Blog: August 2013

Friday, August 30

It’s hard to believe that only one week ago, CamdenForward School—home to 140 kindergarten to 8th grade students—looked like it had been hit by a natural disaster.

Seeing the truck full of books, pianos, computers, and blackboards that had to be hauled away due to rain and mold damage, and then walking through the empty classrooms, I didn’t know whether we’d be able to open the school in early September.

I rolled my eyes when my ever-optimistic colleague told me that it was probably part of God’s bigger plan. It’s the first time in recent years that I didn’t feel good about what we could offer our young people at UrbanPromise. We had some classrooms without books, the carpet ripped up, and paint scraped off the walls. This was not the first impression of school that we had hoped to give our kindergarteners.

The first call we made was the right one: Jim Dugan, co-owner of Safety Bus, is a youth pastor, a member of our long-standing partner Moorestown Presbyterian Church, and all about disaster relief efforts. Within 24 hours, Jim had recruited over 150 Moorestown athletes willing to give a day to help restore our school. Within 3 work days, the school had been repainted, and the floors are being repaired.

Several churches put out the call for help, and we now have library books sorted by grade. The Moorestown volunteers are setting up little libraries in the classrooms. Pastors and laypeople have dropped off checks daily to help underwrite the $30,000 we need to restore the school, half for water damage testing and mold abatement and half for supplies that were ruined.

Metro Carpet just donated 2,000 square feet of carpet. All Risk Property Damage Experts cut their fee significantly and brought a crew leader back from vacation to manage our job. Krispy Kreme gave doughnuts, and Mac the Iceman dropped off ice each morning. Coaches from Moorestown fixed our gutters, and a retired Camden policeman spent 12 hours a day, each day this week scraping floors. Wegmans gave food, and Safety Bus drivers donated their time and buses to drop off and pick up the student volunteers. Emily Brown, a junior at Moorestown, called out of work for the week so she could help Jim organize this effort.

I don’t know if our rain damage was part of God’s bigger plan, but I do know that God was hard at work this week. He was at work in a junior high school student who used her last week of the summer to help us; in a businessman who set aside his week to lead an effort to restore our school; and in churches and businesses that raised over $10,000 worth of supplies and money in just a couple of days.

And because so many people chipped in and did what they could, our children are going to walk into a new school today.

Thank you!!!!

Jodina Hicks
Executive Director


Friday, August 30

Hundreds of Moorestown High School students took a break from summer vacation this week to volunteer at UrbanPromise's flood-damaged CamdenForward School.

While most high school students are busy squeezing every last bit of R and R out of their summer vacation before it ends in 10 days, a group of about 300 Moorestown High School-ers spent the better part of the past week straining and sweating fixing up the flood-damaged CamdenForward School.

The school—a private, Christian elementary and middle school operated by UrbanPromise in Pennsauken—was badly damaged by flooding after a recent rainstorm. Faced with serious mold issues just days before it was scheduled to open, UrbanPromise turned to Moorestonian Jim Dugan, who has assisted the nonprofit with a number of projects in the past, for help.

Soon after getting the call, Dugan, also known for his many mission trips to repair homes in West Virginia through the Appalachia Service Project (or ASP), hopped on his bicycle and peddled over to the Moorestown High School athletic fields to find recruits.

He pulled aside multiple coaches, who were readying their teams for fall sports, to draft students for the cleanup at the CamdenForward School.

To hear the students tell it, they didn’t need much convincing.

“When Jim called me, I could not resist it,” said junior Emily Brown. “I didn’t hesitate.”

Brown has gone on a number of ASP trips and said she “wanted to get that feeling back, of helping someone for the price of nothing.”

Several other students echoed Emily, including senior Ellie McGarvey, who said, “We come from a really fortunate town. People don’t understand that other people don’t have the same privileges we do.”

“It’s really rewarding,” said junior Natalie Soffronoff. “I almost feel like we get more out of it than the kids who go here … It’s the least we could do for how much we have.”

