Blog: 2015

Monday, December 21

"But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart..."   
—Luke 2:19

Tony Vega found himself in a very uncomfortable situation last week. Having just dropped off a bus load of children, Tony returned to lock up our Fairview facility for the night. As he walked up the church steps, a group of tough teens surrounded him, wanting to fight. "Guys," he pleaded, "I really don't want any trouble."  They weren't interested in negotiations. In a provocative gesture, one blew smoke in his face.

Now Tony is no novice to urban ministry.  He grew up in Camden. But this was making him nervous. And there was no one around to help.

Then, out of nowhere, came a shout from down the block. "Tony! Tony! Is that you?  Is that really you?"  Within seconds, a young woman bounded up the stairs and embraced Tony like a long lost friend. "You know this guy?" she said, turning to the group, who she obviously knew. "This is my old counselor. He's the greatest guy in the world. I used to be in his AfterSchool program." Within seconds, the tension dissolved, and the teens apologized and moved on down the street. "Molika saved me," confessed Tony in a later conversation.  "She dissolved a potentially violent situation, just because she knew me and knew those guys. She made peace."

A pastor recently described the Advent season as a trip to the gym to work on our spiritual attentiveness.  Once a year, he reminded the congregation, we need to wake up, start paying attention, and stop sleepwalking through our lives. He challenged us to pay attention to what God is doing in our midst. So how do I prepare for Christmas?  How can I really take advantage of this special season of Advent that calls me to a greater awareness?

One way is to ponder some of the key themes of the season—joy, peace, generosity, and wonder—and then intentionally look for expressions of these realities throughout the day. Perhaps these are the gifts God really wants to give me this season.  So I find myself looking for expressions of joy, moments of peace, acts of generosity, and bursts of wonder. And when I see these often-overlooked expressions of the season, I try to receive them as a gift. Like any treasured gift, I slowly unwrap it, hold it, look at it from different angles, and maybe even write down how the gift makes me feel.  

Tony's experience was an early gift, certainly to him but also to me. It reminds me that peace is possible, even in potentially volatile situations. It reminds me that God sometimes shows up in the most unusual places. We just need to be ready to recognize His gifts.

Reflection:
 Have you seen an expression of peace, joy, generosity today?  What would it mean to receive it as a gift?

Sunday, December 20

Everyone sat still, eyes riveted on the two teenage girls at the front of the room.

"

I wrote this letter because I needed to forgive my older sister," confessed the first teenager. "She used to tell me that I was ugly, that I was a mistake, and that I would never amount to anything. My anger towards my sister was destroying me."



And then this brave teen began to read her heart-felt letter of forgiveness.  She talked about the pain her sister caused, her consequent feelings of worthlessness, their troubled relationship, and that she wanted to forgive her. "I forgive you," she ended. "I don't want hate to live in me."

These teenage girls are part of a girls’ group that meets once a week under the direction of our StreetLeader coordinator, Aleisha. The purpose of the group is to create a safe place where young women can bare their souls, a place where they can find healing and learn to forgive.



"I just noticed that there were all these girls with broken relationships," recalls Aleisha. "In order to move ahead with their lives, they needed to forgive. Some girls have written 10 letters to the same person. Forgiveness, I'm learning, is a process."



Listening to our teens read their letters of forgiveness reminded me of the courage it takes to really bring peace into the world. Peace takes work, because peace begins with our own lives. We can't be instruments of peace if we're not committed to healing the unrest in our own lives first. Peace begins with us.



Advent is a time to reflect on the Prince of Peace coming into the world. In the coming days, we will sing songs about peace, pray for peace, and recite verses about peace. Let us find inspiration from these young women, who model for us the courage to forgive, so we can find peace in our own lives and the share it with the world.

Sunday, December 13

In 2014, UrbanPromise celebrated the completion of their new cafeteria and full-service kitchen along with finalizing their participation in the National School Lunch Program which provides reimbursements for breakfast and lunch programs through the USDA.

