Blog: 2016

Friday, October 28

What do you do when you have to nail a new rib into your boat  What happens when the sides of the boat bounce a little and the nail just doesn't go in?

Well, you find a solution!  You need a hand anvil!  As your one hand hits the nail head with a hammer, your other hand holds the hand anvil against the rib and the boat's side so that all is strong enough to not bounce at the impact of the hammer and nail.  Sound easy?  We hope not--because it's not easy.  This was the hard work being done on Thursday afternoon in the shop requiring coordination and consentration.

We started by steaming the cedar rib so that it would bend just right.  The steamer was at full boil and the cedar bent very well into shape around the hull of the boat (see the picture below).  Once it was bent, it was time to slip the rib into the boat.  All the prep work had been done over the past few weeks.  The rib slipped into its's spot perfectly.  At that point, the only thing left was to fasten the rib to the rest of boat, which is where the hand anvil came in.  The students tackled the project fully. 


Friday, October 28

Week two and our chefs burst into class and into a song and dance routine.  All that energy was taken to the garden, where they sniffed the variety of herbs that grow and selected fresh oregano to season the cauliflower and apple side dish in today’s recipe, agreeing that it smelled like pizza.  With clean hands and calm demeanors, we divided the class into two groups, one to prep and bake the chicken and one to prep and bake the vegetables.

“I’m getting my cooking on!” said Nailah Lipscomb, after she and Cianni Green abandoned using spoons to try and cover the chicken with marinade, and plunged their clean hands right into the bowl.  The chicken cooked through but did not get brown in the oven, so we finished it in a skillet on the stove. The vegetable chefs chopped apples, cauliflower and onions—with a few tears from Malaysia Green “It hurts so bad!” she said, fanning her eyes.  The vegetable crew all had a turn chopping the onions and gained skill and confidence with chopping.

While everything was cooking, the girls set the table, and made predictions about the day’s meal using their best adjectives and nibbling on a few extra pecans and apple pieces. “I think of ice cream when I taste pecans,” said Nailah Lipscomb.  “I think of butter,” said Brazil Taylor.

Again this week, the girls finished, set the table and enthusiastically sat down to their meal.  “It not only looks delicious, it tastes delicious,” said Cianni Green.  No one disagreed and our enthusiastic chefs became enthusiastic diners.

Monday, October 24

Our six junior chefs, a group of six young ladies in the 5th grade, came to class with open minds, ready hands and evident enthusiasm for cooking. “I am the official taste-tester in my house,” said Sobechi Igweatu, 10. “And the chopper.”  Before we started we paid a visit to the UrbanPromise garden, where instructor Jane Berkowitz taught the girls how to cut the fresh Swiss chard that was growing and would replace spinach in our recipe.  A few late grape tomatoes were plucked as well and our chefs were willing to give them a try.  Back inside with hands washed, we got down to business with a preview read through of the recipe and some talk about favorite foods; and learned our group of chefs had fairly sophisticated palates, rolling off dishes like Alfredo sauce and linguini with shrimp, and French macaroons as favorites.  “One thing you need to know about me and understand is that chocolate is my life,” said Cianni Green.

The girls got their assignments, some chopping vegetables and some cutting oranges but all of them following the directive ‘Mise en place’ –or everything in its place.  “Mise-en-what?’ said Nailah Lipscomb, “that sounds like a disease!”  Instructors Becky Bryan, Jane Berkowitz and Maureen Dodson worked closely with the girls on knife skills, filling small bowls with chopped peppers and onions, acutting board full of Swiss chard and another larger bowl with compost waste. Everyone had a turn whisking the eggs, sautéing the vegetables and scrambling the eggs. “I’m like a pro!” said Brazil Taylor, 10, moving the eggs around the pan with a spatula.  The table was set without complaint and we all lined up to fill pita pockets with eggs.  “Look at this,” said Cianni Green, holding up her plate with her stuffed pita.  “I can’t believe we made this!”

Friday, October 7

Week after week with the students in the boat shop, we are thinking about how to create and nurture minds that are curious.  It is not that we stop and write this down, but we do dream about how to get students to think further than they did when they came in the shop. 

