April 20th 2014
If you spend time at UrbanPromise Academy it is not long before you hear someone point the school motto, “engaging knowledge, transforming lives.” It addresses this idea that when people know about a problem – when they are educated – they are motivated to advocate for change.
Students in Action (SIA) is a student group at the Academy that has set out to educate our community about the social and environmental problems faced and the ways they can help. As one student wrote, “Camden is known for drugs, homelessness, gun-violence and hatred. These stereotypes can be obstacles in the path to success, but students at UPA want to transform this perception of Camden.” So, SIA began this year asking the question “What would happen if everyone cared?” Soon, this small group of students had the whole school bringing in backpacks full of canned goods and baby pajamas and students signing up for service projects. They joined with two other high schools to develop community service projects and for the purpose of community organizing. And when students at one of these schools heard about how the junior class was sponsoring a Malawian student’s, Orrisen, education, they wanted to know about other ways they could help him and his community. They collected over 100 pairs of jeans which in June we will sent to Malawi, where Orrisen lives.
This was the beginning of a culture-change at the Academy. More grass-roots projects took root. One of the students in the sophomore class, named Julio, took it upon himself to initiate a fundraising project. Another sophomore, Jenniffer, attended a leadership conference with the SIA team and learned about the prevalence of human trafficking in New Jersey today. She then posed the question, “Just imagine that you have to live your life with no free-will, where all you can do is work for money that does not benefit you, and live with people that are willing to kill you if you make the smallest mistake. Imagine not being able to see or talk to your family ever again. Imagine the most inhuman thing that could ever happen to anyone…” – What would happen if everyone cared? Jenniffer has begun to speak about human trafficking publically around South Jersey, educating others and advancing change.
On Friday, SIA traveled to Rowan University to present their projects in front of a panel from the Jefferson Award for Public Service. This award was founded by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, U.S. Senator Robert Taft, Jr. and Sam Beard in 1972 to “build a culture of service.” SIA was named and awarded a Gold Banner Service Leadership School and were ranked in the top three schools in the state for community service.
98% of the Academy students have engaged in community service this year. This does not simply represent a number, but is shows a change in the culture at the Academy. The work ethic and compassion SIA has developed is remarkable. SIA’s enthusiasm, passion, and even grit impact those around her. There is no doubt that SIA is engaging knowledge and transforming lives – their own and others’ too.