With a focus on the healthy development of Camden’s children and teens, UrbanPromise was prepared to follow rigorous USDA nutrition standards. The kids, however, were not as prepared for the low-sodium, healthy menu items.  “Working with a limited budget and keeping to USDA standards, our early meals frequently offered raw vegetables and were limited in variety from week-to-week. We soon realized that the kids were unhappy with the meals and the amount of waste we saw in our cafeteria trash cans was simply unacceptable. We needed to find a better solution,” shared Rebecca Bryan, Director of UrbanPromise’sWellness Center.

UrbanPromise launched a series of taste tests, which have been shown to motivate young people to try new foods and increase overall consumption. They are inviting students to rate new recipes by their look, taste, and smell. Young children can circle the emoticon that best represents what they think (frown, straight faced, or smile) while older students rate the foods from “extreme dislike” to “like a lot.” 

The first taste test of Porcupine Sliders, an award winning USDA recipe including ground turkey, chopped spinach, cranberries, and spices, received rave reviews with 88% of students providing favorable ratings on taste. The second taste test, featuring broccoli salad, was met with more resistance and only one quarter of students recommended adding it to the cafeteria’s menu. One particularly dissatisfied student commented that it was “the worst thing in the world.” Based on student feedback, UrbanPromise will not add broccoli salad to their menu, but staff still have hope for the unpopular green vegetable. They will introduce a Chic’ Penne at this month’s taste test (Nov 19th) to see if integrating cooked broccoli will elicit more positive reviews.

Taste testing is part of a multi-faceted project at UrbanPromise called “Eat Well, Move Well, Be Well”, which is supported by a $30,000 grant from The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey and focuses on increasing healthy food consumption and physical activity among youth and local residents. Since the start of the school year and the receipt of this grant, UrbanPromise has provided training for teachers on integrating physical activity in the classroom, is engaging a Nutrition Educator to work with cafeteria chefs and students to increase healthy food consumption (including taste testing), is implementing a series of cooking classes in partnership with the Vetri Foundation and their My Daughter’s Kitchen initiative, and is providing more fresh produce at their weekly food co-op in partnership with Farmers Against Hunger. The grant will also allow UrbanPromise to engage students in gardening and garden-to-table cooking classes, shift classroom reward and discipline systems to support wellness goals, and increase nutrition education for students, program participants and food co-op members.

Sunday, December 13

Which house will you choose? 

"He...will guide our feet into the path of peace.” Luke 1:79



There is a lot of fear going around these days. Peaceful Parisians are gunned down while dining with friends. A plane of unsuspecting tourists explodes in the air. A Christmas party for coworkers ends in carnage. Fear is real, and it's easy to let it control us.



The late Catholic writer Henri Nouwan once wrote that there are two houses in which people can dwell: the house of fear or the house of love. This metaphor can guide for our decision making and thinking: Will our decisions be based on fear or love? According to Nouwan, we need to continually challenge our fears, not allowing them to define and control us. We need to live in the house of love.



When founding UrbanPromise 28 years ago with a small group of college volunteers, people asked me: "Aren't you afraid? Camden is the most dangerous city in America!" At that moment, our little community had to choose the house in which we were going to dwell. Sure, there were fears, but would those fears define us? Would we face the negative statistics, the stereotypes, the economic outlook through a lens of fear, or a lens of love? We chose love, because love ultimately brings life, healing, unity, and peace. And that's exactly what we've seen over the years at UrbanPromise.



Within the Christian tradition, Advent is a time to prepare to meet God's greatest gift of love to the world. A gift that promises peace. Jesus came into a real world—a world where fear was rampant. Yet Jesus, the Prince of Peace, chose to dwell in the house of love. It shaped the way he saw people, where he traveled, and ultimately, the way he responded to those who feared him. His path was and is always the way of love.



We might ponder these questions during this Advent season:

  • How do my fears limit me?
  • Am I living in the house of fear or the house of love?
  • What is one way I can challenge my fears today?
Wednesday, November 25

We are thankful. 

This week hundreds of youth and their families were served a delicious Thanksgiving meal at UrbanPromise.  Another 141 families were blessed with a turkey and food to take home and cook for their family and friends on Thanksgiving Day.  There was fellowship, dancing, great food, singing, laughter, and a new favorite this year - a Connect Four tournament after dinner. Because of you we have had an amazing week!

