Last year, when the Chicago Bears came to town to play the Philadelphia Eagles, celebrated Bears cornerback Charles Tillman wasn’t on the field for the pregame warm-up.
Instead, injured and not required to even be on the East Coast, Tillman was at Ruth’s Chris Steak House with a group of students from Camden’s UrbanPromise school. The evening was about more than a good steak. It was important to Tillman that the teens place cloth napkins on their laps and start with the outermost fork.
“There are stereotypes about Camden, and my goal is to have these kids prove them wrong,” he says. “I’m trying to give them culture so when someone looks at them and doubts them, they can say, ‘I may be from Camden, but I’ve been in nice places. Don’t look down on me.’”
Tillman, 34, and his wife Jackie have been supporters of UrbanPromise since 2007, when Jackie saw Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 special “Waiting on the World to Change,” which highlighted the organization.
“My wife was hooked,” Tillman says. “She told me about what she saw and how she felt we could do something about it. We could help them out, be a part of this. The next day we called and said, ‘What can we do?’”
The Tillmans sponsor UrbanPromise students, assisting with tuition and covering education-related costs even after their beneficiaries head off to college. Their hands-on work with the school has brought them to Camden several times over the past few years. Their most recent visit was at the beginning of this year, when the couple spent time in the city and hosted a breakfast with students.
It may seem strange that Tillman – an Army brat who attended 11 schools all over the world before college at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette – would champion staying in one place, but that’s his one hope for many of UrbanPromise’s students.
“One of the best things that happens is kids who’ve been there since they were 2 or 3 grow up, graduate and end up coming back to work for UrbanPromise,” Tillman says. “This cycle is really what Jackie and I are drawn to and what we want to support. My thought process is if you can get a kid early enough – pull them into your life and teach them leadership, respect and hard work, that’s the recipe. Those kids go out and learn, then come back and teach. They’re telling students, ‘Hey, I stuck to the plan, stayed on the path, and now I have a degree and I’m the vice principal.’ It takes time, but that’s how things get better.”
The faculty at UrbanPromise is one of the things Tillman finds most impressive about the school, and he hopes to see the model replicated in as many cities as possible.
“After coming to Camden, seeing the community and meeting the students, I can say UrbanPromise isn’t like any other school I’ve ever seen,” he says. “It’s so much more than a job for these teachers. They choose to be here because they want to be, because they love these kids and are passionate about what they do. Some of them left really high-powered positions to come and teach in Camden, where they probably make way less money. I think these kids know that, and I think that helps them understand how much they matter.”
Tillman, drafted by the Bears in 2003, recently signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Panthers after being plagued by injury during the past two seasons.
In his 12 seasons with the Bears, the 6-foot-5-inch defenseman has played in two Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro in 2012. That’s no surprise, considering he holds the league record for most fumbles forced in a single game (four, against the Tennessee Titans in 2012). He also owns the Bears’ franchise records for most defensive touchdowns, most interception-return touchdowns and most interceptions by a cornerback.
More meaningful to Tillman than his player’s stats are the awards and recognition he’s received for his work in the community. The NFL standout has long been involved in philanthropic efforts. Since 2005, his Cornerstone Foundation has been working to improve the lives of chronically ill children in Chicago. The Tillmans’ dedication to that cause became even more poignant in 2008, when their 3-month-old daughter Tiana was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy and received a heart transplant. In 2013, Tillman’s work for his community, and communities like Camden, earned him the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award, for which he’d been nominated in 2007 and 2011.
Despite the accolades, Tillman remains humble. His goal is simple: he wants to use his personal experience to help kids find a path to success.
“I just try to have some kind of positive influence,” he says. “I was blessed and fortunate to have both parents in my house growing up, and they taught me manners and respect. I traveled and got to know other cultures. I had a great life, and I want all other kids to have that. I don’t have to know you to care about you. I want you to succeed just like I want my own kids to succeed.”
Tillman attributes his attitude of commitment and perseverance to a college football coach who became one of his earliest mentors.
“Our coach would always say, ‘Football is the game of life,’ and at the time I didn’t know what the hell he meant,” Tillman says. “We probably won six games my entire college football career. We had guys who quit, because they couldn’t take losing. The coach would say, ‘Let’s say you’re in construction and you get laid off; your kids don’t care that you lost your job – they want to eat. You gonna quit on your team? You gonna quit on your family?’ That’s when I thought, ‘Damn, this really is the game of life.’”
