Blog

Monday, May 22

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

My favorite scripture is Hebrews 11.  I love this scripture because it recounts God’s promises to, and through, people of faith.  And each time I look back on my life and recount what God has accomplished, I see His promises have held true, even during the hardest of times… the suicide of my grandfather, the homicide of my fiancée.  Yet this scripture also sums up why my faith waivers:  while I know that God is in every situation, I also know that life can be very painful.

Nothing shakes me like a teenager on the edge.  I’m sure you have known young people with the world before them, full of potential, and yet they are involved in high-risk behavior and surround themselves with people who will bring them harm.  In Camden, the consequences can be dire for teens who go through even short bouts of normal adolescent rebellion.

This reality is one reason I love the Trekker program.  White water rafting, camping out solo on an island, mountain climbing, cliff diving, surfing – these are enormous gifts to give a searching, struggling teenager.

Faith Kroma came to UrbanPromise just a few years ago as a 9th grader.  Describing herself as a Trekker by necessity (“my laugh is too loud and my legs are too long to be contained in a classroom”), Faith took on every Trekker challenge that Mr. C put before her.  With the mind of a lawyer and the mindset of an adventurer, Faith charmed everyone she met with her charisma and zeal for life.

Yet over the next year, Faith started showing very concerning signs: sleeping in school, fighting with friends, being secretive, running away from home, missing Trekker trips, quitting the StreetLeader program.  And then something interesting happened.  Faith started being honest. Through discussions about childhood trauma with Nurse Becky, she started sharing some of the very high-risk choices she was making in her life outside of UrbanPromise. Ultimately, Faith found herself in a situation that could alter the rest of her life.

Scared, angry, and desperate, Faith agreed to go to Eagle Rock, a partner boarding school In Colorado that fully integrates experiential learning into its curriculum. She would be our first student at Eagle Rock, and not under the best circumstances.  One of her first challenges at Eagle Rock was a 24-day sojourn in the woods. She survived. Then came classes, and she did well.  But when it came time to settle into school, the issues she was running from returned. It wasn’t long before she was in deep trouble and was being sent home from Eagle Rock.

Mr. C and I met with school officials and Faith, and we negotiated a last-chance agreement. Faith would come back to UrbanPromise, engage in therapy and community service daily, and once Eagle Rock was convinced she was ready to come back, they would give her one last chance.  That was a hard meeting, and I don’t think anyone was happy at the end of it, especially not Faith.

But she held up her end of the bargain.  Faith came to UrbanPromise daily for 2 months. She was surrounded by a community that would not give up on her, and she had access to the tools to make different choices.  That is what we do at UrbanPromise all day, every day.  Not without hesitation, Eagle Rock invited her to return.  This time, Faith was ready. She attributes her changed mindset to her work with UrbanPromise’s Wellness Group, reading Emotional Intelligence, and talking through her traumas.   She also reconnected to her love of Trekking and earned the privilege of being a wilderness instructor, leading young people on their sojourns in Arizona. 

Faith graduated from Eagle Rock during Holy Week in April – what fitting timing for her path to overcoming death and embracing new life!  Looking back, it’s clear to see that the crossroads that Faith came to, the choices she made, the tools she employed, and the community that supported her have prepared Faith for life. 

Faith has amazing dreams for her life.  She’s currently preparing to move to South Africa to attend university in Johannesburg.  Following this, she plans to teach in the Liberian village where her father was born.

I am proud of Faith, and I am proud of the community that came together to support her, a community that never gives up on our children, a community that does not allow teens to throw their lives away.  A community that includes you – thank you for investing in our community. 

As I write, UrbanPromise is facing challenging financial times. We need your help to keep engaging young people like Faith and employing caring staff who can help them navigate the challenges that life presents. Please consider sponsoring a child, a StreetLeader, or a student at UrbanPromise.  I promise that our team at UrbanPromise will persist in loving, supporting, challenging, and equipping our Camden youth…because we need more Faith in this world.

Jodina Hicks
Executive Director

Saturday, March 4

First came a great idea, then enthusiastic  volunteers, donated household items and clothing ready to sell (two storage units full!), fixtures and enthusiasm, and still more volunteers—everything was in place late last year for one very full and very bustling thrift store, everything except the store itself.  But now that has changed, the ink is drying on a lease for a start up property on Fork Landing Road in Maple Shade, and the UrbanPromise Thrift Store is slated to open not very far from the UrbanPromise campus; a true labor of love for those who worked tirelessly to make it a reality. UrbanPromise Thrift is set to open in time for Spring.

