Destiny Wilson spent the other day drifting down the languid Cooper River away from Camden, toward the Delaware, in a canoe that she built with her own hands. Excitedly, she identified a double-crested cormorant, then a bald eagle and a few blue herons as they dozed in the shade or soared above.
It’s difficult to imagine that, growing up in East Camden, Wilson, 18, once knew the Cooper River only in passing, her imagination stifled for years by Camden’s concrete confines. These days, she’s something of an expert on the water, but her aspirations don’t end at the Delaware.
“I always wanted to go places when I was a kid, but I just never put in the work to get there,” she said. Today Wilson talks seriously about traveling beyond the city of her birth to such far-flung places as Greece and Switzerland. First, her sights are set on college. If all goes according to plan, she said, she’ll be her family’s first college graduate. She wants to study environmental science.
Wilson is one of five Camden high school students who are spending the summer as “river guides” for the nonprofit RiverGuides program sponsored by UrbanPromise Ministries, a nonprofit that works with the city’s young.
Founded three years ago through a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the RiverGuides program pays students such as Wilson to guide folks through the river. Camden residents paddle free of charge. Others must pay a small fee. Throughout the trip, the young guides narrate the local history of landmarks on the river and present ecological findings from their own research.
“Some people think because the Cooper River’s in Camden, it’s dirty,” said Hannah Morales, 22, who has supervised the program the last two years. “We make residents see that within this city, which can be a bit rough around the edges, there is this beautiful river.”
All RiverGuides expeditions are led by Wilson and this summer’s four other guides, joined also by two paid supervisors like Morales and usually one volunteer. The typical paddle is for the benefit of Camden residents who have never been on the river before, Morales said.
The canoes, most hand-built by students in the UrbanPromise Boatworks shop, hit the water near the Kaighn Avenue Dam. They traverse toward the Delaware River, winding among such landmarks as the Campbell’s Soup headquarters, Gateway Park, and the Federal Street Bridge. After roughly three hours, the trip ends at Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden where a shuttle returns participants to the launching point.
The guides not only know the history of the Federal Street Bridge back to the American Revolutionary War, but they also gladly identify an amalgam of birds that have come to call the Cooper home. And as part of their job, guides conduct water-quality assessments on the river twice a week, testing for pH level, dissolved oxygen, turbidity level and nitrates. All tests come back within the standard range, the river guides said, and then explained the purpose behind each test.
Wilson, in particular, took the lessons she learned with RiverGuides to heart. Now she’s returned for her second summer as a guide.
“This is actually my job,” she said. “I can’t believe I get paid for this!”
Wilson said the RiverGuides program changed her life, and made her appreciate her city in new ways.
“[My view of] Camden has changed a lot now that I’ve gotten to be on the water and see it from a different point of view,” she said. “I just love everything here so much.”
Most who sign up for the tours have never been on a boat, Morales said, like most of the seven kids who came from Trenton last week to join the Camden guides. Those who hadn’t been on the water before were a bit shaky at first.
“Oh, Jesus, how am I getting in that thing?” asked Arianna Alexander, 15, just before the paddle. But as the group pressed toward the Delaware River, everyone became visibly more relaxed and comfortable with one another. Some raced, others collected litter, searched for birds. Still more lingered behind to chat.
“It was a good experience,” Alexander said to the group after the paddle. “I’m glad I didn’t drown.”
The kids from Trenton and Camden were joined last Friday by Maria Blatcher of Moorestown, who volunteered to help organize the trip.
“The contrast of the wealth in a community like Moorestown to the poverty in a city like Camden is striking,” Blatcher said. “And it’s just inspiring to watch these kids try something new and see their city from a new perspective for the first time.”
Camden’s poverty seems almost impossible to escape, even out on the Cooper River. As the canoes glide peacefully under bridges, it doesn’t take long to notice the glaring evidence of Camden’s reality, the makeshift living conditions of the city’s poorest beneath bridges.
