Blog: March 2014
Two weeks ago, 9-year-old Arie Burton placed second in the UrbanPromise Poetry Contest (see poem below). Arie sparkled like a diamond. Winning a $10 gift card for her effort etched an indelible smile on her face.
By Sunday afternoon, little Arie was on life support at Cooper Hospital—brain dead from a tragic car accident involving her family. In the midst of their grief, her family made an incredible decision: to honor Arie's sweet and giving personality, they donated her organs to others in need. Her heart was given to a child in desperate need of a transplant.
The heart-wrenching loss left her family and our community stunned and confused.
“Her poem was brilliant,” reminisced a tearful Tony Vega, Arie’s Camp Director. “Her words so insightful…beyond her years. She was so happy and proud of her accomplishment. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
It’s been a difficult few weeks.
Like many weeks at UrbanPromise, there is a mixture of joy and pain. Working in a community like Camden, we experience inordinate amounts of tragedy and loss. No matter how it arrives, it’s never easy.
And yet our team somehow chooses to move forward in love and hope—even at the risk of pain and loss. Maybe it’s because God shows up in other ways.
Seeing 60 spring break-celebrating college students choose Camden over Cancun encouraged our hearts, reminding us that there are young adults in the world who still want to follow Jesus by serving others.
Watching Jodina Hicks, our gifted and talented Executive Director, be recognized as a “New Jersey Hero” last Wednesday by our state’s first lady, Mary Pat Christie, bolstered our spirits. After serving families and youth in Camden for so many years, it was nice to see Jodina recognized for her many contributions.
Listening to 150 junior high kids laugh and scream at the annual UrbanPromise Olympics, full of mucky games and wacky skits, affirmed our mission to provide fun, safe, beautiful alternatives to the dangers of the streets.
And this past Friday witnessing 250 donors attend our Taste of Promise, cheering our kids on and donating nearly $70,000 was a needed boost of encouragement. They reminded our team that there are many humble and generous people in the world.
Yes–it’s been a difficult, unforgettable few weeks. In the midst of it all, I’m grateful for your prayers, friendship, and belief that we can be a presence for God’s love, compassion, and justice.
P.S. If you are interested in making a donation to Arie's family to help with expenses during this heartbreaking time we have set up a fund and 100% of the money will go to the family. Click here to make a donation. Thank you for your help!
A poem by Arie
Below is a poem that Arie wrote on 3/14/14 just days before the accident that took her life. Arie placed second at the poetry contest that night.
Kids are crying
People are dying
See the world that I’m living in?
People are talking ghetto in the streets and kids repeat
Do you see the world I live in?
Don't ever be a bystander cause kids would think that’s cool
If your getting bullied don’t let him grind you in the dirt
Because he's just a jerk
He tries to hurt you because he's hurt
But deep inside he's not a jerk
He thinks that’s how things work
Do you know who he Is?
He is Camden Camden wasn’t a bully at first
Until we started treating him like dirt
That’s why he's a bully
But deep inside he's not a bully
Do u see the world I’m living in?
After Mary Pat Christie presented the award, once cameras stopped flashing and the crowd dispersed, Jodina Hicks - the latest "New JerseyHero" - finally got to see the person who she says saved her life.
Carter, age 4, ran up to his mother with flowers and a wide smile.
"He was a big part of giving me something to really get up for," Hicks said Wednesday. My job "absolutely was, too, but on a very personal level, he was really what I needed, and me for him, too."
Hicks, executive director of Urban Promise, an award-winning youth services powerhouse in Camden with two private schools, after-school programs, and leadership, job-training, scholarship, and mentoring initiatives, became the 26th recipient of the New Jersey Heroes award and the first from Camden County.
"It's exponential, the people that you're helping here," Christie said on a tour of the facility Wednesday. New Jersey Heroes is an initiative the governor's wife started that showcases positive ways people and organizations affect their communities.
At 43, Hicks has spent more than half of her life trying to make things better for the underdog - from Camden's youth to the formerly incarcerated. In the last four years, she's done it while quietly rebuilding her own life following a personal tragedy.
Hicks, born in Pittsburgh, attended Eastern College in St. Davids and then spent 12 years working at Urban Promise while earning her law degree from Rutgers-Camden.