Dugan said roughly 300 students have volunteered their time at varying intervals throughout the week—ripping up carpet, repainting, sanding, moving furniture, etc.—and many of them have been there all week, including several who have jobs. The project should be finished by the end of the week, in time for the school to reopen Monday—just one week late.

“It just all kind of came together in one week,” said Dugan. “It’s just a wonderful example of humanity here … The athletes of Moorestown came down here on their last week of vacation to rebuild (the school), which I think is pretty damn awesome.”

Written by: Rob Scott, Moorestown Patch

Thursday, August 29

Helping hands

You can help us by purchasing an item from our EMERGENCY WISH LIST or by making a DONATION (please select "water damage" under the "program" option.)

CAMDEN — When the CamdenForward School suffered from flooding in July, Jodina Hicks knew it would take some time to repair the damage. But when asked whether her school could start classes on time, she had only this to say: “We have to.”

“We have to open on time,” said Hicks, who is the executive director of UrbanPromise, the ministry group that runs the private Christian school. “We're working with really vulnerable families and kids from Camden."

The task, however, was daunting. This summer's heavy rains caused flooding in the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school, wrecking classrooms and causing $30,000 worth of damage. Once the mold was cleaned up, the school had just a week to repaint the classrooms, scrape off glue where carpets had been ripped out, and get everything clean and ready for the students.

That is where the athletes of Moorestown High School came in.

Led by Jim Dugan, a Moorestown parent and owner of the company Safety Bus, students on the Quakers' sports teams came to help the school get back in order. They trained for the upcoming season in the morning, and then Dugan transported them to Camden to work on the building from 12:30 to 6 p.m.

Dugan is a parent and a donor to CamdenForward. Hicks said she knew he would be the right person to call, since he’s worked on many service projects in Louisiana and West Virginia. She called him at 7:30 last Friday morning, and “by 9 a.m., he already had 50 kids signed up to come. So it was the right call, that's for sure.”

Forty students came to help on Monday, 70 on Tuesday. By Wednesday, about 110 students and adults were moving furniture, painting walls and getting the classrooms back in shape.

“I started thinking about how I could get enough people down here to do this task in one week,” Dugan said, “so being acquainted through a lot of the youth in Moorestown through mission work and sports teams ... I decided (it would be) a great way to get the sports teams involved.”

He approached Neil Rosa, Moorestown High's athletic director, and asked if he could get the coaches to bring their teams over. Rosa quickly agreed.

"We scheduled teams for different days of the week to come down, and they've been here all week, working hard," Dugan said.

His friend Emily Brown, 16, who works at Wegmans, persuaded the grocery store to donate food for the volunteers, and to give her the week off so she could help organize the work.

Brown is a junior and the manager of the Quakers' field hockey team. She’s worked with Dugan on mission trips in Appalachia.

"It all came together really well. It's amazing how things came together in a couple of days," said Emily, who worked at the site from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. all week. "Everyone's uniting for this one week, and it's just cool to see it all happen."

Her face was covered in white paint that her teammates had playfully splashed on her. Music by Katy Perry and Beyonce played on someone’s speakers, creating a fun atmosphere for the teens to work in.

Brendon Parker, 14, an incoming freshman, said everyone on his soccer team wanted to help out after their coach told them about the project.

“I felt bad for them and I wanted to give back, because I know how unfortunate it was, and how fortunate my town is," he said.

Because so many other schools also suffered from flooding, there was a long wait before CamdenForward could get a contractor. They finished removing the mold only a week ago. The school lost computers, blackboards and even a piano because of the flooding.

“Having these Moorestown high school students coming to our rescue is just a godsend," Hicks said.

The most serious losses were the workbooks and library books. UrbanPromise is still reaching out to donors to replenish basic supplies such as books, rugs, white boards and computers.

Hicks postponed the opening of the school by one week, to Tuesday, but she won't delay it any longer.

“We pushed back one week, but even that was really difficult to do,” she said.

UrbanPromise Ministries runs programs all summer so that young people always have something to keep them off the streets, Hicks said. Even the week’s gap could pose a financial hardship for parents who cannot afford baby sitters.

