Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts....
"Every year we get this charming donation for the Christmas store," shared Sio, our talented children's ministry director. "Two matching outfits for girls. I mean they're quality. High end, boutique store quality. Really adorable."
The Christmas store is an important tradition at UrbanPromise. Rather than handing out gifts to families--an action than can often be disempowering and humiliating--our leaders create a store where parent can come and choose quality gifts for their children.
"The matching outfits are usually scooped up by a mother or father who has two daughters," continued Sio. "It's always a popular item for our families."
Sio was intrigued by uniqueness of the gift. After all, why would someone go through the trouble of donating matching outfits every year? There had to be a story. So, after a little research, Sio discovered that the mystery gift was always packaged and mailed from Charlotte, NC.
"So last year when I visited Charlotte my curiosity got the best of me," chimed Sio, "I went to visit the person who sends the matching jumpsuits."
To Sio's surprise, an elderly couple were behind the gift--"a wonderful, sweet couple" who love our work and mission. Sio questioned the woman about the reason behind the gift.
"I always wanted granddaughters," confided the women. "We just never got them. So it brings me such joy to envision a couple of sisters dressed in those matching outfits." Beautiful. That's a story.
The way people respond to the circumstances of their lives intrigues me deeply. For some, not having grandchildren might lead to resentment or bitterness. For others, this absence or void becomes a motivating force leading to acts of generosity, thoughtfulness and beauty. Same situation--just a completely different response. Our friends from Charlotte filled their void with kindness to strangers.
In the Christmas story the Magi come to the Christ-child bearing gifts. Gifts were the only appropriate response for what they were experiencing. Words were not enough.
And that's why many of us will give gifts this Christmas. Gifts are powerful. They are our attempt to materialize the deepest intentions and feelings of our hearts for others. May we give thoughtfully, reflectively and imaginatively.
Founder & President
- What is the most meaningful gift you have given? Why was it so meaningful?
- When did you receive a meaningful gift? What did the gift tell you about your relationship with the person?
- Reflect on a gift God has given to you this week.
"Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God."
A beautifully wrapped box leaned against my office door. Whoever left it there had taken great care to neatly fold the paper, ensuring exact creases. A complimentary silver bow juxtaposed the black paper, pronouncing a level of quality. This was a grade up from the Dollar Store.
What struck me was the weight of the gift box as I hoisted to my hip. Rocks? Paper weights? Lead pellets? It was heavy.
I opened the card first, tearing a small hole and sliding my index finger along the top. As I pulled the card from its holster, a neatly folded piece of paper feel to the floor.
I picked it up and read:
"Principles of Embalming--final grade, A-minus." I looked again, double checking the document. "Funeral Service Pathology--final grade, A." Evidently I was viewing a transcript. No ordinary transcript. A transcript for being a Funeral Director.
"Dear Bruce," began the note. "UrbanPromise made a difference for me, once again, so I could finish the spring semester. Your gift didn't just encourage me to finish the semester, but it reminded me that I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. Love Chivon."
God use people--you and me--to remind others that they have potential, worth and favor.
For a moment I pondered. Then remembered her SOS email. It came one cold morning six months earlier. Chivon, a young woman who grew up at UrbanPromise, had run out money and needed $300 to stay enrolled in her Funeral Services degree. I was able to call a friend and get the money. Apparently it made the difference. Not only did she finish the degree (and not only will I get embalmed at a discount!), but it reminded her of God's faithfulness and gave her the confidence to believe that her life could be extraordinary.
Extraordinary lives don't just happen by accident. They are often the result of choices. Some strategic. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time, prepared and ready to take advantage of the fleeting opportunity that drops in our lap. But sometimes it's having a friend, a counselor, a family member, a pastor, even a stranger intervene at a critical moment who reminds you that you have found favor with God. God uses people--you and me--to remind others that they have potential, worth and favor.
"So why mortician school?" I innocently asked.
"When my grandmother died I didn't have money to pay to get her hair done," she reminisced. "So I asked the funeral parlor to let me make up her hair and prepare her for burial. It was a meaningful and healing experience for me. I've decided I now want to minister to grieving people during this period of their lives."
Advent is truly a season of sharing hope and light. It was no accident that inside Chivon's heavy gift box were three large candles. I am humbled to be part of a ministry that sends ambassadors of hope, like Chivon, into the world.
