How Hope Really Does Work…
Today I had the opportunity to visit a place that many would try to avoid: Camden, NJ. With the highest poverty rate across the country, Camden is known not only for its slums, its violence and its high rates of high school dropouts, pregnant teens and its drug dealers. However, I got to experience a very different side of this town. I got to experience true “hope”.
I had the pleasure of connecting with a program called Hopeworks about a year ago when their Executive Director paid Get On The Bus a visit. However, I didn’t really get to experience a true sense of what Hopeworks was or what they did to transform the kids and the community until just last month.
I remember feeling swamped right before I was leaving California there was just too much to do. Not only did we have to prepare to move our life cross country, but I was also serving as the fulltime Director of Get On The Bus until the night before we left Los Angeles. I had a million things that I wanted to accomplish before I left and it was all seeming to be too much until I got a lifesaving e-mail from Fr. Jeff, the Executive Director of Hopeworks. He said that he had a group of kids coming to Los Angeles to do some service work and asked if I might be interested in having them at Get On The Bus?
As you could imagine, I welcomed this proposition with open arms. However, I must be honest, my expectations weren’t that high. Although I prepared many projects for the kids, I had a less than hopeful outlook on what they may be able to accomplish in a day’s work.
Once the kids arrived on that Saturday morning, I realized that this was quite a different group. As with any volunteer group, I felt that it would be appropriate to start with mission and to show them a video about Get On The Bus. After my presentation, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. Many of these children not only could imagine the pain of having a loved one incarcerated, they had lived it. I got a chance to talk to many of the children that day and they were so passionate about this cause. They kept on saying, “Maria, we need this program in Camden and here is why…” They opened up in ways that were just incredible to me.
Through all of this, they were quite possibly the best workers, I’ve ever had. Not only did we almost accomplish all the tasks I slated for the day (the work that I put aside was easily two to three days worth of work), they did so with purpose and with accuracy, which was very much appreciated. At the end of the day, I was so thankful to this group as they had saved me hours of work, I asked what I might be able to do for them?
They only had one request: they wanted me to visit them when I moved back east. They wanted me to come to Camden and see them in action. Of course, I obliged. I got there this afternoon and I was greeted by Ruben, one of the kids that really held a dear place in my heart. He was so happy to see me, you would have thought we were family that hadn’t seen each other in a long time. He gave me a big hug and we talked for a long while about the new school year. He explained to me that he was going to a magnet school that would allow him to take calculus, trig and chemistry, which are mandatory courses at most high schools, but not for Camden.
With a 70% dropout rate, the public school system is failing the kids in Camden, but it isn’t failing the kids at Hopeworks. According to their Literacy Director, not one child who has been enrolled in Hopeworks has dropped out in the past four years since he has been here. Part of their program is also working on core competency in literacy, math and reading. Hopeworks has successfully been able to raise children’s literacy scores by a grade level each year, which is incredible. Not only is Hopeworks teaching the kids a valuable skill of web design, html code and advanced mapping software, but it is truly giving them the skills and the confidence that they need to overcome all odds and finish school with flying colors.
I truly believe that this program and these kids are something to be celebrated. I want to thank them for the bottom of my heart for helping me in a time where I really needed it. It was also a visit well spent because it was great to be able to catch a glimpse of the kids in their own element. It was so nice to see them all again.