Blog: 14 March 2014

Friday, March 14

After Mary Pat Christie presented the award, once cameras stopped flashing and the crowd dispersed, Jodina Hicks - the latest "New JerseyHero" - finally got to see the person who she says saved her life.

Carter, age 4, ran up to his mother with flowers and a wide smile.

"He was a big part of giving me something to really get up for," Hicks said Wednesday. My job "absolutely was, too, but on a very personal level, he was really what I needed, and me for him, too."

Hicks, executive director of Urban Promise, an award-winning youth services powerhouse in Camden with two private schools, after-school programs, and leadership, job-training, scholarship, and mentoring initiatives, became the 26th recipient of the New Jersey Heroes award and the first from Camden County.

"It's exponential, the people that you're helping here," Christie said on a tour of the facility Wednesday. New Jersey Heroes is an initiative the governor's wife started that showcases positive ways people and organizations affect their communities.

At 43, Hicks has spent more than half of her life trying to make things better for the underdog - from Camden's youth to the formerly incarcerated. In the last four years, she's done it while quietly rebuilding her own life following a personal tragedy.

Hicks, born in Pittsburgh, attended Eastern College in St. Davids and then spent 12 years working at Urban Promise while earning her law degree from Rutgers-Camden.

She left Urban Promise in 2000 to work in prisoner reentry programs. There she met her "best friend and love," David Lewis, a longtime advocate for former inmates and the founder of "Free at Last," a national reentry program.

But in her 10 years away from Camden, Hicks said, she never encountered the familial community or dedication to a mission she'd had at Urban Promise.

So Hicks reached out to Urban Promise founder Bruce Main, who invited her back - this time as executive director. Lewis, 54, started filling out retirement papers, and the engaged couple made plans to move to the city in June 2010, following years of dating long distance - she in Chicago and he in California.

A week before the move, Lewis was fatally shot outside a mall in Palo Alto by a paranoid schizophrenic, a client he had helped get clean nearly a decade before, Hicks said.

Lewis left behind three children, three grandchildren, and Hicks.

"It was a huge loss. He really was a wonderful man and my best friend. My coming back here was a dream come true, and he was totally supportive of it," she said.

So Hicks returned to Camden alone. She threw herself into work at the organization, which serves about 640 children daily, most from Camden and Pennsauken.

Urban Promise is the leading employer of teens in the city, with a cadre of street leaders who mentor younger children and also take advantage of Urban Promise tutoring programs themselves.

"You can't really start with people already set in their ways, but starting with kids, that's how you get to see change," said Ashley Gascot, 16, a junior at Urban Promise Academy and a street team leader.

A year and a half after Lewis' death, Hicks met Carter through her organization. Then 2, Carter was living temporarily with his great-grandmother after being removed from his parents' home due to neglect. Hicks was his foster parent for a year and then adopted him.

"The amazing story line in my life is losing David and then having this amazing son," she said. "My hopes for a family were over, and here comes this little boy, and I fell in love with him."

Hicks had raised a 12-year-old girl when she was in her 20s during her first stint at Urban Promise. That young woman is now vice principal of the nonprofit.

One of the things Hicks likes most about the organization is its direct approach to the city's challenges.

"I got pulled into this amazing vision, which is that we are the plan. There's no state nor federal nor other plan waiting to make conditions for children in Camden better," Hicks said. "It's our lives and our calling to do that."

As a New Jersey hero, Hicks received $7,500 to go toward the organization. She can apply for additional grants, along with the 25 other recipients since 2009.

Urban Promise receives about $3 million in grants and contributions each year toward its numerous programs.

The program, founded in Camden in 1988, has expanded, with locations in Wilmington, Trenton, and Miami, as well as Canada, Honduras, and Malawi.

Hundreds of volunteers come in each year.

On Wednesday groups, from Canada and Tennessee helped facilitate a junior Olympics for after-school students.

As Hicks accepted her award in the school's chapel, she thanked the smiling young faces seated before her and the many teachers, administrators, and volunteers.

"There's an African saying, 'I am because we are,' " she said. "Truly, looking out at the audience, thank you. Were it not for you, I wouldn't have had the courage to keep going."

Written by Julia Terruso

Friday, March 14

New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie on Wednesday honored Jodina Hicks, executive director of UrbanPromise in Camden, as her second “New Jersey ­Hero” of 2014.

Through a series of programs and initiatives, Hicks works to provide at-risk children and young adults in the city with the tools necessary to succeed in life — from academic achievement and life management to spiritual growth and leadership skills. She is the 26th individual to be named a New Jersey Hero.

“I admire Jodina’s commitment in helping our youth realize their true life potential,” Christie said. “From her early contributions in getting the UrbanPromise organization off the ground to her return as the agency’s executive director, Jodina is shaping the next generation of young leaders who will ultimately represent change and pride in their community.”

Founded by Bruce Main in 1988, UrbanPromise has a 25 year history in Camden. The agency provides an array of programs that challenge youth to develop the skills they need to succeed in life through after-school and summer camps, two schools, job training, experiential learning, and a host of other initiatives. UrbanPromise serves approximately 640 children and teens from the Camden community each year.

“It's humbling and an honor for First Lady Mary Pat Christie to recognize UrbanPromise and me as a hero,” said Jodina Hicks. “The definition of a hero, someone who displays courage and self sacrifice in the face of adversity, is very fitting for the staff of UrbanPromise, the families of Camden, and most of all the youth of our city, who, despite tremendous obstacles and traumatic conditions are living their lives with courage and are transforming our community.”

During a twelve year span, Ms. Hicks helped to begin the organization’s adolescent programs, including the Street Leader Program, Urban Promise Academy, and numerous college preparation and performingarts activities. From 2000-2010, she developed youth development programs, faith-based initiatives, and corrections reform with Public/Private Ventures and the Safer Foundation. She returned to Camden in 2010 to serve as the agency’s executive director.

At UrbanPromise, nearly 100% of participating high school students graduate, with approximately 93% moving on to college. Nearly 85% of UrbanPromise alumni have graduated from an institution of higher educationtobecome doctors, teachers, social workers, child care workers and business owners. In addition, it is not unusual to have former UrbanPromise participants return to the organization as employees or volunteers, or to enroll their children in Urban Promise activities.

Written by Courier-Post

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