Founder & President
- Reflect on a time when someone has intervened in your life during a critical moment. What did you learn from that experience?
- What opportunities do you have to bring hope to someone who needs encouragement to persevere this week?
I'm going to send you what God has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with the power from on high. – Luke 24:49
"Where did the name UrbanPromise come from?" That's a question I'm asked all the time. It's a great story.
Years ago a group of missionaries gathered in a musty church basement in East Camden. Our task was to find a name for our growing ministry. Before us: a blank chalk board and caffeinated minds full of ideas.
Over the next few hours we spontaneously wrote names and phrases on the board--an old fashioned brainstorming session! By the end of the session there were 100's of words scribbled. But nothing was clicking. We were stuck.
"I just read this article," shared Gina, one of our pioneers. "It was based on Luke 24:49. The writer talked about staying in the city and waiting for God's promise of power from on high." She continued to share how the disciples, with just a promise, were directed back to the city–an urban community. "There were no guarantees," she revealed. "Just a promise!"
Then it clicked. Out of the hundred's of words on the dusty black board, two jumped out--"urban" and "promise".
Everyone in the room unanimously agreed. "Urban" reminded us of our daily commitment to the city. "Promise" reminded us of God's faithfulness to provide and guide our efforts.
As you are well aware, our world is full of broken promises--the impact on children is acutely profound. Parents break promises. Politicians break promises. Educators break promises. Religious leaders break promises. Broken promises can lead to broken lives. The world desperately needs places where promises are kept.
That's what we try to do at UrbanPromise. For 30 years you have helped us keep our promise to the children of Camden. Every gift, every prayer, every volunteered hour helps fulfill our promise keeping mission.
The name UrbanPromise continues to grow in meaning and recognition. For our children, families, staff, volunteers and donors UrbanPromise is a place of hope, opportunity and love--year after year. It's a place where people experience the faithfulness of God embodied in a community of people. That's power. That's a promise.
President & Founder
- Reflect on a time where a promise has been made to you and kept? A time a promise was broken? How did each impact your faith?
- Have you ever made a promise that required more of you than you could have anticipated? What did you learn about yourself in the process?
- What is your promise to your community this advent season?
Do you know that UrbanPromise serves 7,900 nutritious meals each month to our children?
That’s a lot of food: 7,900 breakfasts, lunches and dinners served every 30 days… then repeated again the next month… and again – all year! That’s a lot of preparation and clean-up.
7,900 times a month a child’s stomach is filled to relieve nagging hunger and receive the nutrients and calories needed to develop healthy bodies and minds, and retain the ability to focus on their classroom work.
It staggers my imagination to think that “food scarcity” is still a very real problem for children growing up in our world’s wealt
hiest country. Yet it’s a daily reality that UrbanPromise addresses.
Recently this issue of food scarcity became very personal to one of my colleagues.
After a speaking engagement at a local business, 15-year-old Saniyah whispered to her: “Can I take home the whole box?”
Whole box? Whole box of what? It turned out Saniyah wanted to take home the box of 40 soft pretzels leftover from the event.
Driving back to Camden our concerned UrbanPromise staff learned the deeper story: Saniyah doesn’t live with her parents. Saniyah lives with relatives. She lives in a home where the food supply is unreliable and inconsistent. To avoid hunger, Saniyah thinks ahead – a box of free soft pretzels would help her and her family out for the week.
How does UrbanPromise keep serving 7900 meals each month? Not easily. We need help.
$66,780 is what is needed to ensure that no UrbanPromise child goes to bed hungry in 2019.
Holiday meals are great (and we will be serving some amazing Christmas dinners in the next few weeks), but after the holidays our young people still need to eat. Here’s how we can raise the needed funds:
$70, One month of meals for one child.
$140, One month of meals for two children.
$280, One month of meals for four children.
$560, One month of meals for on
e teen and 7 children.
$1120, One month of meals for 2 teens and 14 children.
$6678, One month of meals for all UrbanPromise children
Let’s give our children the gift of nutritious food this holiday season and make sure that a Philadelphia soft pretzel is a treat… not a meal.
President & Founder
PS. $50,000 Matching Gift Alert: An UrbanPromise friend believes children need food, but also realizes that UrbanPromise needs operating funds. For every dollar raised for food this holiday season, a dollar will be donated to UrbanPromise for general operations – up to $50,000! An incredible offer!