Let's take looking at aline of a boat for example.  In boatbuilding, we ask, "Is it fair?"  Not in the sense of justice or beauty, but does the curved line look right?  Is your brain telling you that it looks good?  If your brain thinks it looks good,  then maybe it is fair.  The point is not necessarily an exact science, but did they think to come to that conclusion?  A simple yes or no answer is immediately followed by, "What tells you that?" which allows the student to share their observations and reasoning for the determination. 

Before students get to build boats and determine if lines are fair, we start with trips to interesting places like the Gazela, Philly's Tall Ship, and working with wood, seeing what we can make.

These adventures and hands-on experiences pique curiosity--we can see it in the students' eyes.  I invite you to take a look at these pictures and see the students' interest--look at their eyes.  These students are amazing.


Friday, September 23

Each September we have taken the Freshmen class of UrbanPromise Academy to visit the South Jersey Port Cooperation.  Its a great tour because we don't realize how much product comes into the Port of Camden everyday!

This was my 4th visit and the first sight to behold was a boat being unloaded.  The place was buzzing with action!!  We were able to stand out of the way and hear and see all the product come off the ship.  The cranes were moving the products off the ship and then tow motors picked it up from there, bringing it either to "its" place or to a waiting truck.  Today the cargo being unloaded was steel, in the form of giant "I" beams and rolls of steel.  The "I" beams could potentially be going to help build new buildings in Camden and the rolls of steel are used to make cans for our canned food.

For students from the city, this experience was filled with surprises--they never knew that all of this happens in their city.  It is good to see all these people working hard and together.  The students learned that the steel gets picked up here as scrap metal.  From here, it's taken to either Turkey or China to be melted down and made into the rolls or "I" beams we saw, and then sent back to Camden.  One student asked, "How far can a ship go on a tank of gas?"  What a great question!  (We are still waiting for an answer.)  Other students asked what would they have to do to get a job here at the Port.  The answer was to graduate and work hard on your studies.  This is such a great message for a freshman to hear.  And this group is starting off their high school life right.


Sunday, September 4

On any afternoon during the school year, you’ll find a small group of teens – each wearing a tool belt with a staple gun or sander in hand – gathered on the expansive, dusty first floor of an old Camden church. The next hours will be filled with talking, sweating, listening, learning, planning and building. The finished product? Self-confidence, personal growth and, oh yes, a beautiful boat.

 “What we do is primarily about building a relationship with the students. We just happen to do it while being distracted building boats,” says Jeff VanderKuip, 41. The energetic VanderKuip is program director of BoatWorks, an UrbanPromise program where small teams of middle and high school students – called “cohorts” – spend around 60 hours with adult volunteers building a boat, one hammer and nail at a time.

The program began in 2009 with five teens and a handful of volunteers, but has since expanded to include 50 students each year. That first group built three skiffs, named Faith, Promise and Grace. In the seven years since, BoatWorks participants have finished more than 40 watercraft, including canoes, kayaks, sailboats, skiffs and even a dragon boat. (They are now working on a second dragon boat, because, as VanderKuip points out, “Racing is much more fun when you have two boats.”)

The boat shop is housed in two stories of the former Church of Our Savior, a building with its own place in Camden’s history. The original parish hall was built in 1892 using stones from Greenland brought on the return voyage of Matthew Henson, the first African-American to explore the Arctic and a member of the first group to reach the North Pole. A statue of Henson and his dog stands out front, just off the street.

Inside, light pours in the large windows, filtering through sawdust to illuminate boats at various stages of completion. Some are propped on sawhorses; some hang from the ceiling. Oversized wooden letters spell out “City of Camden” across a ceiling beam.

VanderKuip says the reaction of students entering the shop for the first time is typically one of wide-eyed amazement, followed rapidly by skepticism.

“You get the wide eyes,” he says.

“Often, the students are new to me, and I’m new to them so they tend to be a little standoffish at first. You don’t get a lot of loud expressions or excitement. You hear phrases like, ‘Well, I’mnot going to use it.’ I ignore that, because I know by the time we’re done I’m going to be so proud, and they’re going to be so proud of what they’ve built, they’re going to be excited to use everything here.”

Each cohort, which consists of between five and eight students, visits the boat shop for approximately two hours one day a week to work on their boat. VanderKuip says after the first few weeks, the skepticism fades and the kids are just eager to move from one step to the next.