The UrbanPromise Thrift Store like Urban Chefs Catering will operate to “generate employment for UrbanPromise youth and have a sustainable business model,” said Matthew Speh, Director of Social Enterprises. This new retail operation will give local youth a chance to hone interpersonal and business skills while providing entry level job experience.  Another big benefit: “It has the potential to contribute to the UrbanPromise budget.”

No one is more excited or more optimistic than Ed Londres, a retired engineer, UrbanPromise volunteer and Thrift Shop Advisor—he is the helm of the volunteer army making this dream a reality. “We have racks, counters, display cases and a couple months of merchandise inventory ready to go!" said Londres, coordinating all of the parts so that the store can open smoothly, including moving fixtures donated from the Peter Pan gift shop in Moorestown, by a convoy of volunteers in vans to the new location, overseeing the renovations and sprucing up of the space, and eventually staffing the shop with paid employees and volunteers.

It isn’t Londres’ first time at the rodeo—er, thrift shop.  He has been on the ground floor of similar efforts, specifically helping another local ministry open and operate thrift stores and he has seen great results. “We plan to be self-sustaining from day one,” he said, adding that the benefits of operating a thrift store go beyond just being a profitable enterprise.  “The space itself provides opportunities to showcase the many ministries of UrbanPromise, provides opportunities for fund raising—even gallery space for art created by UrbanPromise students.”

Before all of that can happen, some dry wall and painting need to be completed, fitting rooms constructed and a few more items are needed.  To get to this point he has had a lot of support and he is quick to recognize all of the help given along the way—from Wells Fargo Regional Foundation providing a start-up loan after reviewing the social enterprise business plan, to Moorestown Landscaper Ralph Gregorio who trucked donations to the storage units.  “We have been very blessed,” said Londres, and the opening day is on the horizon because so many people getting involved.  But the work isn’t over, the to-do list is long.  We welcome volunteers to join our effort." 

UrbanPromise Thrift Store

2 N. Forklanding Road
Maple Shade, NJ  08052

For more information about volunteering please contact:

  • Ed Londres, UrbanPromise Thrift Store Advisor:  Email Ed or (609) 417-1887
  • Matthew Speh, Director of Social Enterprise: Email Matthew or (301) 693-7261

Calling All Volunteers...

To fit out the store

  • Painting, Install dressing room, drywall
  • Transport fixtures & merchandise to store
  • Layout floorplan & assemble racks

To operate the store

  • Donation pick-ups & transfers
  • Sorting, Pricing, Stocking merchandise
  • Running cash registers

Specialist volunteer support:

  • HR and Social Media
  • Inventory Management 
  • Accounting
  • On-line sales
  • Youth Mentoring

Thrift Store Wishlist

  • Donated van or cargo truck
  • Cash registers
  • Pricing guns
  • Vacuum cleaner
  • Dollies
  • Hand trucks
  • Slatwall
Friday, February 24


 

First came a great idea, then enthusiastic  volunteers, donated household items and clothing ready to sell (two storage units full!), fixtures and enthusiasm, and still more volunteers—everything was in place late last year for one very full and very bustling thrift store, everything except the store itself.  But now that has changed, the ink is drying on a lease for a start up property on Fork Landing Road in Maple Shade, and the UrbanPromise Thrift Store is slated to open not very far from the UrbanPromise campus; a true labor of love for those who worked tirelessly to make it a reality. UrbanPromise Thrift is set to open in time for Spring.

The UrbanPromise Thrift Store like Urban Chefs Catering will operate to “generate employment for UrbanPromise youth and have a sustainable business model,” said Matthew Speh, Director of Social Enterprises. This new retail operation will give local youth a chance to hone interpersonal and business skills while providing entry level job experience.  Another big benefit: “It has the potential to contribute to the UrbanPromise budget.”

No one is more excited or more optimistic than Ed Londres, a retired engineer, UrbanPromise volunteer and Thrift Shop Advisor—he is the helm of the volunteer army making this dream a reality. “We have racks, counters, display cases and a couple months of merchandise inventory ready to go!" said Londres, coordinating all of the parts so that the store can open smoothly, including moving fixtures donated from the Peter Pan gift shop in Moorestown, by a convoy of volunteers in vans to the new location, overseeing the renovations and sprucing up of the space, and eventually staffing the shop with paid employees and volunteers.