The StreetLeaders in our student leadership-work program are both the providers and the recipients of dinner many nights. As part of our life skills training, our teens learn food management and nutrition and actively cook dinner many nights a week for the children in the afterschool program. They also get to eat a dinner they prepared themselves. How many teens do you know who not only know how to cook a healthy dinner, but do so for dozens of kids a night? Incredible!
Briana was beyond happy the day her father was released from prison. He had parented the best he could while serving time--encouraging her to do well in school, to stay away from boys and promising her that he would soon be there for her in person. When he was finally released, he kept his promise. Briana enjoyed a magical summer connecting with her father and making up for the time they had lost.
Two months later, he was shot and killed. How does a child process that kind of grief?
Children at UrbanPromise don’t have to face grief, depression or anxiety alone. Six years ago we started the Wellness Center to help children cope with the trauma of living in a community known for poverty, violence and scarcity. Trauma creates dark spaces that are scary and uncomfortable for children.
Today, this robust program is meeting the needs of children who have faced the loss of a loved one, homelessness, abuse or the damage caused by addiction. We provide them with the means to make sense of a complicated and sometimes scary world so they can focus on their academics and after-school activities - or just remember how to be a kid.
Siomara Wedderburn, our Wellness Director, shares there is always hope: “Although many of our children have experienced trauma, they are resilient human beings. We are intent on creating safe spaces for them to grow, learn and play. When life gets hard for them we provide compassion, empathy and love. We walk alongside of them and equip them with tools to succeed.”
Wellness at UrbanPromise includes “quiet rooms” in our schools where kids can retreat during an intense moment of anxiety and practice breathing exercises or write in a journal. Student in grades 6-12 create personal safety plans that help them prevent meltdowns or, in the midst of one, find paths back to calm behavior. Younger children are introduced to a “frustration thermometer” to help manage emotions and stay calm in stressful moments.
Libby Whitman, our full-time therapist, is always on hand to work with all of our children one-on-one. It was Libby who held and comforted Briana after her father died. When Briana expressed a fear that she would forget her dad, Libby helped her create a “memory bracelet” where each bead represented a moment from the summer they spent together. A black bead to represent the black shirts he wore; a yellow bead to represent his birthday month; a brown bead to represent a breakfast they shared when he let her try a sip of his coffee.
“Grief is a messy and long process. In counseling we take small steps together,” explains Libby. Briana is showing signs of strength- she is a trustworthy friend to whom her friends flock for empathetic listening and support. Just as her dad encouraged her, she is inspiring her peers and often asks to pray for her friends in counseling.
Siomara and Libby are training our entire staff to be trauma informed and together we are creating a campus that is physically and emotionally safe.
Help us continue to bring healing to our youth.
Director of Development
P.S. In 2017-18, the Wellness counseling team offered 1,027 counseling sessions to over 95 students in our schools and met 100% of referrals for counseling by parents, students, and staff. Help us continue to do this important work this year!
P.P.S. Please consider partnering with our Wellness Center to bring healing to our community in one of the following ways:
- $50 – MP3 players, stress balls, journals and other materials for quiet rooms
- $130 – Three one-on-one counseling sessions for one child
- $280 – Trauma training for one staff member
- $520 – Three months of nutritional cooking classes for the 5th grade class
- $900 – Sponsor one child for wellness services
- $4,500 – Become a Wellness Partner - join a small group of devoted donors who underwrite the annual expense of the Wellness Center
Five months before my wife Pam’s due date for our second child, we were switched to a different - and better - health plan. Little did I know that a simple change in insurance would change the course of my life and the trajectory of UrbanPromise.
You see, the birth of our second child, Erin, was complicated. A few days after the insurance was switched, Pam’s water broke unexpectedly. Four days later, our one pound baby girl was born into the world 17 weeks early, with grade four bleeds on her brain and less than a 10 percent chance of survival. “And if she lives,” confided the neonatologist, “The odds of her being blind and unable to function are very, very high.”
As young parents, Pam and I were overwhelmed - looking at months of emergency prenatal care, special surgeries, unplanned doctor visits, consultants, occupational therapy, physical therapy… We were also looking at a mountain of debt. Debt that would force us to leave Camden and pursue other careers.