On behalf of the children, youth, families and staff of UrbanPromise we wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. 


Special thanks to the following groups that organized volunteers to serve, cooked food, collected turkeys, or gave monitory donations.

Association Headquarters, Moorestown High School, Lockheed Martin, Cathedral Kitchen, Safety Bus, Logan Memorial Presbyterian, St. Charles Borromeo, Colorstone Gardens, as well as our individual volunteers and donors!

Friday, November 13

 “A lot of kids don’t have a typical Thanksgiving,” lamented Tony Vega. “You know: turkey, yams…and all that sit-down family stuff. It just doesn’t happen.”

Tony Vega has been involved with UrbanPromise for many years. Growing up in North Camden, he connected with our after-school program when he was 6 years old. Now 23 years later, Tony directs one of those after-school programs, reaching children on the south side of the city. After earning a degree in history from Eastern University, Tony chose to come back to his city and invest in the lives of youth. He’s one of the terrific UrbanPromise success stories.  

“Some of my favorite family memories are the Thanksgiving dinners we had at UrbanPromise,” he reflected. “That was the big dinner for our family: my parents, brothers, friends, and neighbors all came to UrbanPromise for dinner.”

Such memories help to explain why Tony is so motivated to spend hours in a bus, weaving through the streets of Camden, picking up kids and families for our annual neighborhood Thanksgiving dinners.  

It’s not just about meal. Tony believes these community meals are really important for strengthening family ties, creating memories, and helping parents build traditions with their children.

“To build a sense of family, you need to eat meals together,” Tony adds. “Family dinners help parents connect with their children in a more meaningful way.”

It’s no coincidence that recent research on childhood resiliency persuasively argues that children who know more about their families tend do better when facing challenges and adversity.

Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke affirms this idea: children who know their family history—and share family traditions—tend to have a higher sense of self-esteem and a stronger sense of control over their lives. These are certainly essential qualities for children coping with tough urban communities. 

This Thanksgiving, the UrbanPromise team will serve over 1,000 meals for the families of children in our programs. Once again, we need your help.

Each meal will cost just $5 per person.  Please consider underwriting the cost of a meal.  Maybe you can even sponsor a family meal.

GIVE NOW »

Please know along with a nurturing meal and the chance to collectively thank God for amazing blessings, you’ll be giving a gift to the families of our city, the gift of gathering together to celebrate traditions and create lasting memories.

I look forward to hearing from you soon!

Dr. Bruce Main
President

Wednesday, October 28

Imagine giving $1 million to a young person who is facing significant economic challenges. How would it change his or her life, family, community? Now imagine that gift in the hands of a teen with character traits like perseverance, kindness, empathy, and curiosity, and the possibilities are endless.

Amazingly, donors like you have helped UrbanPromise give this gift to young people for 27 years!

Consider this fact: the lifetime earnings difference between a college graduate and a high school graduate is a million dollars! Studies also show that the taxpayer cost of a teen not achieving a college education is $292,000 over that teen’s lifetime. Supporting a young person’s dream of graduating from college can have that kind of impact.

Arlene Wube, former StreetLeader and current board member and donor, has given this gift many times over. Arlene had a dream to enable young people from Camden to attend college. It was a dream that grew out of her own experience: through the generous support and compassion of UrbanPromise donors, she was able to graduate from Howard University, earn her MBA, open her own business, and start a family. In 2011, she started the UrbanPromise Ambassadors of Hope scholarship fund to ensure that others would also benefit from the gift of a college education. This fund has since enabled 43 UrbanPromise graduates to go on to college, with a 100% success rate: all 43 scholars have either graduated from college or are still enrolled.

The same year that Arlene started the scholarship fund, UrbanPromise enrolled Nai Nai as a freshman in our high school, the UrbanPromise Academy. Not only behind academically, Nai Nai was also a behavioral challenge in the classroom. With small teacher-student ratios, a loving, Christian environment, and individual attention, our school helps these students catch up to grade level and prepare for college. By the end of her junior year, Nai Nai was awarded the Jefferson Honor by the Governor’s Office. At the beginning of her senior year, Nai Nai was voted school president, and she graduated in last May.

