Asbury Park Press
The teenage boy was in trouble constantly, suspended from school seven or eight times a year.
Then Maddison Van Der Mark met him last summer, at a Long Branch nonprofit where she was serving an internship. She understood where he was coming from, because shed been there.
I grew up as an at-risk child, said Van Der Mark, who hails from Wall. Divorced parents, alcohol abuse, violence in the home. The school system was not equipped to deal with me. I did not do very well in high school.
They bonded through a boxing program that lets kids channel their aggression.
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Since I started working with him, he hasnt been suspended once, Van Der Mark said. Hes 17 now. Hes coming into that mentor, leader role. Its pretty awesome watching them develop and seeing them want to go further.
Notice the plural them. Van Der Mark is having that kind of impact on dozens of participants in New Jersey Give a Kid a Dream, a Long Branch-based charity that uses boxing to teach life skills to at-risk youth. What began as an internship through Rutgers, where shes a junior, has become a calling. In addition to her studies, and a program she launched on campus to tutor fellow military veterans in writing, Van Der Mark is with the kids at Gleasons Gym three days a week.
Her efforts got the attention of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation, which last week awarded her a prestigious Truman Scholarship a $30,000 award for service-driven students. She is one of just 62 collegians from across the country so honored.
Truly well-deserved, said Jackie Atkins, founder of New Jersey Give a Kid a Dream. Maddison just brings such a heart of service to this organization. She has developed a rapport with all our youth. They trust her, the they rely on her, they confide in her. She is truly an amazing young lady.
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Tutoring fellow veterans
Van Der Mark, 24, took the long road to this point. After graduating from Wall High School in 2016 she enlisted in the Army, served four years and became a motor transport operator, moving large items like rockets on trucks.
At Rutgers she majors in history with a minor in military science. Early on, she saw a need in Rutgers tutoring offerings.
I realized it would be a lot more helpful if I had a veteran (tutor) with the same experience as a non-traditional student, she said. So I started a program called Veterans Tutoring Veterans.
Through Rutgers Veterans House and the colleges ROTC program, she tutors a dozen or more military-affiliated students per semester. That helped her scratch an itch but ultimately scratching wasnt enough.
There would be punching.
The virtues of boxing
Last year Van Der Mark took up amateur boxing.
Boxing requires 100% focus, she said. You cant think about anything else in the ring or youre going to get punched in the face. I used it as a way to get not only anger out, but to hold myself accountable.
That experience made her a perfect fit for New Jersey Give a Kid a Dream. She wound up interning there through the Rutgers Summer Service Internship Initiative, which connects undergrads with service-oriented nonprofits. After the internship ended, Van Der Mark kept showing up. She just wrote a successful application for a $140,000 grant.
I look at Maddison as my possible successor, Atkins said. Im so blessed and fortunate to have Maddison in my life and in the lives of these children. She has impacted so many, and I see her doing much more into the future.
Van Der Mark sees it, too.
Ill be there forever, she said.
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‘A community success’
After graduating Rutgers in 2024, Van Der Mark will serve another four-year commitment to the Army. Then shell pursue a graduate degree in education, applying the Truman Scholarship money toward that. Her ultimate goal is to help reform the way discipline is meted out in schools. Shed like to see counseling and constructive tasks replace out-of-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses.
Help them learn instead of just being sent home and told they were bad, she explained.
For now, Van Der Mark is tackling the system one kid at a time.
With the proper mentorship Im able to provide with the life experience I have, its extremely rewarding to see those changes, she said.
The Truman Scholarship, Van Der Mark said, is affirmation for everyone involved.
Its not just my success, she said. Its more of a community success, for the kids I work with and the veterans at school with me.
Jerry Carino is community columnist for the Asbury Park Press, focusing on the Jersey Shores interesting people, inspiring stories and pressing issues. Contact him at