Blatcher said she was inspired to volunteer her time and effort when she saw a 20/20 program on child poverty in Camden more than a decade ago. As it turned out, one of the river guides, Ivan Stevens, now 17, was featured in that 2007 episode. At the time, he and his mother and younger brother were homeless.
Today, Stevens aspires to be a journalist, he said, and keeps a journal on him almost all the time.
Stevens said that his mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm last month and that the UrbanPromise community and the RiverGuides have given him a second family. “They were always there for me,” he said. “They gave me a shoulder to lean on.”
And as for this summer, Stevens is ready to share the river with any and all who are interested: “I see stuff differently now. It’s a new life out here. It’s waiting for different people to see.”
By Will Feuer, Staff Writer
Maggie Loesch, Photographer
…Just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way… When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room—plenty good room—for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well... like we are actually family.
—The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry
Bishop Michael B. Curry’s sermon during the royal wedding in May goes to the heart of the UrbanPromise vision and founding mission in Camden, NJ, 30 years ago.
Love was not the way for young people who were driven to gangs out of desperation, hustling for whatever money they could make. I remember some of them very well. I remember their hopelessness and fear that they would never be employable, that their zip code would dictate their future, and that life for them looked like dying or going to prison by age 20.
I loved these kids. I wanted so badly to give them something different, something better, something hopeful. With limited resources and a few committed donors, we started the StreetLeader Program to provide hope and income for our teens, but also to anchor them in a way that would offer them a future. Some of them were too old or already lost to the streets by the time our job program launched in 1994. I regret not having more to offer them.
Since then, and thanks to you, we’ve been able to hire thousands of teens. UrbanPromise has hired at least 80-110 teens each year for the past 24 years. Together with our teens, we’ve created a culture of love that transforms our young StreetLeaders and trains them to be leaders in our community.
On the same day as the royal wedding, another important ceremony was taking place, but much closer to home. Dominic Bowman, former UrbanPromise StreetLeader and also the first person in his family to go to college, walked across the stage and received his degree from Montclair State University. It was not an easy journey. His mother passed away halfway through his first year of college. He no longer had a home to return to on breaks.
But the UrbanPromise family was there for Dominic, including attending the funeral in full force. Sitting in the pews, watching his family file in, I was struck with the realization that I knew his brothers and cousins. Five of them were young men I met at the beginning of my journey with UrbanPromise, young men who had succumbed early on to the pull of streetlife in Camden.
“Dominic, how did you end up on such a different path than your brothers?” I asked after the service.
“My brothers brought me to UrbanPromise when I was 4,” he explained. “There were summer camps and after-school programs, and I came every day. All those years, UrbanPromise was there for me. My family moved a lot, but UrbanPromise always stayed connected. They would pick me up and take me home every day. I had a StreetLeader who took me under his wing. Then I became a StreetLeader, because I wanted to give the same thing to other kids.”
He continued, “UrbanPromise gave me the opportunity my mom desperately wanted for me, for us. I became her hope. So it was for her that I went to college. Thanks to my StreetLeader job and the scholarships from UrbanPromise, I was able to finish.”
This summer we will hire 102 teens to run summer camps with us. They will work hard, they will be challenged and learn to be on time and work with people who look different from them. They will make children laugh and give them a reason to come to camp every morning. They will earn a paycheck, go to tutoring, and be a Bible buddy. They will love and be loved.
Please sponsor a StreetLeader today. Thank you for making love “the way” at UrbanPromise.
P.S. Did you hear?! We are excited to announce that Bishop Michael B. Curry will be the special guest speaker at our 30th Anniversey Celebration Banquet on October 23rd. Tickets go on sale July 1st. Sign up to be a StreetLeader Sponsor ($504 or more) and we will hold two complimentary tickets for you.
By: Amanda Bauman, Senior Manager Community Affairs
Volunteering is one of the most valuable things you can do for another human being, and it goes a long way. But as a Purpose-driven company, we have the opportunity – indeed, the responsibility — to give back on a larger scale.
