By Diane Gooch
“WE PLAN AND God laughs,” so the old adage goes, and never have I felt more connected to that sentiment than now. Many of our readers may recall that it was just over a year ago when I redirected the momentum and energy started by my congressional campaign into a public interest and political advocacy group called Strong New Jersey. Running for Congress was never something I aspired to do and leading a group that was focused on political action was not part of my plan either, so I thought.
Strong New Jersey went to work in earnest and has spent this past year highlighting important issues in our state and country. We have actively supported Governor Christie’s education and civil service reforms here in New Jersey and have engaged in the successful effort to promote extending the Bush tax-cuts nationally. We have highlighted candidates at the local, state and federal level, who believe in the importance of growing small businesses, reducing the size and burden of government and strengthening our thriving shoreline, both environmentally and economically.
While most of our activity under this banner has focused on political campaigns and the issues that dominate the current public debate, it is the work we have done on some lesser-known issues that leave me feeling particularly satisfied as I reflect on this past year. My involvement in these initiatives is rooted in my profound love for children and my hope to improve public policies that give our future generations a better life.
I realized that one of the many benefits of having an active organization that engaged in politics was the chance to deal with elected officials beyond political campaigns and in a way that positively affected policy. Two New Jersey Congressmen deserve my public thanks for supporting initiatives that I view as critical issues that must be addressed; one globally and one domestically.
This summer, New Jersey Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ), along with 50 bipartisan co-sponsors, introduced H.R. 2600 (the Pediatric Acquired Brain Injury Plan Act) which will fund a seven-year, $2.9 billion national initiative to implement the National Pediatric Acquired Brain Injury Plan (PABI Plan). The legislation has gained over 85 co-sponsors and is winning broad-based support from liberal and conservative public interest groups alike. Support has also come from veterans groups who are seeing the horrors of traumatic brain injury in many wounded soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The PABI Plan develops a seamless, standardized, evidence-based system of care that is universally accessible for the millions of American families that have a child or young adult suffering from the leading cause of death and disability for our youth: brain injury.
In the prior Congress, Representative Frank Pallone (D-NJ) had chaired the Health subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee in the House that failed to act on the bill. Efforts to lobby Congressman Pallone failed and the bill languished until Congressman Lance, now a majority member of the Energy and Commerce committee, took a leadership role in introducing the bill. This is the type of legislation that will serve the public well, will have a long-lasting positive effect and fits my definition of making a real difference.
Last March, I visited the South Sudan on a trip sponsored by Christian Solidarity International (CSI) to help deliver humanitarian relief to repatriated slaves who were released from the North back to the South. It was there that I met a young former slave named Ker Deng, who had been beaten and blinded by his old slave-master. Upon returning to the United States, my colleague Ellen Ratner and I met with New Jersey Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), who chairs the African Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. We discussed my trip, as well as the overall issue of slavery and human rights violations taking place in the Sudan. Specifically, we asked for Chairman Smith’s help in obtaining a health visa for Ker to come to the US to receive potentially life-changing eye surgery.
Thanks to the support and leadership of Chairman Smith, Ker was granted a visa, and received the surgery at Wills Eye Institute in Philadelphia. He has had made slow but steady progress since the surgery and now is learning English and music at Lighthouse International, a school for the blind in Manhattan. Lighthouse’s President and CEO is former Howell Township Mayor Mark Ackerman, who along with Congressman Smith, whose district includes parts of Monmouth County, have been valuable partners in the effort to help Ker.
A few weeks later, Ker testified before Chairman Smith’s subcommittee about his life as a slave. Witnessing this young boy confidently testifying before a congressional committee with the placard in front of him reading “Mr. Deng” was one of the most touching experiences of my life. It served as a reminder of what an exceptional country we live in, where a young man who has grown up with no dignity and personal rights half a world away can come here to share his story, and petition our government at its highest level to help eradicate the plague of slavery in his home country.
So a group that I planned to focus on issues related to New Jersey has partnered with two of our state’s Congressional members to make a national and global impact as well. This is one instance where I am glad things have not gone according to plan.