Now when Tillman meets with student groups, he says the conversation typically begins with questions about his football career and with young people asking how they too can make it to the NFL. He’s unflinchingly honest with his audience and manages to impart life lessons while speaking about the game.
“I’m real with them,” he says. “I say, ‘I was your age once. I liked to go out and party and kick it, but I knew when to grow up.’ I talk about decisions and consequences, and I make no bones about how hard it was to get where I am. If you’ve got 1.2 million high school kids in the U.S., only about 79 of them are going to make it to the league every year. It’s like walking through the rainforest without any rain touching you. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. If you want to succeed at anything, you have to do the work. Sometimes you’ll fail, but you can’t be discouraged by failure. You have to get up and keep working. If you work hard early in life and pay that price, the reward is sweeter in the end.”
It’s a message he’s shared with the students at UrbanPromise, who continue to impress Tillman every time he visits.
“There are high school seniors building an airplane,” he says. “They’re working with retired airline pilots. The 10th graders are building canoes. Teenagers from the poorest city in the country are building airplanes and boats, getting ready for college and becoming really incredible people at the same time. I feel blessed that I get to do my part and help these students and their families, but this not about what I’m doing. This is about what Camden is doing.”
By Kate Morgan
Photography by David Michael Howarth
City officials and UrbanPromise Academy rededicate a black cemetery where forgotten Civil War soldiers and sailors are buried in Camden.
CAMDEN – A procession of UrbanPromise Academy students, local dignitaries, veterans, history buffs and others respectfully filed past rows of several dozen weathered gravestones of veterans to the beat of a single drum.
Some in the line stopped to lay poppies — a Memorial Day symbol — on the flat stones and to read what was legible. A few leaned down and wiped some of the markers with one hand in hopes of brushing away any remaining dust so they could decipher more of the engraved names, military connections and dates of birth or death of soldiers like Charles H. Brown of the 41st Regiment of Philadelphia and sailor Milton Dix, a USS Princeton crew member who died in 1894.
The procession Friday to pay respects was a solemn ending to a ceremony marking the resurrection and rededication of a long-forgotten burial ground at Federal and 38th streets. Established in 1854, the cemetery has an estimated 250 to 300 graves, including 123 for African-American Civil War veterans and other early blacks who settled in Camden.
The graveyard is being renamed Johnson Cemetery Memorial Park, although the new sign was not delivered in time for the Memorial Day weekend event to commemorate soldiers known as U.S. Colored Troops.
City Council recently designated UrbanPromise Academy caretakers of the long-neglected and overgrown city-owned cemetery. It had become a "needle park," a haven for drug users and trash dumpers, until the high school students took a serious interest in it nearly three years ago and began cleaning it up. Their got involved after learning Civil War history and watching a video about the graves by filmmaker Kevin Walker, a lawyer and history buff who works for the state Public Defender's Office.
"This is one of Camden's cultural gems and it must be preserved ... and the sacrifice of the veterans and others who lay in rest must never be forgotten," said Mayor Dana Redd, who was joined by Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson, Fire Chief Michael Harper and Council President Frank Moran.
"Youth like these children area helping to transform Camden and restore honor to the cemetery, and we are thankful," Redd said. "I am a strong believer in partnerships."
Ashley Gascot, a high school senior involved in the project, said after watching Walker's documentary, "The Lonely Bones," students decided to make the graveyard a school service project.
"How could we abandon Civil War veterans who served us? We are thankful to be giving back to veterans who gave us our freedom, and it's great to know this is just down the street from UrbanPromise," Gascot told a gathering of nearly 100.
The stones are not on the actual graves. Between 1975 and 1980, local officials moved headstones without disinterring the remains, in order to create a park with a ball field. The graves still lie under the grassy field.
Some upright stones were moved to the opposite side of the cemetery under trees and buried flat. Others were removed from the site altogether and taken to another location for disposal, possibly deposited in the Delaware River.
UrbanPromise Executive Director Jodina Hicks said the young people have led the way and generated donations of money or services for the project from Wegmans, philanthropist Jane Murphy and a local church.
