Camden County commissioners working with Hopeworks to find alternative paths for youths

Since the pandemic took hold of the nation and the world in 2020, school districts everywhere have been negatively impacted by skyrocketing truancy. This is especially true in urban landscapes, and Camden city was not immune to these national trends.

Based on that, the Camden County board of commissioners said it will spearhead a multipronged partnership to create alternatives for Camden students who are no longer engaged in the traditional school system.

This new program is rooted in identifying at-risk youth and then offering them an alternative by providing individuals a seat in the Hopeworks program. This time-tested career center will pay them to attend, offer transportation to their new workspace and work with young adults through other methods to stabilize them and find them gainful employment.

Hopeworks officials said the program has a long track record of success, with a 93% retention rate for the 12-month program.

Commissioner Director Louis Cappelli Jr. talked about the need for new alternatives for truancy and tapping into a renowned program that is grounded in youth employment.

“Time and again, we are seeing members of our youth population that have given up on school and are out in streets with negative results in our neighborhoods,” Cappelli said. “That said, we have seen the success that Hopeworks has had in Camden and the innovative way they facilitated a second-to-none workforce training program. Based on their results, we thought they were the perfect fit to facilitate this program.”

The overall scope of the plan is being funded by the Camden County Youth Services Commission, the Rowan-Rutgers Joint Board of Governors, the Camden Community Partnership and the Camden City School District. These four organizations have invested $250,000 to create 50 specialized spots in the Hopeworks program. They have also joined the Camden County Police Department to make a positive impact on the social determinants of health for the city and the region by enhancing the lives of young adults that are facing the adverse effects of being out of the classroom and unemployed.

“This exemplifies what Camden is all about, working in partnership to find a solution, and coming together to help support our youth,” Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen said. “This is a sound investment in our young people, and I commend all of our partners for creating this alternative solution.”

Overall, the largest driver of violent crime in the city has been focused on the 16- to 19-year-old age cohort. These are individuals that the Camden County Police Department has identified as being most at-risk in the community and most in need of an alternative route to get them off the streets and into workforce training.

“CCP is proud to participate in this critical initiative, as it represents an investment in Camden’s most precious asset — our youth,” Dana Redd, CEO of the Camden Community Partnership, said.

“Despite the adverse effects the pandemic had in our communities, our commitment to offering our teenagers constructive pathways towards a brighter future remains unwavering.  By engaging and connecting them with a reputable organization like Hopeworks, I am optimistic about the impact and meaningful change we can bring to their lives.  Our youth simply need an opportunity to showcase their potential, and that is precisely what we aim to provide.”

According to the Camden County Police Department’s Record Management System, in 2023, the average age of youth engaged in negative behaviors leading to delinquent activities in the city was 16 years old. Out of that cohort, from the ages of 16 to 19, the city had 95 repeat violent arrests, with 24 of them being associated with a firearm. Six of these youth were shot, and eight homicide victims were brought down by youth in this age group. In addition, this cohort made up the largest number of repeat arrests in the city, at 119. Out of the Top 10 most frequent offenses, possession of a firearm was the No. 1 charge for city youth in this age bracket, and narcotics distribution was No. 3.

About Hopeworks

Hopeworks is a social enterprise that uses technology, healing and entrepreneurship to transform lives. Hopeworks’ unique mix of training, trauma-informed care and real-world experience is what leads to extraordinary results. The approach, combined with high-demand, high-wage technical training and paid work experience, is helping to build a workforce that can not only get the job, but keep it, transforming their lives and the lives of their families.

Camden County Police Chief Gabriel Rodriguez was adamant about the need for a program like this that will provide stability to young people in the city.

“Right now, a lot of violent crime is being driven by teenagers who are mostly outside of the school system,” Rodriguez said. “During the pandemic, we lost thousands of kids to the street, and that has created a real challenge to public safety. I want to applaud the funders of this program and thank them for their foresight, because I believe a program like this can have lasting long-term benefits to all of us in the city.”

Katrina McCombs, superintendent of the Camden City School District, emphasized how Hopeworks is laying the framework for Camden students to achieve success outside of the traditional classroom setting.

“Our partnership with Hopeworks is a transformative step for Camden’s students, especially those most at risk,” she said. “This initiative equips them with essential high-tech skills and paid work experience, providing a solid foundation for stable careers. By converting educational opportunities into tangible success, we’re not just empowering our students; we’re enhancing our entire community. This reflects our deep commitment to transforming lives and ensuring every student has the chance to succeed.”

Recruitment of youth from the city for the program will be done primarily through the Village program as part of the community engagement team with the CCPD and through referrals directly through the Camden City School District. In addition, the program will also work indirectly with other nonprofits having direct dialogue with young adults in Camden for referrals as well.

Hopeworks CEO Dan Rhoton shared his gratitude for the investment in the program by community partners.

“We are immensely grateful to the city of Camden for their support,” Rhoton said. “Their investment in Hopeworks is not just a financial contribution, but a commitment to the future of Camden. With their help, we can continue fulfilling our mission of empowering young adults and creating opportunities for success in Camden.”