Nai Nai is enrolled in fall semester at her first choice school, Coppin State University, and in 4 years, she will be the first college graduate in her family. She’s anxiously waiting to hear whether the Ambassadors of Hope scholarship fund will have the funds to close her financial gap of $6,000.

Your investment in UrbanPromise has yielded countless returns in the lives of kids like Arlene and Nai Nai. We are raising funds to continue to make these kids a promise, the K-thur-College Promise, that

Nai Nai graduated from UrbanPromise Academy this past spring and is now begining her freshman year at Coppin State University.

Nai Nai attended UrbanPromise’s after school program as a camper and as a teen worked as a StreetLeader mentoring youth in South Camden.

we will stand by them from kindergarten to college and that we’ll help close the financial gap for their academic needs. If they do their part, attending school daily and working hard, we will do our part to help make their dreams of graduating from high school and going away to college a reality.

We need your help. The price of this promise is not cheap, but the return is phenomenal. We currently have 20 students in college who still need support to ensure they can complete this year. We have 175 students we are educating in full-time private school, and 97% of their families have financial aid needs, with the majority falling under the poverty guidelines.

A small contribution today will resonate for years … Will you help?

Jodina Hicks
Executive Director

Donate Now

Thursday, October 8

Help UrbanPromise provide our families with the best Christmas ever!

For this Christmas season, we have adopted a new giving model with the goal of empowering our families. Our Christmas Promise Store will enable parents and guardians to select and wrap the gifts they’d like to give their children. But we need your help to fill the store’s shelves!

Please bring your gift donations to UrbanPromise or request a pick-up by Friday, December 11th.

Thank you for blessing Camden this Christmas!

Check out our gift ideas listed below for children and young adults (ages 4-20).

Gift Ideas for ages 4-20:

  • Gift cards to: Target, Wal-Mart, Shop Rite, Wegmans, Visa gift cards
  • Toys
  • Family board games
  • Educational toys/games
  • Children’s books
  • Art supplies
  • Family movies (DVD’s)
  • New clothing (fun pajamas are great)
  • Jackets
  • Sports equipment (basketballs, footballs)
  • Bedding (comforters, new sheets, pillows)
  • Wrapping paper and gift bags

Download PDF gift guide

Tax-deductible receipts for gift-in-kind donations are available upon request.

Gift drop-off location:
UrbanPromise Headquarters
3700 Rudderow Street
Pennsauken, NJ 08110

For more information, please contact:
Jennifer Giordano, Church Relations Coordinator
Phone: (856) 382-1864
Email: jgiordano@urbanpromiseusa.org

Monday, August 24

Imagine the opportunity to make a low risk investment that could yield a million dollars?

StreetLeader graduate and current UrbanPromise board member Arlene Wube has done this 43 times. I’ll tell you her secret, which she learned from an UrbanPromise donor.

Arlene had a dream to enable young people from Camden to attend college. It was a dream that grew out of her own experience: she came close to dropping out her second year of college due to the gap between the college bill, financial aid, and her ability to pay. However, an UrbanPromise donor made up the difference.  She graduated from Howard, went onto get her MBA, and is now a proud business owner, mother, and wife living in Washington, DC. In 2011, she started the UrbanPromise Ambassadors of Hope scholarship fund.

Thanks to Arlene’s dream and hard work, UrbanPromise has been able to fill the financial gap for 43 of our high school graduates since that time. These 43 students have gone on to college, and 100 percent have either graduated from college or are still in school today. This is an amazing outcome that surpassed our hopes.

Our young people are grateful for your investment in them, and they are working hard at college. They are making the most of their opportunities.  They are spending their free time teaching elderly people ESL, as Natasha Santiago is doing at TCNJ.  They are leading mentoring groups for African American men, like Dominic Bowman is doing at Montclair. They are earning good grades, like Mecca Perry, a 4.0 student. They proudly report their grades (because we require it). They commit to remaining drug and alcohol free, and they come to speak to our children during their breaks. They are taking all that they’ve learned at UrbanPromise, and they are continuing to help others by making a difference with their lives.