She left Urban Promise in 2000 to work in prisoner reentry programs. There she met her "best friend and love," David Lewis, a longtime advocate for former inmates and the founder of "Free at Last," a national reentry program.
But in her 10 years away from Camden, Hicks said, she never encountered the familial community or dedication to a mission she'd had at Urban Promise.
So Hicks reached out to Urban Promise founder Bruce Main, who invited her back - this time as executive director. Lewis, 54, started filling out retirement papers, and the engaged couple made plans to move to the city in June 2010, following years of dating long distance - she in Chicago and he in California.
A week before the move, Lewis was fatally shot outside a mall in Palo Alto by a paranoid schizophrenic, a client he had helped get clean nearly a decade before, Hicks said.
Lewis left behind three children, three grandchildren, and Hicks.
"It was a huge loss. He really was a wonderful man and my best friend. My coming back here was a dream come true, and he was totally supportive of it," she said.
So Hicks returned to Camden alone. She threw herself into work at the organization, which serves about 640 children daily, most from Camden and Pennsauken.
Urban Promise is the leading employer of teens in the city, with a cadre of street leaders who mentor younger children and also take advantage of Urban Promise tutoring programs themselves.
"You can't really start with people already set in their ways, but starting with kids, that's how you get to see change," said Ashley Gascot, 16, a junior at Urban Promise Academy and a street team leader.
A year and a half after Lewis' death, Hicks met Carter through her organization. Then 2, Carter was living temporarily with his great-grandmother after being removed from his parents' home due to neglect. Hicks was his foster parent for a year and then adopted him.
"The amazing story line in my life is losing David and then having this amazing son," she said. "My hopes for a family were over, and here comes this little boy, and I fell in love with him."
Hicks had raised a 12-year-old girl when she was in her 20s during her first stint at Urban Promise. That young woman is now vice principal of the nonprofit.
One of the things Hicks likes most about the organization is its direct approach to the city's challenges.
"I got pulled into this amazing vision, which is that we are the plan. There's no state nor federal nor other plan waiting to make conditions for children in Camden better," Hicks said. "It's our lives and our calling to do that."
As a New Jersey hero, Hicks received $7,500 to go toward the organization. She can apply for additional grants, along with the 25 other recipients since 2009.
Urban Promise receives about $3 million in grants and contributions each year toward its numerous programs.
The program, founded in Camden in 1988, has expanded, with locations in Wilmington, Trenton, and Miami, as well as Canada, Honduras, and Malawi.
Hundreds of volunteers come in each year.
On Wednesday groups, from Canada and Tennessee helped facilitate a junior Olympics for after-school students.
As Hicks accepted her award in the school's chapel, she thanked the smiling young faces seated before her and the many teachers, administrators, and volunteers.
"There's an African saying, 'I am because we are,' " she said. "Truly, looking out at the audience, thank you. Were it not for you, I wouldn't have had the courage to keep going."
Written by Julia Terruso
New Jersey first lady Mary Pat Christie on Wednesday honored Jodina Hicks, executive director of UrbanPromise in Camden, as her second “New Jersey Hero” of 2014.
Through a series of programs and initiatives, Hicks works to provide at-risk children and young adults in the city with the tools necessary to succeed in life — from academic achievement and life management to spiritual growth and leadership skills. She is the 26th individual to be named a New Jersey Hero.
“I admire Jodina’s commitment in helping our youth realize their true life potential,” Christie said. “From her early contributions in getting the UrbanPromise organization off the ground to her return as the agency’s executive director, Jodina is shaping the next generation of young leaders who will ultimately represent change and pride in their community.”
Founded by Bruce Main in 1988, UrbanPromise has a 25 year history in Camden. The agency provides an array of programs that challenge youth to develop the skills they need to succeed in life through after-school and summer camps, two schools, job training, experiential learning, and a host of other initiatives. UrbanPromise serves approximately 640 children and teens from the Camden community each year.
“It's humbling and an honor for First Lady Mary Pat Christie to recognize UrbanPromise and me as a hero,” said Jodina Hicks. “The definition of a hero, someone who displays courage and self sacrifice in the face of adversity, is very fitting for the staff of UrbanPromise, the families of Camden, and most of all the youth of our city, who, despite tremendous obstacles and traumatic conditions are living their lives with courage and are transforming our community.”