It is truly #GivingthatMatters.
It starts with our employees, right in our backyard, where big things are happening in small organizations such as UrbanPromise.
Tony Vega, head of the UrbanPromise StreetLeader program in Camden, N.J., says, “it’s about belonging – to a family, to a supportive environment – and that belonging changed my life.”
Tony grew up in Camden like many youth in the city: on the wrong path, and searching for hope. That’s when he found UrbanPromise, a 30-year-old youth development organization, which works to equip children and young adults with critical skills necessary for academic achievement, life management, and leadership.
I’m proud that Campbell was UrbanPromise’s first corporate supporter. For two decades, we have provided more than $700,000 in cash and in-kind support for its summer camps, youth job training opportunities, alternative high school, and more.
The investment enables UrbanPromise to deliver a 100 percent high school graduation rate in a city where the average hovers at 60 percent. Of these graduates, 97 percent go to college, and many come back to volunteer with UrbanPromise. In fact, 30 percent of UrbanPromise staff are alumni of its youth development programs – Tony Vega among them.
Working with UrbanPromise for more than 10 years, I can attest to the feeling of family as soon as you step onto the campus. From the smiling faces to the bright artwork to the kids telling jokes, you can’t help but feel you belong to this amazing place.
I’ve enabled our employees to support UrbanPromise in many ways, everything from renovating a kitchen to laying a concrete sidewalk to mentoring youth to, most recently, building the organization’s strategic plan.
Participating in a service week event is only the beginning.
Getting folks excited about helping UrbanPromise is easy – the faces of the hundreds of successful youth is more than enough.
Recently, Campbell’s corporate leadership team, including CEO Denise Morrison, spent the afternoon at UrbanPromise, sharing career advice with teens and having strategic discussions with staff on branding, values, and their social enterprise.
When they identify additional needs, Campbell employees continue to help. Case in point: While tutoring UrbanPromise high schoolers on the SAT, another colleague struck up a conversation with staff about their branding needs.
He’s now spearheading a branding committee – something the organization could not have resourced on its own.
Each year, I introduce our employees to our remarkable network of non-profit partners spanning 28 locations where we have operations. The fact I can continually enable those partnerships is why I know I have the best job around. And during our annual week of service, I’ll get to see that happen again and again, in support of more than 60 organizations across the U.S.
It just happens to be my favorite week of the year.
Follow the action through #givingthatmatters on Instagram and Twitter.
“I’m so impressed with the work you do in Camden!”
This is the single most common comment I hear from supporters, volunteers, corporate sponsors, event guests, and, recently, a local senator! As a matter of fact, UrbanPromise was formally recognized in 2017 as NPO of the Year by the Non Profit Development Center of Southern New Jersey, for outstanding contribution to and impact on the community. We are extremely proud of this award because it acknowledges the high quality programs we offer, and the talented staff we employ who are devoted to lifting up the children of Camden every day. I hope it encourages you to know that the organization you so generously support every year is being honored for excellence, and I hope you share in our pride!
We are grateful to God for this season of awards and recognition. The work we do here in Camden is hard and there are many challenges and setbacks. Today, we invite you to share in our victories as we look towards our 30-year celebration this fall. Thank you for making our work possible!
Whatever is true...whatever is lovely...dwell on these things.
I recently watched a TEDx talk by retired National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones entitled "Celebrate What's Right With the World!"
As a brilliant career photographer, Jones talks about "putting on a lens of celebration"—a lens that intentionally looks for beauty, for goodness, and for the things that are wonderful in the world. Breathtaking photos punctuate his presentation. I'd recommend you listen. Dewitt has got me thinking about being more intentional in choosing and securing this "lens of celebration" that he maintains will fill my soul and help me live more gratefully.
With this on my mind, I was thrilled to read a letter this week from a former UrbanPromise Academy student named Jessica. Her life was transformed by our high school Trekker program.