They are making us proud.

However, it is also true that not having book money or not having a meal plan can be the difference in a student’s success or failure.  For the first time in 4 years, our scholarship fund balance is not enough to meet the needs of 27 of our college students for the upcoming school year.  Our gap is $45,000, which will cover scholarships ranging from $500 to $8,000. 

Please consider helping. Every dollar you invest in an UrbanPromise college student will yield a phenomenal return: the lifetime earnings difference between a college graduate and a high school graduate is a million dollars!

Please join Arlene in making a million dollar investment today.

Jodina Hicks
Executive Director

Support a college student

This summer I was in charge of over 30 teens and 180 campers at UrbanPromise. I made sure camp went well and was running properly. I also mentored teens and built relationships with them. Thanks to UrbanPromise’s support, my sister and I were able to go to college. I graduate this year. 

— Dominique McBurrows, Virginia State University
UrbanPromise participant since 2008

 I’ve had the pleasure and honor of being involved with UrbanPromise for 6 years. In those years, I’ve been a camp kid, volunteer, and StreetLeader, all of which have shaped me into the motivated, level-headed man I am becoming. 

Stephen Cobb, Rowan University
UrbanPromise participant since 2009

My experience with the StreetLeader Program was one of the best experiences I have ever had … During my first year of college I realized books are really expensive, and one of the hardest things for me to purchase during college. UrbanPromise helped me buy my books. Thank you. 

Mecca Perry
UrbanPromise participant since 2010

I have been a part of UrbanPromise since first grade. UrbanPromise helped groom me not to become a statistic. This is my first year as an independent student due to the sudden death of my mother last year. I am hoping UrbanPromise can provide some financial help so I can keep going. 

Dominic Bowman, Montclair University
UrbanPromise participant since 2001

My relationship with UrbanPromise is unconditional. It is my second family. I will always help out at UrbanPromise, because they gave me a great start.  

Natasha Santiago, The College of New Jersey
UrbanPromise participant since 2008

Thursday, August 13

Every Sunday night during the summer, our summer college interns/missionaries gather on Sunday night for worship and sharing. They share stories from the week, some of them pretty funny. Most of them are about how they see God working in Camden, in the kids, and in themselves.

I dread the last weekend of our summer program: interns are crying, kids are crying, StreetLeaders are crying. This past Sunday night was our last time to gather for worship. After 7 weeks of pouring every bit of themselves into the program, it was time for our 35 interns to say good-bye to Camden and the children they had come to love, and it was heart wrenching. 

The sharing time started slowly. No one wanted to get in front of the group and break down. But little by little they did. One by one, they shared about the kids who changed them. They recalled wanting to come to Camden to change the city, and instead found themselves changed by the love the children gave to them.

Then Sam stood up and shared about Juju, a 9-year-old boy at Camp Saved. Juju had won the Most Improved Camper award. I was struck by the realization that every summer for the past 5 years, I’ve heard intern stories about Juju. In 2010, I heard about Juju as a 4-year old, playing in the streets and riding his bike through downtown. The interns during the summer of 2010 were shocked that this little boy could be seen anywhere from the waterfront to south Camden on his bike, by himself.  They made an exception and let him into Camp 2 years before our starting age. 

The summer staff of 2011 fell in love with Juju, and his antics at camp kept them laughing. They would compose lesson plans with him in mind, inspired by the challenge of creating Bible and art lessons that would get him to listen. They began having him over for dinner; they went to his house to meet his mother. The summer interns of 2012, 2013, and 2014 shared regularly about the challenges, growth, and progress they saw in Juju. 

As our interns depart this week, we are grateful despite our tears. Because of your support and the willingness of young people to give a summer or school year of their lives, children like Juju continue to be loved and nurtured. They too will become Most Improved Campers, and they will have cherished memories of young college students who loved them and gave them everything they had to give.

Thank you for making this possible.    

Jodina Hicks
Executive Director

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