That was 27 years ago. I’m happy to say, after years of doctor’s visits and early interventions, Erin recently graduated with a degree in graphic design and currently interns at two public radio stations. Erin is our miracle and we’re so proud of her courage and resilience.
It’s hard to plan for life’s unexpected events. Had the ministry not switched to a better insurance, I would have been saddled with over a million dollars in hospital bills and experienced limited access to the services and treatments Erin desperately needed.
Recently our health insurance broker called to share some sobering news--UrbanPromise’s health insurance premiums will increase by 15% this coming year — an additional unplanned $30,000 to our annual budget. It’s a huge expense for our ministry.
I know you will agree: the most important resource at UrbanPromise is our people. Without quality staff we cannot run quality schools, creative summer camps, transformative job training programs, innovative boat building, effective tutoring, and faith-inspiring Bible studies. Without longevity of staff we cannot provide stability, consistency and the long-term relationships our children crave.
I really need your help to care for our staff.
Here’s a plan so we can continue providing quality healthcare for our community:
- We need one gift of $10,000
- We need one gift of $5,000
- We need two gifts of $1,000
- We need five gifts of $500
- We need five gifts of $250
- We need 25 gifts of $100
I look forward to hearing from you. I know many of you will step up and help us reach this urgent goal.
President & Founder
PS. Please read a few of these inspirational testimonies from our staff. You’ll see why health insurance is so critical.
The stress of receiving a cancer diagnosis is hard enough, knowing you have good health insurance and can choose the doctors who are leaders in the field is saving grace. I am not sure how we would have survived financially or physically without the blessing of our health insurance.
- SANDY NEWHALL, serving UrbanPromise for more than 20 years
When my doctor diagnosed me with a painful fibroid tumor, I was relieved it was not more serious, but also worried. Fibroids are treatable, but it would require surgery and potentially cost a lot of money.
Because I work for UrbanPromise, I didn’t have to worry. Our excellent health care insurance cut my bill from $80,000 to only $4,000 and the staff at UrbanPromise circled me with love and care, bringing meals and visiting me while I recuperated.
- PAMELA FOXX, serving UrbanPromise for more than 10 years
By Lauren Effron, ABC NEWS
More than a decade ago, ABC News met 4-year-old Ivan Stevens who was homeless and praying for Superman to find him a home. Six-year-old Karim Council wondered if other kids worried about being shot and dying as a teenager. Billy Joe Marrerro was 17 years old and was determined to be the first in his family to graduate high school.
The thing these children had in common was they were all growing up in Camden, New Jersey.
In 2007, ABC News spent 18 months documenting the lives of Ivan, Karim, Billy Joe and a number of other children for a Diane Sawyer special report.
At the time, Camden was considered the most dangerous city in America. The murder rate was seven times the national average, jobs were scarce, drug dealers roamed the streets and poverty was rampant, but the ravaged city meant a lot to the children who were holding on to their dreams of something more. Click here to read the original report
Recently, ABC News returned to Camden to follow up with these children more than a decade later.
When ABC News first met Ivan, he and his mother, Precious, and little brother, Imere, sometimes were spending entire days in a gang-ridden park. They had found temporary refuge in an illegal boarding house, where the landlord padlocked the refrigerator door to keep them from getting food. All three were sleeping in one chair.
And no one had to tell Ivan that Camden was dangerous.
“Sometimes, they'll shoot when I sleep,” he said at the time. “I put the pillow over my head because it be too loud.”
Back then, Ivan offered a solution for his family to find a home: "[a] superhero or somebody who'll let me fly on their back, when I see a house, then I get it."
Ivan’s mother wanted to make sure that even though the family had no permanent place to live, Ivan would not miss a day of school.
"I want to go to school so bad," he said at the time. "I want to read."
On Ivan's first day of kindergarten, a school administrator asked him to name the three meals people eat every day and Ivan was stumped by the idea of “breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
After the initial 2007 report aired on "Good Morning America," "20/20" and "Nightline," ABC News viewers became the superhero he was looking for. Money sent from generous viewers went into a trust for housing and education. It was enough for Ivan's family to get an apartment and he was given the chance to attend to a private Christian school in Camden called Urban Promise.
For the first time, the little boy had a room and a chance to learn how to read.
"I love my tie," he said, as he proudly posed in his new school uniform.