"Trekkers taught me to find beauty in every situation," she eloquently wrote, "even unfavorable ones."Jessica gushed about paddling a canoe in the Pine Barrens, climbing Mt. Washington in New Hampshire, and kayaking in Maine.
"Being able to walk around the Pine Barrens and smell the scent of the trees and hear noises other than car horns and trains was amazing." For a city kid like Jessica, exposure to nature is a really big deal. It changed her view of the world. It changed her self-perception. It fed her soul.
"When you step away from what's familiar to you, you gain clarity," she philosophized. "I learned to stop and absorb all the good things God has put around me."
It has been 10 years since Jessica graduated from our high school, but her experiences hiking trails, identifying birds, and pitching tents still guide her decisions, shape her faith, and bring meaning to her life. After high school, Jessica graduated from Bloomfield College with a BA in Psychology. She now works for Bancroft NeuroRehab which serves individuals with various developmental and intellectual delays. She hopes to go back for a Masters of Psychology one day and work with young people in Camden.
Jessica is living proof of the work we do at UrbanPromise. Our staff gives Camden's youth more than just an education. We provide skills and experiences that build faith, character, and a deeper understanding of God's purpose for their lives—we help them find that lens of celebration.
The apostle Paul makes a promise to the church in Philippi. Paul assures that if the community of saints is intentional about focusing on truth, beauty, and honorable and praiseworthy things, the "God of peace will be with you."
That's a promise we want for every kid at UrbanPromise. Please keep our UrbanTrekkers trekking by sponsoring an upcoming trip.
May peace be with you.
Dr. Bruce Main
PS. We made a decision 10 years ago that if we wanted to be successful in preparing our students for college and life after UrbanPromise we needed to do school differently – the classroom would be without walls. “Thinking Outside” would become the tag line. Whether paddling a canoe you built with your math teacher on the tidal Cooper River that flows through your city as you learn about the ecology and history of the Delaware River Watershed or hiking the nation’s capitol, visiting Arlington National Cemetery and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum - we would call it school. These experiences are all privately funded - help us to continue to transform the lives of kids by sponsoring our unique and powerful Trekker program.
Fellowship House and UrbanPromise Ministries are excited to announce that these two long-standing, mission-driven organizations, have come to an agreement in principle, that UrbanPromise will continue the Christian mission of Fellowship House in South Camden. As part of this agreement, Fellowship House's facilities will be transferred to UrbanPromise, and UrbanPromise will continue to serve the children and families of the neighborhood in much the same way as Fellowship House has done these past 52 years. We are hopeful to complete the transition by mid-May 2018 and look forward to announcing more details and events at that time Please stay tuned for more information coming soon about Camp Peace at Fellowship House in the summer 2018 – it’s right around the corner!
Usually I look forward to writing about the exciting things happening on our campus in Camden, and sharing stories about the incredible kids we serve here. But I take no pleasure in what I have to share with you today.
As you know, on Valentine’s Day, a lone gunman breached the security of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and ruthlessly killed 17 children and teachers, injuring 14 more.
Like you, I barely can comprehend that this is not only possible but that more than 31 school shootings have occurred in the United Stated in the last 10 years. So many in fact, that this generation of precious children are increasingly referred to as “Generation Massacre” or “Generation Columbine.” The mind reels at the very notion.
So here at UrbanPromise, it’s time to think about the unthinkable.
We need to retrofit and upgrade our buildings to make sure our children are safe and protected every day. Many local public schools in South Jersey have each spent over half a million dollars building vestibules and installing automatically locking doors and cameras.
We don’t have that kind of budget here, but it does not diminish our responsibility to keep our children safe.
I need your help to add some important security features to our buildings.
Because our children already face enough traumatic issues - feeling unprotected at UrbanPromise should not be one of them.
I look forward to hearing from you!