Melvin Ways, a retired Camden police officer, also helped with the cleanup efforts. He’s been friends with Dugan ever since they worked together during Hurricane Katrina.

"I love the turnout,” Ways said. “It's been this way all week actually. The kids have been coming from Moorestown to help, and I love the inspiration. … To see these kids and see how enthused they are, it really does something good for your heart.”

By Sharon Lurye, Burlington County Times

Tuesday, August 27

You can help us by purchasing an item from our EMERGENCY WISH LIST or by making a DONATION (please select "water damage" under the "program" option.)

PENNSAUKEN — In their last week of summer vacation, hundreds of Moorestown High School students volunteered their time Monday to clean up flood damage at a private school on the outskirts of Camden.

The CamdenForward School, run by the non-profit UrbanPromise in Camden, sustained flood damage to several classrooms during heavy bouts of rainfall over the past two months.

School was supposed to begin Monday, but Jodina Hicks, executive director of UrbanPromise, said the opening has been postponed until next week.

Plastic bags full of saturated books and curriculum materials lined the school’s hallways Monday. CamdenForward also lost computers, white boards and overhead projectors.

Most of the items deemed unusable were thrown away. Hicks said they amounted to more than $15,000 worth of books, equipment and materials.

The water damage also caused mold in some parts of the school.

The remedy for that, completed five days ago, cost the cash-strapped Christian school another $15,000.

“Then we found our insurance would not cover the damage,” Hicks said. “We had nowhere else to turn. We had to ask for help.”

Her first call Friday morning was to Jim Dugan, a volunteer for UrbanPromise who has led efforts to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Dugan, who runs mission trips for a youth group at a Moorestown church, got right to work.

“During my bike ride, I went over to the high school and talked to the coaches I knew and we had a plan to bring 40 to 70 kids here a day to help,” Dugan said.

Volunteers started as early as 7 a.m. and worked until 6 p.m.

“Faith without works is dead,” Dugan said, quoting the Bible.

Emily Brown, a junior at Moorestown High, worked alongside Dugan this summer during the Appalachia Service Project mission trip.

“I’m here to help any way I can,” Brown insisted. The 16-year-old works at Wegmans and asked her managers to donate food and water for the workers.

Austin Peck, a 17-year-old senior at Moorestown, was in one of the damaged rooms ripping up carpet and then scraping the glue left on the floor.

“We are working together to get as much done in the time we have,” Peck said as he wiped the sweat from his face.

Melvin Ways, a retired Camden City police officer, spends much of his time now doing volunteer work.

“It is just my nature ever since I was a kid,” said Ways, a 25-year veteran of the force and city native. “I want to give back.”

Along with those helping inside the building, local churches have donated funds to help replace curriculum materials.

Pastor Steve Winkler of The Protestant Community Church of Medford Lakes dropped off a check for $1,800 Monday. School officials said they expected another $1,000 check from the congregation later in the day.

“The support we have gotten from the public is overwhelming,” said CamdenForward Principal Denise Baker.

“Without them I don’t know what we would have done.”

Written by: Phil Dunn, Courier Post 

Sunday, August 4


I recently interviewed one of our impressive camp counselors.

“Why did you come back to Camden for your third summer in a row?” I asked.

I was amazed at the energy and dedication of this young collegian. Danielle, a political science major at Azusa Pacific University in California, has served as an UrbanPromise intern for the past three years—a remarkable commitment. Her dream is to go to law school and have a career as a child advocate.

Each year Danielle covers her own transportation costs to make her coast-to-coast trek. More importantly, she “tithes” her time as a gift to UrbanPromise and the children of our city.

“It’s the kids,” she responded without hesitation. “They need consistency and continuity in their lives.”

Danielle paused momentarily, furrowed her brow in reflection.

“The more time I spend here, the more I realize that these kids have exceptional talents and gifts. They just need some adults to help them identify their God given individuality; then learn how to positively express it. That takes time. That takes trust.”

