Blog: 10 August 2018
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