“They get into it. They come in and they’re ready to go, geared up and focused on trying to accomplish the task of the day,” VanderKuip says. “They’re here for one afternoon a week for 30 weeks, and by the time those 30 weeks are up they’ve begun and finished an entire boat.”

VanderKuip teaches the students how to handle power tools; they do all the cutting, adhering and sanding themselves. While he is strict about safety and awareness when it comes to power tools, he also takes a relatively free-range approach to the type of hands-on learning he oversees in the boat shop.

“I’ll give them something and say, ‘Here, you’re going to use this tool,’” he says. “I look at them almost like, ‘Yeah, you’ve got it.’ I want them to feel the responsibility that I’ve just handed them this tool and then walked away. They look at me like I’m crazy, but I learned that way too. You’re probably going to mess up multiple times, but it’s important to have the freedom to mess up. There’s always some level of possibility to make changes and fix things as we go along.”

“I think a student’s mind is malleable,” he continues. “The fancy term for it is ‘experiential learning.’ What we’re doing here is all about that. The more you get to touch, feel, make, do and think through, the more you’re going to get out of this experience.”

While most of the building happens during the school year, this summer BoatWorks employed five students as River Guides. In addition to refurbishing and maintaining the fleet of more than two dozen boats, the teens underwent training on the history and ecology of the Cooper River. All summer long, they led two-hour paddling trips, piloting clients down the river and acting as tour guides.

VanderKuip says the River Guide position is an opportunity for the young people to learn the fundamentals of employment before they enter the workforce or head to college.

“It’s a legitimate job, and they’re being paid a wage,” he says. “A huge portion of it is customer service, interacting with people, carrying yourself with professionalism. Those are all things that are vital to learn.”

One of this summer’s River Guides is Derjanai Thomas, who is 19 and heads to University of Maryland this fall. Thomas grew up in Camden and joined BoatWorks during her freshman year in high school. She remembers the skepticism she felt during her first days in the boat shop, but now says she feels totally at home.

“My freshman year I was nervous, like, ‘Is this thing going to float?’” she says. “But this is the kind of thing where you shouldn’t say no until you try it.”

VanderKuip realizes that for some students who come through the boat shop, his steady presence is significant. For some, he is more than just a teacher. VanderKuip takes care to treat his students like adults; mutual respect is a large part of what he works to achieve with each group.

“In some ways, I know I’m a father figure,” he says. “I don’t ever assume I’m like a father to them, but I’ve learned a few things in 41 years, and I have the opportunity to teach these young people about some of those things I’ve learned about life and hard work. I think the students understand I love them.”

Thomas uses some of the same words when she’s asked to describe what she’s learned from working with VanderKuip.

“He is like a father figure,” she says. “You know how some people beat around the bush with you? He’s real straightforward. If you mess up, he tells you, but he also shows you how to fix it. It’s all in a caring way.”

The BoatWorks program, VanderKuip says, has as much impact on the lives of its adult volunteers as on the young people it serves. And that, he says, is kind of the point.

“They’re teaching me Camden isn’t as crazy as people think it is,” he says. “The truth is Camden has a whole lot of beautiful people living in it. We spend a lot of time shoulder to shoulder, talking about life. It’s this beautiful thing that happens about life, all while we’re building a boat.”

By Kate Morgan, SJ Magazine



Friday, August 12

A snow-white egret stood silently in the shallows off a bank of the Cooper River as a blue heron dipped below the tree line and flew west. Nearby, a bald eagle took flight and crossed the water, gliding on arched wings before landing somewhere in a cluster of treetops.

Just beyond the forest was Camden High School, and the constant traffic on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard. But all was quiet as a phalanx of canoes paddled down the river early one morning this week, manned by five teenagers from Camden and others who came to explore the hidden world that flows through the heart of the city.

"I had no idea this was here," said Jarimar Nieves, 16, one of five teenagers who took part in UrbanPromise River Guides, a course created this summer to educate local students about biodiversity, water safety, and local history. "The first time I went out on the water, I thought it was pretty beautiful. Then I saw the birds. Now, it's a whole new way of looking at Camden."

Funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the 10-week course is run by UrbanPromise, a nonprofit Camden organization that operates a variety of summer and after-school programs as well as two private schools. All summer, three UrbanPromise Academy students and two recent graduates who now attend college have learned how to test water samples, conduct water rescues, and repair boats and canoes through a Boatworks wood shop, and lead ecological tours.

The student-guided tours are finished for the summer, but Victoria Carberry, the environmental educator who runs the program, said there may be additional paddle tours open to the public later this year. The student tours will return next summer, said Carberry, who hopes the program will expand.

"We're really trying to improve access to the river and trying to make this a place that people can enjoy," she said. "People don't think of the Cooper River as a natural resource, but it is, and it's a wonderful one."

On Wednesday morning, the five teens were joined by volunteers, UrbanPromise staff, a few parents, and a few city residents who had signed up for the river tour. The boats go in near the Kaighns Avenue Dam, close to the Pennsauken town line, and conclude about 2 ½ hours later in North Camden.

Guided by the tides, the canoes made their way down the glassy surface of the river Wednesday, passing beneath bridges and railroad tracks that connect East Camden to the rest of the city.

As the boats glided beneath the Baird Boulevard bridge, a man walking across the overpass stopped to wave. "Hello!" he called out, and the kids waved back. "Good to see all of you!"

As the boats moved into Farnham Park, guides explained that the riverway was once a thriving neighborhood park with a swimming pond, picnic pavilion, skating rink, and more. But flooding caused by 1972's Hurricane Agnes overtook the area, and now all that remains is a brick wall with a chimney rising from the deep water. The isolation has made it a haven for shorebirds.

"The fact that they're here means that something good is going on with this ecosystem," said Jeff VanderKuip, director of the Boatworks program in Camden, which teaches students boat repair and woodworking.

The tests have revealed that the water is cleaner than people might expect, Carberry said. Beneath the surface are carp, catfish, and freshwater mussels.

"You wouldn't believe you're in downtown Camden, would you?" asked Andy Field, a volunteer with the program, as the tower for Camden City Hall came into view.

The Cooper flows past Campbell Soup Co. headquarters and the future site of Subaru of America before it flows into the Delaware River, from which parts of the Philadelphia skyline come into view. It also passes a former marina, where boats have been abandoned to bob in the water, before the tour ends behind the baseball field at Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden.

Veronica Johnson, a lifelong Camden resident and volunteer for UrbanPromise who joined the tour, said Wednesday was the first time she had been near water since 1969, when someone pushed her into the Centerville pool. But she enjoyed the river tour so much she might try to go again next year.

"I said, my God, I'm in a different world!" said Johnson, 59. "I know it's Camden, but it seems like Hawaii or Jamaica. It was that beautiful."

For more information about the paddle tours, email Carberry at For more information about UrbanPromise programs, visit

By Allison Steele
Philadelphia Inquirer

Photos by Avi Steinhardt



Friday, July 1


When we started the StreetLeader program in 1994, we had to decide how to best use the start-up money raised: hire 75 teens, but no additional staff, or hire a full-time staff person and half the number of teens. Putting the StreetLeader name to the test, we hired 75 teens: these young people would be going straight from street to leader.  How would one person manage a program with 75 teens?  Idealistically, we believed that there would be some teens in the program with high-level leadership skills and character who would take on responsibility for co-leading the program.  We were right. 

Three young people became the first Field Supervisors. Demonstrating drive and commitment, they took on significant roles in managing and leading the program, and none more than Siomara Rivera, now Siomara (Sio) Wedderburn.  Sio started in the StreetLeader program at age 14. At age 15, she was managing a team of 10 of her peers; by age 16, she was managing a team of 30; and by age 17, she was running the first StreetLeader summer camp at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church. There she worked alongside the pastor's son, who is now her husband and father of their 3 children.  She graduated at the top of her class at Woodrow Wilson High School, attended Rutgers University while working as UrbanPromise Academy's first Spanish teacher, and later went on to get her MSW from Rutgers University. 