During a twelve year span, Ms. Hicks helped to begin the organization’s adolescent programs, including the Street Leader Program, Urban Promise Academy, and numerous college preparation and performingarts activities. From 2000-2010, she developed youth development programs, faith-based initiatives, and corrections reform with Public/Private Ventures and the Safer Foundation. She returned to Camden in 2010 to serve as the agency’s executive director.
At UrbanPromise, nearly 100% of participating high school students graduate, with approximately 93% moving on to college. Nearly 85% of UrbanPromise alumni have graduated from an institution of higher educationtobecome doctors, teachers, social workers, child care workers and business owners. In addition, it is not unusual to have former UrbanPromise participants return to the organization as employees or volunteers, or to enroll their children in Urban Promise activities.
Written by Courier-Post
First Lady Mary Pat Christie traveled to the Camden area Wednesday to award the head of a faith-based community center and school with the New Jersey Hero prize.
Christie, who has honored 25 other “New Jersey Heroes” within the past five years of the program, also presented Urban Promise Executive Director Jodina Hicks with a $7,500 check, which she said will be used to benefit the organization.
“You guys are doing some truly amazing things here at Urban Promise,” the first lady said, addressing the counselors and children assembled at the community center. “I am humbled when I see these programs in our state, and I like getting the chance to spotlight them for more people to see across the state.”
Founded in 1988, Urban Promise offers free after-school programs, summer camps, job training and other services to children and teenagers, the majority of whom hail from Camden. The non-denominational Christian organization also maintains a middle school and high school, which charges a $2,500 per year tuition.
It is the largest employer of teenagers in Camden, according to Hicks, paying minimum wage, and sometimes more, to “street leaders” who help students with homework and otherwise act as mentors in the summer camp and after-school programs. This summer, the organization plans to hire 80 to 90 more teens.
While it’s mailing address is in Pennsauken, Urban Promise practically straddles the township’s border with Camden, and is located just blocks away from the city’s Woodrow Wilson High School.
“Looking up the definition of hero before, I thought that it fits perfectly with Camden, and for Urban Promise,” said Hicks, accepting the New Jersey Hero award and $7,500 check from Christie. “It means to show courage in the face of adversity, and I think that’s exactly what people here are doing.”
Later, Hicks said she could think of two Urban Promise programs that could benefit from the extra influx of money.
“We have an emergency family fund — a pool of money that goes to help families with
First Lady Mary Pat Christie left, speaks with Jodina Hicks, right, executive director of Urban Promise in Camden, as her 2nd New Jersey Hero of 2014 and her 26th Hero overall.
Christie’s New Jersey Heroes program, first initiated by Gov. Chris Christie five years ago, is designed to highlight “positive and unique ways people and organizations are impacting” others throughout the state, according to representatives for the first lady.
Applications for prospective “heroes” are collected and reviewed by a committee, Christie said. She does not choose the eventually winners, but instead presents the awards across the state.
Urban Promise and Hicks are the first recipients of the award in Camden County.
“This allows me to highlight programs that benefit our youth, which is something we should be celebrating,” said Christie. “It also creates a network of heroes, and they can connect with each other to discuss best practices, and it allows them to apply for additional state grants. So, there is a real benefit to being named a hero.”
Before presenting the award to Hicks, Christie toured Urban Promise's two centers on Rudderow Street, and met with students, faculty and street leaders.
Brent Lebman, the child ministries director for the after-school program, was among those in the raucous common room — filled with children and teens loudly chatting and playing — when the first lady entered.
“Jodina getting this award is only fitting — she’s a hard worker and is very dedicated,” he said.
Asked what he hoped Christie would take away from the visit, Lebman said he wants more people to have a better understanding of the people of Camden.
“I think Camden gets such a negative reputation, that people miss that kids are kids, and these are great kids,” said Brent, himself a Camden resident. “I hope she sees human beings here, and that there’s a lot of love here.
“Rather than a wasteland, I hope people see diamonds in the rough, and not give up on us.”
By Jason Laday/South Jersey Times