Lindsay Benko, a South Plainfield middle schooler, was watching the news earlier this year when she got a spark of inspiration.
A story about a girl her age who makes pillowcases for charity was being featured, and Benko, 12, decided she wanted to do something similar.
With the help of her mother, Celis, Benko started "Bags of Hope" a project that entails making 50 bags, each hand-decorated, to be donated to children served by Elijah's Promise.
To complete the bags, Benko had help from a special group of high school students in New Brunswick, all enrolled in Middlesex County College's EMPOWER program.
The Encouraging and Mentoring Peers On Work and Education Readiness (EMPOWER) program is an academic assistance program at Middlesex County College that specifically targets Latino, college bound high school students in New Brunswick.
The program offers tutoring and community service opportunities, as well as guidance in getting them ready for college and exposure to college-level classes, according to Evelyn Rosa, Director of Middlesex County College's New Brunswick Center.
Assisted by 12 college-age volunteers from Rutgers University and Middlesex County College (MCC), 22 students from New Brunswick High School and New Brunswick Health Sciences Technology High School attend the program three to four times a week, Rosa said.
Five of the high schoolers are currently enrolled in college level classes and are beginning to matriculate college credits to apply to their education when they graduate, she said.
The program is fairly intense, but tailored to meet each student's needs, Rosa said. Each student must complete at least six hours of tutoring per week, and volunteer for 25 hours of community service work each semester representing EMPOWER.
Through this work, the hope is that the students get a better idea of what is expected of them in college, and assists them in building relationships before they get there, she said.
Since the program's inception, every student who has gone through it has graduated high school, and many went on to study at MCC, Rosa said.
One of those students is Cynthia Cruz, 21, a junior at Rutgers University studying planning and public policy.
Cruz was in the first group of students to go through the program, and has since stayed on as a volunteer.
Growing up in New Brunswick, Cruz said she did not have all the resources she needed to help her in school.
She stayed with EMPOWER as a way of giving back to the community and helping out students who are coming up through high school the same way she did.
"They love coming here, and I love tutoring them," she said.
Through EMPOWER, Cruz said she was exposed to other self-improvement programs in New Brunswick, such as the leadership program offered by New Brunswick Tomorrow.
"I became a better person because of EMPOWER," she said.
Rosa said that in talking to the students about college classes, many express a fear that college will be too hard. But after trying the early enrollment college courses, just as many state that it was not as difficult as they anticipated.
"That's exactly what I want to hear," Rosa said.
For more information on the EMPOWER program, click here.