As Danielle has kept her promise to return each summer, the children have come to trust her. And trust is critical for effective youth ministry. Trust allows Danielle and the other counselors to speak into the lives of our young people.

Not every UrbanPromise intern returns for three consecutive summers. Danielle is a superstar. But she’s not unique. This summer 40 college-aged missionaries are working at least 60-hour weeks—loving children and teens in the name of Jesus. These bright, passionate, committed leaders are running day camps, coaching athletic teams, teaching Bible classes, tutoring, and mentoring. Each day they reach over 600 Camden youth. In return for their volunteer services, UrbanPromise provides interns with room, board, and weekend trips. It’s the least we can do to show our appreciation.

But we need a little help to feed these amazing saints. Peanut butter, milk, spaghetti, fresh fruit, vegetables, and even meat (once in a while) are all on our interns’ grocery list.

I’d appreciate any support you can give to help me check off the items on the attached document. We need to keep these young people healthy and serving so they can continue to impact hundreds of lives each day.


Bruce Main


Thursday, August 1

CAMDEN - Tomatoes, broccoli, and peppers are flourishing this summer in the garden outside the UrbanPromise Wellness Center. But the most important crop may be peace of mind. "When you spend time in the garden, you're not thinking of anything else," says Rebecca Bryan, director of wellness programs at the faith-based nonprofit in East Camden. As she and I speak, eager fifth graders are harvesting and taste-testing the bounty from a lush patch of ground along Federal Street, where traffic spills from Route 130 and the city's cacophony rarely pauses. Peaceful it isn't.

But gardening, yoga classes, nutrition programs, and mindfulness exercises at the center - a joint venture of UrbanPromise and Haddonfield's First Presbyterian Church - aim to heal the effects of childhood trauma. Which a poor city like Camden produces in abundance. "Children who grow up here experience a great deal of stress, much more so than, say, kids in suburbia," says Bryan, a nurse-practitioner who lives in Haddonfield. She started work at UrbanPromise in September. "Households are primarily single mothers. Poverty is a huge issue. Violence is an issue - it's not uncommon for youths to have heard gunshots - and there's a lot of exposure to domestic violence.

"Often kids are in a home where someone is drinking or using drugs. Or they have a parent who ends up in jail," Bryan says. "There's just a huge amount of stress." The long-term physiological and developmental effects on individuals, as well as the public health impact on communities stemming from childhood trauma, were persuasively documented in the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. First conducted in 1998, the study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the managed-care consortium Kaiser Permanente is continuing. Meanwhile, developments in brain imaging and other medical technologies have bolstered the study's findings that childhood trauma can increase the likelihood of physical, mental, and social ills (obesity, substance abuse, poor academic performance) later on.

And as recognition of this reality grows - 100 professionals and community leaders attended a grassroots "Camden Trauma Summit" in May - "we're starting to come up with interventions that can make a difference," Bryan notes. What's called for, she says, is "a fundamental paradigm shift" among professionals who deal with troubled kids. "Instead of saying, 'What's wrong with you?' we need to ask, 'What happened to you?' " Bryan is mentoring Briana Shephard, a soft-spoken 16-year-old who will soon be a senior at UrbanPromise Academy. The high school is one of several educational, development, and employment programs through which UrbanPromise serves about 640 Camden youths annually. Shephard, whose father has been incarcerated, had difficulties in public school. Now she pours her heart out to Bryan, and in the poetry she regularly writes.

"I've heard gunshots and everything" in the city's neighborhoods, she says, her voice matter-of-fact. "I don't really feel safe walking by myself." But Shephard feels quite safe at UrbanPromise, where she has begun to thrive. I ask Bryan about critics who say wellness and mindfulness (both of which I heartily endorse) are no match for older concepts - like bootstrapping one's way up from unfortunate circumstances. "I would like to take a person who thinks that the answer is to get a job . . . and put them in North Camden. Just for a week," she says. "Then let me ask them how they feel."

Written by: Kevin Riordan, Inquirer Columnist

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