It isn’t Londres’ first time at the rodeo—er, thrift shop.  He has been on the ground floor of similar efforts, specifically helping another local ministry open and operate thrift stores and he has seen great results. “We plan to be self-sustaining from day one,” he said, adding that the benefits of operating a thrift store go beyond just being a profitable enterprise.  “The space itself provides opportunities to showcase the many ministries of UrbanPromise, provides opportunities for fund raising—even gallery space for art created by UrbanPromise students.”

Before all of that can happen, some dry wall and painting need to be completed, fitting rooms constructed and a few more items are needed.  To get to this point he has had a lot of support and he is quick to recognize all of the help given along the way—from Wells Fargo Regional Foundation providing a start-up loan after reviewing the social enterprise business plan, to Moorestown Landscaper Ralph Gregorio who trucked donations to the storage units.  “We have been very blessed,” said Londres, and the opening day is on the horizon because so many people getting involved.  But the work isn’t over, the to-do list is long.  We welcome volunteers to join our effort." 

UrbanPromise Thrift Store
2 N. Forklanding Road
Maple Shade, NJ 08052

 

Sunday, December 11

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. 
—Saint Francis of Assisi

Shots rang out. Eight total.

People screamed; panic ensued. The basketball court emptied. The swings were still. Mothers disappeared with strollers behind parked cars for protection.

“Get to the bus,” screamed Albert Vega, “Everybody to the bus, now!”

Without hesitation, our children responded to the voice of their after-school director and sprinted towards the UrbanPromise bus for safety.

“Everybody okay?” called Albert in an effort to calm the kids who had crawled under the bus seats. “Anyone hit? Anyone hurt?”

By now most of the kids were sobbing, some hysterical. Even growing up in a city plagued with violence doesn’t prepare you for a drive-by shooting.

As Albert continued to move around the bus, assuring the children of their safety, he noticed 9-year-old Tabitha. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t panicked. She just walked behind him whispering in the ears of her peers, “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

“Tabitha, I’m curious,” asked Albert a few hours later.  He was dropping the last of the kids to their homes. “Why were you calm when all the other kids were so upset?”

Tabitha paused momentarily, looked at her favorite counselor, and then spoke with the innocence of a child: “I wasn’t afraid, Mr. Albert, because I was with you. With you, I’m never afraid.”

A few seconds—an eternity—of silence passed. Albert savored the sacred moment, realizing that his role was more than just a camp counselor. In the midst of a chaotic community moment, his presence, consistency, commitment, and compassion gave a 9-year-old girl a sense of security and safety.

It’s hard for me to hear stories like this, especially during the Christmas season.

Why must innocent, beautiful children endure such terror?  Why must Albert—a father, husband, loyal colleague, amazing mentor—risk his life and mental health every day he works for UrbanPromise? No easy answers.

One answer is to just quit.  Throw up our arms, surrender, shut down our programs, concede the challenges are too great, and walk away.

But then we remember Tabitha and the children who need comforting—who will stand with them? Who will fight for their security, dignity, and safety?  Who will offer them peace in the midst of the chaos?

We’ve come too far to give up!  Christ calls us to stay.

That’s why I’m asking you this Christmas to help UrbanPromise continue to be a haven for our children, to provide them with a day, a week, or a month of PEACE! I need your help to underwrite the cost of providing neighborhood-based after-school programs throughout the city of Camden. Our programs are staffed with incredible urban missionaries like Albert. We provide healthy snacks, help with homework, and dinner most nights before taking our youth home.  We partner with families to provide safe, fun, educational, and loving spaces full of God’s peace for hundreds of children.

It’s an amazing thing to be able to do, to buy a child PEACE.

Thank you.

Dr. Bruce Main
President

Give the gift of peace

Sunday, December 11

Chef Shawn Harris wants to tell you about the “Love “ cookie—a secret family recipe that has shaped his culinary signature and reputation, and features ample quantities of white chocolate, dark chocolate, oatmeal and….love. 

“Love,” laughed Chef, “better known as butter!”

Love cookies are almost always on hand in the kitchen at UrbanPromise where Chef Shawn oversees UrbanChefs Catering, a new social enterprise for UrbanPromise. “We want to operate programs that generate employment for our youth and have a self-sustaining business model," said Matthew Speh, who has been Director of Social Enterprise at UP for about one year, and oversees UrbanChefs and the soon- to-launch UrbanPromise Thrift Store. "Both," said Speh “will build professional skills, help our students with college and help them build a resume.”

Chef Shawn agrees—he teaches more than just cooking.  Through UrbanChefs, Chef will train five young people every six months.  Along with cooking instruction, he teaches the value of professionalism, timeliness, courtesy and a welcoming smile. “I set an example,” he said, grinning.  “My mom constantly told me to smile.”