Another young student ABC News met at Urban Promise was Karim, who wondered whether other kids grew up in fear. When asked what he worried about, then-6-year-old Karim said, “That I don’t wanna die when I’m a teenager.”
He said that he loved his family and that his mother, Gabbie, worked three jobs so he helped with chores at home. He loved when Urban Promise provided special food on holidays at school and listed his favorites: “We have corn on the cob, chicken, chicken with barbecue sauce, chicken with hot sauce, and just plain chicken. And we have red rice, yellow rice and white rice."
Today, both Ivan and Karim are working hard every day to make their dreams a reality.
Ivan has a summer job giving guided canoe tours on the Cooper River in Camden. He's going to start his junior year of high school. A diligent student, he said he loves history and studies the Bible.
But this year he was handed another blow. His mother, Precious, who was his champion and best friend, learned she had kidney cancer that had spread to her bones. She died in June at the age of 37.
Ivan's father lives with him now in the apartment that they have been able to maintain with the help of generous viewers, and Urban Promise is still trying to help him. But Ivan said his mother is still his guiding light.
"My mom, she's a nature girl,” he told ABC News as he paddled his canoe down the river. “She wanted us to have the great opportunities for things and she told me to go for whatever opportunity I have."
He said he wants everyone who supported him to know he is going to continue to do his best to succeed and make his mother proud.
"I just ask God to get me through my day and let me have a safe journey and 'Amen,'" he said.
As for Karim, he went on to become student council president and he kept up his grades, even while working as many as 40 hours a week at a sneaker store to save some money in hopes of getting into college.
He just graduated high school and was accepted into Rutgers University. On graduation day, it was pure joy for him and his mother.
"I’m honored to have a son that’s 18 and still alive in the city of Camden," an emotional Gabbie said. "We’re here celebrating his graduation and not mourning him."
Alicia Santiago is another bright little girl ABC News met in Camden more than 10 years ago. She was 12 years old at the time, trying to make good grades to get to college while she took care of her diabetic grandmother every day after school.
Now, Alicia is 24 years old. She started college but she got pregnant and had to drop out. She has $20,000 in student loan debt, but is hoping she hasn't missed her chance.
"Everyone gets set back, and stuff happens, life happens and it doesn't matter as long as you get back on the right track," she said. "That's all that matters."
Alicia, now pregnant with her second child, lives with her grandmother and still cares for her full time. She also works 25 hours a week at a local pizza shop to help pay rent and expenses. She cleans, does the laundry and is taking classes online in early childhood education.
"Growing up here, it doesn’t have to be bad. You don't have to focus on the negative," she said. "You can be a rose among thorns."
One of the great ironies of Camden -- plagued by poverty and dotted with abandoned homes -- is that just 10 minutes away is Moorestown, New Jersey, voted the best place to grow up in America by Money magazine in 2005.
At the time, a boy from Camden named Josh wondered whether the kids in Moorestown could hear the same gunshots he heard at night. He had dreams of getting married one day and becoming either a "veterinarian, engineer [or] play basketball."
"I'm focusing on school, keep up my grades," he said.
Josh also attended the Urban Promise school and did well enough to go to college. He met a girl, they had a son, and he wanted to marry her but eventually he had to drop out of college to care for their son.
"I always wanted to graduate college," he said.
Today, Josh installs custom kitchen fixtures at homes in Moorestown -- homes that cost more than $1 million -- and he's trying to believe in a second chance.
"I’ve been learning how to build the house from the ground up, starting from the foundation down, up to the framing," he said. "People give up and they give in. I feel though for anybody in the struggle. ... That’s the one thing you just can’t do. You just can’t give up."
Some of the other kids ABC News visited more than 10 years ago were also bruised by life, trying not to give up and finding new ways to survive.
Wade, a classically trained pianist, said he wanted to be a music therapist.
"I want to help people feel better," he said at the time. "Financial, that's the hardest thing for me because, because I don't have nobody to help me."
He did graduate from college but was left with $75,000 worth of student loan debt. When ABC News met up with him recently, he said he'd been commuting for his part-time job at Lowe's and then commuting two hours to his overnight shift at UPS.
Wade still relishes every chance he gets to play a piano.