For the past 10 years, Sio has worked as a public servant in child protective services.  Born and raised in Camden, Sio has dedicated her life to working with children and fragile families in Camden, both vocationally and through her church's ministry.  I am thrilled to announce that she recently joined UrbanPromise's leadership team as Director of Children & Youth Ministries.  In this position, she has responsibility for managing UrbanPromise's after-school programs, summer camps, StreetLeaders, and interns. Sio embodies our vision that our alumni will return to invest in the next generation of UrbanPromise leaders and continue to nurture the city of Camden, one child at a time.     

Jodina Hicks
Executive Director

P.S. Next time you you are on the UrbanPromise campus be sure to stop into our Student Center and welcome Sio to the team!  

Wednesday, June 29

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been bombarded with Facebook messages, texts, phone calls, and drop-ins by camp kids, StreetLeaders, and parents, all with one question:  “Were the letters sent?”  StreetLeader selection is one of the toughest responsibilities that Jacob Rodriguez and his team face each summer.  They must narrow the selection to only 80 teens, when well over 300 are desperately hoping to be hired.  Their decisions are mailed to teens in two letters:  “Congratulations, you’re hired!” or “Thank you for applying for the StreetLeader Program.  You are on the wait list.”  With an extraordinary number of applicants this spring, we placed the majority of teens who applied made the wait list.

StreetLeader Director, Jacob Rodriguez  knows how much this job means to them first-hand: as it made the difference in his life.  “It doesn’t take much,” he says in speaking of the opportunity the program provides for Camden teens, “and it’s not the money that does it; it’s belonging to something bigger and better than themselves.  It’s about making a change in our city.” 

Desperate to include more teens in the program, Jacob reworked the budgeted StreetLeader compensation as a stipend.  By reducing the StreetLeader wages, he was able to hire 20 more teens without increasing the budget.  And our teens don’t mind having their wages cut to make room for others.  According to veteran, second-generation StreetLeader CJ, “It’s not about the money.  It never was.  It’s about the opportunity.  I’m happy more of my peers will be able to be in the program, and we’ll be able to impact more kids this summer.”

On Thursday, Jacob got the go-ahead for his plan. With a big smile, he made a bee-line to his office to contact 20 more kids with the good news that they will be StreetLeaders this summer.  That evening, my Facebook feed and texts were full of good news: “I got the job!”  “Praise God, my baby got hired!”  “Thank you, UrbanPromise! This will be the best summer ever!”

Please consider making an immediate donation—we need your help to keep these 120 teens employed this summer.  Please help me raise the $30,000 as we still need it to support these StreetLeaders! 


I promise the StreetLeaders will give their all to the almost 500 Camden children who will attend our camps this summer.  Every StreetLeader mentors, tutors, and cares for five children, so your gift of one StreetLeader stipend will directly impact a six young lives.

Thank you.  Together, we are changing Camden into a city of promise, one child at a time.

Jodina Hicks

Executive Director

Friday, June 10


It was a great day for racing dragon boats down the Schuylkill River and our group was ready.

We had practiced both on the Schuylkill River and the Cooper River.  Our team was made up of a wide range of paddlers.  Some of us were just learning how to paddle and how to be comfortable in a boat (over water).  Some of us were still getting used to the idea of being over the water in a boat that moves.  At the start of each practice, we were paddling out of sync and wondering if we would be able to compete at all.  But with great coaching, at the end of each practice, we were able to stroke together and get down the river with some real power.  There was a hope building within us.

Have you ever won a gold medal?  Most of us on our team had not.  In fact, a lot of our team didn't believe we even could and wanted to aim for the seemingly attainable third place bronze.  "It's still a medal!" some said.  The leaders had to talk us up; they had to point us to first place.  "Push", they said.  "Push for two minutes, focus on giving it your all for those two minutes".  Some never made it to believing, but they were willing to try.  They thought they could do it for at least two minutes.

After two races that were good, we were in the final race, the race for a medal, the race for GOLD!!  Getting a win could change a life (Maybe that's too dramatic.  But maybe it's actually not?).  To move from hoping or just kind of believing to celebrating a win and feeling the fulfillment of your hope as a reality is a huge leap.  An experience like that gives you reason to hope a little more next time--after all, you weren't just hoping this time, it became a reality!  Things that previously seemed hopeless, now glimmer with a little bit of hope--all because we did it, we won gold.

The team spirit could not have been higher.  In fact, the students are planning on getting together enough students to have a youth team. 



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