His mom—and grandmother—also taught Chef the foundations of cooking.  He laughs that he was the only man in his family that couldn’t fix a car, but could fix you dinner. After a year of college football-and injuries, Chef came home, unsure of what to do.  His mother urged him to pursue his passion for cooking.  At culinary school at Atlantic County College, he found his passion.  “I loved it! It was everything I wanted to do!”   As a young chef, he found work in Chicago (“that windy thing, that’s for real”) before moving to warmer Atlanta where he worked at a luxury hotel, for Planet Hollywood and in catering before returning to South Jersey. Chef Shawn lives in Cherry Hill now and is raising two daughters.  He came to UrbanPromise from working at the Culinary Institute at Respond, Inc. in Camden—so he knows the territory of working with young people, catering and Camden very well. 

The school cafeteria at UrbanPromise transitions to his classroom after lunches are served. UrbanChefs has a focused clientele, targeting school and church events in and around Camden.  To date, UrbanChefs has catered all UrbanPromise events, including board meetings and volunteer days.  Additionally, UrbanChefs has catered ten external events since July, everything from a barbeque lunch for 150 at the Kipp Charter School to a featured spot at a “Taste of Nazarene” Church fundraiser.  The calendar is filling up with jobs, as the reputation grows.  “We want to build the catering business to be self-sustaining.”  Chef Shawn, his students and the Love cookie are off to a good start.

For information about UrbanChefs catering services please contact Chef Shawn Harris at (856) 465-4359 or sharris@urbanpromiseusa.org.

Saturday, December 10

Auburn Sandstrom lay in a clump on her apartment floor, clutching a tattered piece of paper. Auburn knew she'd hit bottom. It was 2 am, it was 1994.



The only reason Auburn wasn't out hustling drugs on the cold Ann Arbor streets, was the two –year-old baby sleeping in the next room. Despite the fog of her addiction, and the chaos of her life, she still had some semblance of maternal responsibility.



Auburn didn't grow up a drug addict. As a teen, she attended an elite private school, studied abroad in college, took opera lessons, and earned a Master's degree.

Then she'd met the wrong guy, lost her bearings, and became hooked on drugs.



"If you're ever desperate and need some advice," urged her mother three years earlier, "call this Christian counselor."  Placing the paper in her hand, it was the last time they talked.

 

On this night, she dialed the number. "Hello?" responded the surprised voice on the end of the line. "How...how...can I help you?"

For the next three hours Auburn unloaded her story to this anonymous listener--her idyllic childhood, a destructive relationship, the drugs, the unplanned pregnancy.

"

You have any Bible verses you want me to memorize?" asked the still-skeptical Auburn, noticing the early morning sun coming through the blinds. "I mean, you are a Christian counselor aren't you?"



"I'm....I'm not, actually a Christian counselor. You must have dialed the wrong number."

Auburn sat stunned in a moment of sobriety.  Another person had given up his time and sleep....for her.  A stranger.

"

At that moment I realized there were random bits of LOVE in the universe and some of it was meant for me," she confessed later. "At the darkest and most despairing moment of my life, all I needed was a pinhole of light and all the grace in the world could pour through."



Pinholes of light....

Auburn's life dramatically changed direction that night. She walked away from a destructive relationship, worked on being sober, and became an attentive mother. Last year her son graduated from Princeton University.

Reflection:

How we respond to the serendipitous events and encounters of our lives can have eternal implications. Every random human interaction is an opportunity to remind others that they are not alone in this vacuous universe. Christmas reminds us that LOVE exists and pinholes of light wait for us all. God may just need you and me to be the ones who deliver.

Friday, December 2

The instructors were skeptical that the week’s recipe with its emphasis on mushrooms could sway our 5th grade gourmands. But the class was just as concerned with walnuts being in the sauce.  “Why are there nuts in it?” asked Cianni Green, and we talked about different foods that can add valuable protein to our diets.  But our conversation on the benefits of meatless meals was put on hold—our first knife injury in 6 weeks came as Brazil Taylor was chopping onions.  Good thing instructor Becky Bryan is Nurse Becky at UrbanPromise, and Brazil was in good hands while the rest of the cooks did their best to carry on: chopping celery, grating carrots and getting salted water boiling on the stove.  “Watch this,” said A’layvia Green, using the side of her knife to press the cloves of garlic and remove the skin before mincing, like a pro. Instructor Jane Berkowitz explained “al dente” to the girls, and Nailah Lipscomb confirmed that the pasta was indeed al dente.   “Not too hard and not too mushy!”