"[Playing the piano] takes me away. I’m in my own little world," he said. "I'm sleeping on a little cot for right now, temporarily. It’s better than what most people have that are in my situation. So I'm grateful for that."
Billy Joe is another Camden kid who loves music.
More than a decade ago, Billy Joe was a 17-year-old high school student in Camden working at a fast-food restaurant and living with his family in a home that sometimes didn't have electricity and was overrun with cockroaches. Billy Joe's mother had left when he was 9 and his father worked to make ends meet for their six kids.
After the original 2007 report aired, Billy Joe's family was featured on the ABC reality show "Extreme Home Makeover," but in the end, the family couldn't manage the upkeep and bills on the new house. After two years, they sold the house and returned to their old neighborhood.
During that time, Billy Joe, a songwriter, had some success with his band. He's still writing songs and hoping for his big break.
"It’s been rough," he said. "I’ve battled some depression throughout the years. ... Man, this stuff gets hard."
In the last decade, the city of Camden has changed some too. It's still one of the U.S. most dangerous cities, but the number of murders is now at its lowest in 25 years. The city now has double the number of police officers patrolling the streets.
"It's a struggle to survive in Camden," Sgt. Raphael Thornton said. "No child is born wanting to be a drug dealer. ... Our citizens need jobs. We're still cleaning up the city but if the only way they have of supporting themselves is through the criminal element, then it will be a revolving door."
But these kids who are now 10 years older still believe there is a kind of victory in not giving in to the circumstances surrounding them.
"It’s hard to resist something that is easy. ... You live on a drug block, you wake up, go to work, you come home, at the end of the week you get a $500 paycheck and then a guy standing outside of your block just made $2,000 in two hours," Josh said.
"Right. Double, triple what you make," Karim said.
Josh, who was terrified of getting shot before he reached his teenage years, now hopes that his 7-year-old son Jaiden’s biggest fear as he grows up in Camden can be far more innocent -- like, falling off his bike.
“My fear growing up was bullets, so it shows you the difference,” Josh said.
Watch the full story on "Nightline" TONIGHT AT 12:35 a.m. ET
If you watched, “Waiting for the World to Change” on ABC News a decade ago, you may remember Josh, Ivan, and Karim, three of the children highlighted. Viewers got a glimpse of childhood in Camden with conditions that led eight-year old Josh to ask whether their peers in the suburbs also hear gunshots and see people dying for no reason, and five-year old Karim worry about what the future holds, saying “I don’t want to die when I’m a teenager.” Four-year-old Ivan was the most unforgettable, dreaming to be superman so he could fly high and get his mom a place to live and a bed; and at Christmas hoping for a home with a bathroom and curtains.
These are the children, the stories, the realities, that compelled the birth of UrbanPromise and continue to compel our work in Camden and beyond. We have learned we can’t prevent what our children face every day but we can off-set the trauma, poverty and violence through by offering a safe and nurturing environment, just as real, a peaceful community within the city, where our teens, parents, children, staff, and volunteers shape a different world, one in which our children grow and thrive. Where love is the guiding principle, where hope is spoken, and where children are put first. The 800 children and teens involved in our programs simple refer to this community as “Urban”.
The programs we run at UrbanPromise, including our schools, afterschool program, experiential learning, and teen jobs, are innovative, nurturing, and holistic. Ivan, Josh, and Karim grew up in our schools and afterschool programs. At 14 they each became StreetLeaders, teens who are employed, trained, and deployed as leaders in our camps and afterschool programs. They’ve gone on trips, seen opportunities that exist outside of their zip codes, gone on college tours, and been stretched beyond their imagination.
It is not our programs alone that make the greatest difference, it is the community of caring people that embrace UrbanPromise’s children, weaving a network of relationships that root hope, love, confidence, opportunities, and faith into their mindset and their lives. Our 200 volunteers, 100 teens, 600 children, 3,000 donors, hundreds of churches, businesses, and colleges, make up UrbanPromise, each doing a little, each a fiber that strengthens our community.
Ten years later, Diane Sawyer is once again allowing us to look into the lives of Ivan, Karim, and Josh, three young men who have been greatly affected by loss, violence, and grief. Death, incarceration, teen parenting, poverty, and family and community violence have been markers in their lives. Yet their strength and resilience is profound. It is their spirit, purpose in life, outlook on the future, and daily-lived actions that make a difference in the lives of others and inspire us at UrbanPromise. It is truly a place where the extraordinary has become ordinary.
