to engage with targeted audiences is to seek out assistance from the groups and associations that represent them. For example, the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey (AACCNJ) was very eager to share information about Fresh Start with its vast membership of Black- owned businesses. In addition to sharing our news via its email list, the AACCNJ also interviewed the Fresh Start program director and program manager during an episode of its radio show, The Empowerment Hour.
We created a media kit to support the launch (www.njstatelib.org/freshstart). In addition to NJSL’s Fresh Start@ Your Library webpage, LBFPL director Garcia spearheaded the creation of a web portal for clients, which features all participating libraries and partners (www.freshstartlibrary.com ).
Prior to launch, we issued a press release (www.njstatelib.org/press-releases/freshstart) and hit the ground running with pitching the local media. Local reporting in the six participating communities helped to spread the word regionally, and thanks to reports from NJTV, NJ.com, NJ Spotlight News, and New Jersey 101.5, we were able to cast a wider net across the state. Interest in the program has been stellar.
Our big break came when I received an email from an NPR producer. She was reaching out to state libraries in our region to find out how the COVID-19 pandemic was affecting library services. During this conversation, I discussed Fresh Start@ Your Library and how our social workers continued to provide virtual services and held resource fairs via Zoom for formerly incarcerated New Jersey residents throughout the pandemic. This sparked her interest, and after a few conversations , we landed a really nice feature (http://bit.ly/_NPRstory) as well as a follow-up podcast interview with two of our program participants.
Ads and Additional Marketing Tactics
My team also focused on social media. I knew it would be difficult to build a following from scratch, especially for such a niche audience, so I decided to leverage the large social media following that NJSL already had. I made this strategic decision for two reasons: 1) Time was of the essence; we needed to get the word out quickly to get participants enrolled in the program, and 2) There was no guarantee that funding would be extended beyond the current grant cycle. I didn’t want to cultivate a following and then leave the audience hanging. So, instead of creating separate social media accounts for this program, we created specific hashtags: #myfreshstart, #myjourney, and #mylibrary. We selected these phrases because they personalized the message. We hoped that participants would fully embrace these hashtags and associate them with the program, which I believe they did.
Another exciting highlight was that we were able to purchase outdoor and mass transit advertising. I have been with NJSL for nearly 9 years, and during my tenure, this is only the second time we’ve been able to do it. Thanks to the IMLS funds, we could deploy billboards in each of the six participating cities, along with New Jersey Transit ads, including bus wraps, interior bus cards, and posters at train stations. Since these ads would be seen by folks who were on the go, we knew we had to keep the message short and succinct. The ads displayed our logo, URL, and phone number, along with the tagline “Home from Prison? We Can Help.”
Looking Ahead, Hoping to Expand
More than 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons every year, and thousands more are released from local jails. Many have a difficult time transitioning, primarily because of a lack of employment. This continues the cycle of poverty and crime, which has negative social and economic effects on us all. Fresh Start addresses this while positioning libraries as linchpins in their communities.
Our experience with Fresh Start@ Your Library has brought something very important to our attention. While this program has only served men, we’ve found that women who are returning home after having been in prison have unique needs that are typically unaddressed by community re-entry service providers. Therefore, NJSL has submitted a grant application to IMLS for a 2-year project to expand services, through nine public libraries, to formerly incarcerated women and to advance the concept at the foundation of Fresh Start. We hope the work we will do with this grant will provide a comprehensive model nationwide to effectively serve both female and male citizens as they return home.
Lisa Kelly is the outreach and publicity manager at the Long Branch Free Public Library in New Jersey. She holds a BA in English from Georgian Court University in Lakewood, NJ. Her email address is LKelly@longbranchlib.org.
Tiffany McClary is the director of communications, marketing and outreach at the New Jersey State Library. She holds a BA in journalism, public relations, and advertising from Temple University in Philadelphia; an M.A. in communications from Monmouth University in Long Branch, NJ; and an M.A. in public service leadership from Thomas Edison State University in Trenton, NJ. Her email address is email@example.com.