Our girls had an addition to the menu.  Earlier in the semester, we had picked two spaghetti squash from the UrbanPromise garden and saved it for this week’s lesson.  The girls scooped out the seeds and rubbed it with olive oil for roasting.  “It just looks like yellow squash to me,” said Malaysia Williams, and 30 minutes later, she and her kitchenmates were surprised to see the strands that we scooped out of the halved squash. Seasoned  with salt and pepper and tossed with olive oil and some grated cheese, every one tasted it, but no one was overly enthusiastic. “It is just okay,” said Cianni.

Brazil was back among us to toss the salad and set the table, tapping her fork before everyone dug into the steaming pasta.  “I just want to thank everyone for supporting me during my injury and all,” she said raising her water glass.  Nailah joined her.  “To the good life!”  All six girls ate the Bolognese without complaint, and there were no leftovers.   “I give this a 10!” said Malaysia, digging in.  “This is good,” said Brazil.  “but I think it would be better with meat.”

Friday, December 2

The instructors were skeptical that the week’s recipe with its emphasis on mushrooms could sway our 5th grade gourmands. But the class was just as concerned with walnuts being in the sauce.  “Why are there nuts in it?” asked Cianni Green, and we talked about different foods that can add valuable protein to our diets.  But our conversation on the benefits of meatless meals was put on hold—our first knife injury in 6 weeks came as Brazil Taylor was chopping onions.  Good thing instructor Becky Bryan is Nurse Becky at UrbanPromise, and Brazil was in good hands while the rest of the cooks did their best to carry on: chopping celery, grating carrots and getting salted water boiling on the stove.  “Watch this,” said A’layvia Green, using the side of her knife to press the cloves of garlic and remove the skin before mincing, like a pro. Instructor Jane Berkowitz explained “al dente” to the girls, and Nailah Lipscomb confirmed that the pasta was indeed al dente.   “Not too hard and not too mushy!”

Our girls had an addition to the menu.  Earlier in the semester, we had picked two spaghetti squash from the UrbanPromise garden and saved it for this week’s lesson.  The girls scooped out the seeds and rubbed it with olive oil for roasting.  “It just looks like yellow squash to me,” said Malaysia Williams, and 30 minutes later, she and her kitchenmates were surprised to see the strands that we scooped out of the halved squash. Seasoned  with salt and pepper and tossed with olive oil and some grated cheese, every one tasted it, but no one was overly enthusiastic. “It is just okay,” said Cianni.

Brazil was back among us to toss the salad and set the table, tapping her fork before everyone dug into the steaming pasta.  “I just want to thank everyone for supporting me during my injury and all,” she said raising her water glass.  Nailah joined her.  “To the good life!”  All six girls ate the Bolognese without complaint, and there were no leftovers.   “I give this a 10!” said Malaysia, digging in.  “This is good,” said Brazil.  “but I think it would be better with meat.”

Tuesday, November 22

We learn to become more empathetic when we slow down, become present, and are fully committed to understanding another person’s uniqueness.
Arthur P. Ciaramicoli

Laughter and verbose conversation filled the room.  Hearing an elderly woman next to me took some effort.  I leaned in closer. 

“I got up at 6 am each day,” confided my new friend.  “I washed sheets, bathed him daily, shopped for groceries.  But I was never really with him.”   

Her vulnerability surprised me, especially since we had only met a few minutes earlier.  My simple question: “How are you doing?” turned into a confessional about the last year of her husband’s life—a difficult, slow death from Parkinson’s Disease.  I hoisted a fork full of vegetable medley to my lips.  I chewed quietly and listened.

“That’s my one regret. Does that make sense?” she asked. “Physically I was doing all this stuff, but emotionally I wasn’t there.  I never really asked him how he was feeling.  He went downhill quickly. Then he was gone.”

My regret-filled friend did all the right things for her dying husband.  Her one regret—not being emotionally and spiritually present for him.      

Most of us can relate.  Buying the right gifts, arriving on time, fighting traffic, cooking the flawless meal, sending that last email, putting up the perfect decorations might occupy our minds and energy this holy season.  But in the midst of our frenetic lives, we can forget to be truly present—enjoying friends, family, and strangers in our midst with a listening ear, an attentive spirit, and attuned to what God is doing in our midst.  As C.S. Lewis said so beautifully, “Next to the blessed sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”     

Reflection Questions
1. What are the major distractions in your life keeping you from being fully attentive and present?
2. What are some things you can do to help focus on what’s really important during this season? 

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