In the last ten years, the world, of course, has changed. We now support 17-year old Ivan, in the face of his mother’s death, as he cares for his little brother and his father; we stand by 24-year old Josh, who at 7-years old was afraid to have hope, as he infuses hope, love, and safety into his young son’s life while pursuing his own goals; and we cheer on Karim as he goes onto college to pursue a life he once hoped for as a child. Ten years ago, Ivan wanted to be Superman, and today, we see that all three of them have shown heroic resolve in keeping their own lives moving forward and not allowing the circumstances of their childhoods define them as men.
Thanks to so many of you, the next ten years is just as promising.
Destiny Wilson spent the other day drifting down the languid Cooper River away from Camden, toward the Delaware, in a canoe that she built with her own hands. Excitedly, she identified a double-crested cormorant, then a bald eagle and a few blue herons as they dozed in the shade or soared above.
It’s difficult to imagine that, growing up in East Camden, Wilson, 18, once knew the Cooper River only in passing, her imagination stifled for years by Camden’s concrete confines. These days, she’s something of an expert on the water, but her aspirations don’t end at the Delaware.
“I always wanted to go places when I was a kid, but I just never put in the work to get there,” she said. Today Wilson talks seriously about traveling beyond the city of her birth to such far-flung places as Greece and Switzerland. First, her sights are set on college. If all goes according to plan, she said, she’ll be her family’s first college graduate. She wants to study environmental science.
Wilson is one of five Camden high school students who are spending the summer as “river guides” for the nonprofit RiverGuides program sponsored by UrbanPromise Ministries, a nonprofit that works with the city’s young.
Founded three years ago through a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the RiverGuides program pays students such as Wilson to guide folks through the river. Camden residents paddle free of charge. Others must pay a small fee. Throughout the trip, the young guides narrate the local history of landmarks on the river and present ecological findings from their own research.
“Some people think because the Cooper River’s in Camden, it’s dirty,” said Hannah Morales, 22, who has supervised the program the last two years. “We make residents see that within this city, which can be a bit rough around the edges, there is this beautiful river.”
All RiverGuides expeditions are led by Wilson and this summer’s four other guides, joined also by two paid supervisors like Morales and usually one volunteer. The typical paddle is for the benefit of Camden residents who have never been on the river before, Morales said.
The canoes, most hand-built by students in the UrbanPromise Boatworks shop, hit the water near the Kaighn Avenue Dam. They traverse toward the Delaware River, winding among such landmarks as the Campbell’s Soup headquarters, Gateway Park, and the Federal Street Bridge. After roughly three hours, the trip ends at Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden where a shuttle returns participants to the launching point.
The guides not only know the history of the Federal Street Bridge back to the American Revolutionary War, but they also gladly identify an amalgam of birds that have come to call the Cooper home. And as part of their job, guides conduct water-quality assessments on the river twice a week, testing for pH level, dissolved oxygen, turbidity level and nitrates. All tests come back within the standard range, the river guides said, and then explained the purpose behind each test.
Wilson, in particular, took the lessons she learned with RiverGuides to heart. Now she’s returned for her second summer as a guide.
“This is actually my job,” she said. “I can’t believe I get paid for this!”
Wilson said the RiverGuides program changed her life, and made her appreciate her city in new ways.
“[My view of] Camden has changed a lot now that I’ve gotten to be on the water and see it from a different point of view,” she said. “I just love everything here so much.”
Most who sign up for the tours have never been on a boat, Morales said, like most of the seven kids who came from Trenton last week to join the Camden guides. Those who hadn’t been on the water before were a bit shaky at first.
“Oh, Jesus, how am I getting in that thing?” asked Arianna Alexander, 15, just before the paddle. But as the group pressed toward the Delaware River, everyone became visibly more relaxed and comfortable with one another. Some raced, others collected litter, searched for birds. Still more lingered behind to chat.
“It was a good experience,” Alexander said to the group after the paddle. “I’m glad I didn’t drown.”
The kids from Trenton and Camden were joined last Friday by Maria Blatcher of Moorestown, who volunteered to help organize the trip.
“The contrast of the wealth in a community like Moorestown to the poverty in a city like Camden is striking,” Blatcher said. “And it’s just inspiring to watch these kids try something new and see their city from a new perspective for the first time.”