Dr. Bruce Main
P.S. On March 14th, our students will stand in solidarity with high school students across the country during the walkout and will also join a local march on the 24th as we encourage them to contribute their young voices to a national conversation. Two of our students, whose families have been impacted by gun violence have been invited to speak. We are proud of them and we support them.
Ways you can help make our campus more secure!
- Fire extinguishers (20 needed), $47
- Blinds for classroom and sanctuary windows, library and installation (26 needed), $75
- Upgrade door monitoring system for the high school, $1,000
- Door monitor, $9,000
- Youth Wellness Sponsor (or $75/month) - $900
- Staff and volunteer safety training - $12,000
- A gift of any amount!
School safety takes many forms these days. At UrbanPromise, we are going to leave the politics to the politicians and make use of the best tools we can afford. At this time, we don’t have the funds to build elaborate bulletproof vestibules and retrofit all of our buildings with autolock doors, but we can take advantage of the following tools to protect our children:
- Fire extinguishers: the local police department has taught us that a fire extinguisher can be a powerful and effective deterrent to immobilize a threat or stop an attacker.
- Window blinds: blinds on exterior windows and interior blackout shades make it difficult for an intruder to see how many possible victims are inside a room in the hopes that they will keep moving.
- Door monitor with camera and buzz-in feature: if you have visited our campus, you know that you can’t enter our elementary school without being caught on camera at the front door and buzzed in by our staff. We need to upgrade our high school building with the same system.
- Training: our staff and volunteers need to be trained with the most up-to-date lockdown procedures and techniques for handling an intruder. We already conduct regular fire and lockdown drills, but more instruction is needed as we adjust to the continued escalation in the current climate.
- Finally, we want you to know that our most powerful defense against a threat to our children is our incredible staff. With a ratio of about one staff person for each five children, we have a created an atmosphere at UrbanPromise that is caring and vigillent. Operating in Camden, we are already accustomed to keeping a watchful eye on our young people. Every teacher and every staff person, from our directors to our beloved janitor, Duane, knows that the safety of our children is our first priority. I hope you will join us in protecting our kids.
If you'd prefer to mail your donation please send it to: UrbanPromise P.O. Box 1479 Camden, NJ 08105. For more information about making a donation, please contact Toni Farmer, Director of Development at (856) 630-9998 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pam Foxx opened her office door Monday morning and was shocked to discover water pouring from the ceiling and chunks of saturated sheet rock littering her desk.
As our long-time HR Director, Pam's first concern was the personnel files. "I just prayed they weren't damaged," she confided. "That would have been a disaster."
Sadly, UrbanPromise did not escape last week's "Bomb Cyclone" and subfreezing temperatures unscathed.
With a broken furnace in the CamdenForward School, our pipes were vulnerable to the savage cold. They burst. Water gushed overnight, flooding offices and our sixth grade classroom.
The estimate to replace the furnace: $20,000.
One problem: I don't have the finances to fund the project. I didn't budget for this emergency.
That's why I'm reaching out to you today. I know you're concerned that our children and staff have a warm, safe place in which they can learn and work.
- 1 giver at $5,000
- 2 givers at $2,500
- 5 givers at $1,000
- 10 givers at $500
- 10 givers at $250
- 25 givers at $100
Thanks for considering this urgent request! If everyone gives something, I will be able to make that call to the HVAC company today.
In advance, I thank you for your gift.
President & Founder
I returned to UrbanPromise after being away for ten years working on prison reform. For several months prior to starting in June of 2010, I was on cloud nine. I had met David, the love of my life. David was also dedicated to prison reform, and we were planning our move to Camden and our future life together. On his last day at work in California, David was shot in a mall parking lot. He died in an ambulance en route to the hospital during rush hour traffic.
His death went unsolved for six months until two days before Christmas in 2010. His killer tried to collect the reward money, and he was arrested. He was a mentally ill client that David had helped, housed, and equipped to free himself from addiction.
I was inconsolable. In this, my darkest hour, I did not see how I could step into a leadership role at UrbanPromise. How could I bring value to a place and a people in such poverty and pain, as my beloved City of Camden, when I was in so much pain myself?