Walker was thrilled that a custodial group is now involved, because he had suggested that approach due to limited city resources. When he did his film research, he sought out local historians and history enthusiast Samuel Asbell, a former Camden County prosecutor who had mapped 25 relocated stones and wrote a book, "The Lost Black Legion."
Since the students began a major cleanup, there are now 73 rediscovered stones. Many stones may never be found; some were broken in the move or by children playing years ago.
Among the buried veterans area William Miles Butts of Company B, 37th Regiment, who became the first black city policeman, and Peter Postels, the first black Camden County freeholder, as well as the first black city firemen.
While those troops likely all lived in South Jersey, Asbell said, they had to join regiments like the 41st out of Philadelphia because New Jersey did not have any black units.
"This is long overdue," said Delbert J. Nelson of Camden, senior vice commander of VFW Post 8003 in Lawnside, which absorbed the city's VFW, "and I am so glad to see it happen in my lifetime."
Written by: Carol Comegno, Courier-Post
"Those are the wing skins," Ira Weissman says, pointing to a short, sleek stack of pearly aluminum panels. "I brought them over here this morning in my Prius."
We're in the basement at Camden's Urban Promise Academy, where Weissman and three fellow aviation buffs and seven high school seniors are preparing to build an airplane.
The single-seat BD-5B has a 21-foot wingspan and will be assembled from a kit. A second kit - containing a fiberglass Europa XS two-seater - has been donated as well and may be assembled at another school in the city.
"At first I thought, 'I can't do this,' " says Ashley Gascot, 17, of Mount Ephraim, as her classmates sort parts and examine plans. "But when I saw the tools, I got excited. Not too many students get this opportunity."
For that, the kids can thank the Camden Youth Aviation Program, an all-volunteer effort to widen horizons for students in the city and beyond.
"If they want to make a future for themselves, aviation is something that's waiting for them," says Weissman, a Cherry Hill business consultant who's been a private pilot for almost 40 years. "For me, aviation has opened up a lot of doors."
Weissman and Msgr. Michael T. Mannion, director of community relations for the Diocese of Camden, launched the program in 2010. The first plane-building project began this January.
Students at the five Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden and Pennsauken, as well as youngsters attending the Camden Boys & Girls Club and other city youth programs, have taken field trips to airports and have gotten a chance to talk to aviation professionals.
The program, which also offers science-related classroom instruction, will be expanded this year to the LEAP Academy University Charter School and the Salvation Army Ray & Joan Kroc Center, both in Camden.
"I'm not a pilot. I'm an airplane passenger who prays for the pilots," Mannion quips. "But when I see people like Ira who have a passion for helping . . . I try to connect that passion to possibilities."
Networking within the aviation community also has been essential to the program.
Volunteers for the Wednesday morning classes at Urban Promise include Ted Fox, 78, of Cherry Hill; Don Powell, 66, of Moorestown; and Stan Harris, 68, of Franklin Township, Somerset County.
"Job one is inventory," says Powell, a contractor who's been a pilot since 1972. "We'll build in subsections. Maybe we'll start with the tail, then the fuselage, then one wing."
"It's great to use flying to get students into something that is a totally new experience for them," Fox, a pilot since 1998, says.
Physics teacher Cortney Bolden likes the combination of classroom and hands-on learning, noting that an airplane "completely demonstrates" the principles of physics. "It makes [the subject] tangible," she says. "Instead of just going over the laws, they get to see how the laws are applied."
Cafee White and Derjanai Thomas, both 18 and from Camden, are interested in the tools and the skills involved in using them. "I like doing hands-on stuff," says Thomas.
White says he "didn't see aviation as a career" until his class visited the Aviation Institute of Maintenance, at Philadelphia International Airport.
Now he's thinking of applying to the two-year program. Which is music to the ears of the volunteers. "Aviation has been very good to me," says Fox, a retired Realtor. Flying, he adds, "is just magic. There's nothing like it."
While Weissman notes that the one-seater will be built for display only, there are other plans for the Europa.
"Our goal," he says, "is the students who [build] it will be able to take flight lessons in it."
For the students in the Camden Youth Aviation program, it sounds as if the sky's the limit.
By Kevin Riordan, Philadelphia Inquirer