Camden’s poverty seems almost impossible to escape, even out on the Cooper River. As the canoes glide peacefully under bridges, it doesn’t take long to notice the glaring evidence of Camden’s reality, the makeshift living conditions of the city’s poorest beneath bridges.
Blatcher said she was inspired to volunteer her time and effort when she saw a 20/20 program on child poverty in Camden more than a decade ago. As it turned out, one of the river guides, Ivan Stevens, now 17, was featured in that 2007 episode. At the time, he and his mother and younger brother were homeless.
Today, Stevens aspires to be a journalist, he said, and keeps a journal on him almost all the time.
Stevens said that his mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm last month and that the UrbanPromise community and the RiverGuides have given him a second family. “They were always there for me,” he said. “They gave me a shoulder to lean on.”
And as for this summer, Stevens is ready to share the river with any and all who are interested: “I see stuff differently now. It’s a new life out here. It’s waiting for different people to see.”
By Will Feuer, Staff Writer
Maggie Loesch, Photographer
…Just stop and imagine. Think and imagine a world where love is the way. Imagine neighborhoods and communities where love is the way… When love is the way, then no child will go to bed hungry in this world ever again. When love is the way, there’s plenty good room—plenty good room—for all of God’s children. Because when love is the way, we actually treat each other, well... like we are actually family.
—The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry
Bishop Michael B. Curry’s sermon during the royal wedding in May goes to the heart of the UrbanPromise vision and founding mission in Camden, NJ, 30 years ago.
Love was not the way for young people who were driven to gangs out of desperation, hustling for whatever money they could make. I remember some of them very well. I remember their hopelessness and fear that they would never be employable, that their zip code would dictate their future, and that life for them looked like dying or going to prison by age 20.
I loved these kids. I wanted so badly to give them something different, something better, something hopeful. With limited resources and a few committed donors, we started the StreetLeader Program to provide hope and income for our teens, but also to anchor them in a way that would offer them a future. Some of them were too old or already lost to the streets by the time our job program launched in 1994. I regret not having more to offer them.
Since then, and thanks to you, we’ve been able to hire thousands of teens. UrbanPromise has hired at least 80-110 teens each year for the past 24 years. Together with our teens, we’ve created a culture of love that transforms our young StreetLeaders and trains them to be leaders in our community.
On the same day as the royal wedding, another important ceremony was taking place, but much closer to home. Dominic Bowman, former UrbanPromise StreetLeader and also the first person in his family to go to college, walked across the stage and received his degree from Montclair State University. It was not an easy journey. His mother passed away halfway through his first year of college. He no longer had a home to return to on breaks.
But the UrbanPromise family was there for Dominic, including attending the funeral in full force. Sitting in the pews, watching his family file in, I was struck with the realization that I knew his brothers and cousins. Five of them were young men I met at the beginning of my journey with UrbanPromise, young men who had succumbed early on to the pull of streetlife in Camden.
“Dominic, how did you end up on such a different path than your brothers?” I asked after the service.
“My brothers brought me to UrbanPromise when I was 4,” he explained. “There were summer camps and after-school programs, and I came every day. All those years, UrbanPromise was there for me. My family moved a lot, but UrbanPromise always stayed connected. They would pick me up and take me home every day. I had a StreetLeader who took me under his wing. Then I became a StreetLeader, because I wanted to give the same thing to other kids.”
He continued, “UrbanPromise gave me the opportunity my mom desperately wanted for me, for us. I became her hope. So it was for her that I went to college. Thanks to my StreetLeader job and the scholarships from UrbanPromise, I was able to finish.”
This summer we will hire 102 teens to run summer camps with us. They will work hard, they will be challenged and learn to be on time and work with people who look different from them. They will make children laugh and give them a reason to come to camp every morning. They will earn a paycheck, go to tutoring, and be a Bible buddy. They will love and be loved.
Please sponsor a StreetLeader today. Thank you for making love “the way” at UrbanPromise.
P.S. Did you hear?! We are excited to announce that Bishop Michael B. Curry will be the special guest speaker at our 30th Anniversey Celebration Banquet on October 23rd. Tickets go on sale July 1st. Sign up to be a StreetLeader Sponsor ($504 or more) and we will hold two complimentary tickets for you.