Family and friends were so kind and patient during this time, but it was so painful to hear their questions about his unsolved murder. It was easier not to talk than to hear speculation about whether or not he was in some way at fault for his death. Yet God gave me moments that let me hold onto hope – a hope that Joy was not permanently dead.
Moments of peace came to me often through scripture, CS Lewis, and a special passage from Kahlil Gibran: "Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears. And how else can it be? The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain."
I did come to UrbanPromise. Here, I began meeting children who had lost their parents and meeting parents and grandparents who had lost loved ones too soon. Three of our kindergartners (now 7th graders) had lost parents.
One mom invited and then drove me to a grief group at a local church. One grandmother would stop by my office to talk to me every morning. She would tell me about losing her husband, how she felt, what she did to heal, and how she got through it little by little.
I can't imagine being anywhere but at UrbanPromise during this time. What a gift to be surrounded by a community of people who understood my sorrow, who brought comfort without judgment, who withstood my tears and loved me through this time of great sadness.
And they are the same people who now—seven years and three children later— who celebrate with me at adoptions, birthday parties, and baptisms. As written in the passage by Gibran, my joy is made greater because of the deepened place that contains it, the place carved out by sorrow. It is thanks to what God does through this beautiful UrbanPromise community of children, parents, staff, and volunteers that I can say -- Yes, I've been blessed, not in spite of, but because of my mourning.
Jodina Hick is our amazing executive director. Jodina heard Tony Campolo's message about making a difference with one's life when she was in high school. This influenced her greatly and led her to pursue a degree at Eastern University, a providential introduction to Bruce Main and a job at UrbanPromise. Jodina is responsible for starting our StreetLeader program and the UrbanPromise Academy during UrbanPromise's first decade. She eventually went on to law school and into prison reform. Jodina is passionate about prison reform and is proud to have helped change egregious laws that impede life after incarceration, including local, state and federal laws. Jodina has three children (8, 8, and 2) and she loves spending time with them, as well as reading, gospel music, British detective shows, and opera.
No one becomes a teacher because he or she thinks it will be boring. Every day in the classroom is exciting no matter what is thrown your way. Some days, you have to be ready for students to be loud and not focused on tasks. This was one of those days.
It was a Monday and my students were still on the ‘weekend grind’ and having difficulty transitioning back into 5th grade mode. As lunch approached, the only thing I was hungry for was the 25 minutes of quiet, a chance to plan how to refocus my class for afternoon instruction.
When our students go to lunch, they cross 36th street, which is an arterial road through the city. I stood in the street as 5th grade and middle school crossed one way and the entire elementary school crossed the other direction back towards school.
Cars became annoyed at the long line of students coming and going from the cafeteria. Waving ‘thank you’ with my hand was not enough to calm the horns from the idling cars. Just as I thought to myself, “Another manic Monday” I felt two hands grab around my waist. I quickly came to and realized a kindergartener named Kennedy had been hugging me. I smiled down at her huge grin and reciprocated with a hug. She looked up at me and said, “ I love my school! I love you, teacher and I never want this moment to end!” Peace quickly passed through my body as I stood in the middle of 36th street being hugged by a kindergartener as students and cars waited. Any anxiety I had about the afternoon washed away with the innocence of the child in that encounter.
Our class ended up having a very productive and positive afternoon. I was so grateful that God was able to show me peace in a hectic situation.
Reflection: Reflect on your week and identify two or three moments where you experienced love from an unexpected person or situation.
About Sarah: This is Sarah's third year teaching 5th at UrbanPromise. Her favorite thing about teaching is working in an environment full of love from students, families, and teachers. Plus the kids always are keeping her on her toes so it's never boring Sarah is also an avid Eagles and Harry Potter fan. Her last meal on earth would be a Chik-fil-A sandwhich and Michelle Obama is her ideal best friend.