“There was a child went forth every day, and the first object he look’d upon, that object he became, and that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day or for many years…” Walt Whitman – Leaves of Grass
I was recently asked to share the UrbanPromise story with a new colleague. As I sat back and began to reflect on my 17 years at UrbanPromise I realized how important it was to know the Camden story where UrbanPromise had planted its flag over 33 years ago.
When I came onboard, I was living in the comfortable suburbs 15 miles and a world apart from Camden. Like many of us living in the surrounding communities Camden was only a place I passed through while going somewhere else. I will admit in those days I often felt overwhelmed by the physical harshness I would sometimes see in the neighborhoods where some of my students lived. I would think about what they saw when they walked out their door and I felt powerless to change it.
I now know UrbanPromise can change the experiences students have through our schools and after school programs. Programs like UrbanTrekkers, StreetLeaders, Boat Building and Butterfly gardens are transforming lives by creating opportunity and safe spaces for children and youth to discover who they are and the possibilities for their lives…to become the very person God created them to be.
I also know that as influential and powerful environment can be in our lives our lived experiences can overcome those influences. This is Why We Ride and we invite you to join us once again in the in our annual Pedal for Promise on October 2, 2021. Sign up today. www.urbanpromiseusa.org/pedal
The author and theologian C.S. Lewis had written in his famous book Mere Christianity that “Reality is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect.” This could not have been any truer than in the present year of 2020. Regardless of which country, political party, or age you are in this year seems to have found you with a change that you weren’t expecting.
The effects could be felt by us keenly in the UrbanTrekkers program. At UrbanTrekkers, many of our greatest programs involve overnight trips with our students to amazing natural places across the Northeast and beyond. These trips had to be adapted into a very new thing this school year to fit into the confines of health regulations and our own ability to transport students safely in this time.
These new trips we referred to as Trekker Mornings. Each week each grade would have a morning dedicated to an outdoor experience nearby. Beginning with paddling in BoatWorks-made canoes and ending with hiking and biking in local parks, the mornings had a wide range of topics and activities. The consistency of the trips allowed for a massive amount of genuine connections between staff, volunteers, and students. The short distance to the trip locations also allowed for a flexibility that would have been difficult to manage on a longer expedition. These small but potent advantages allowed for experiences that built up both the students and our Trekker team.
One October morning comes to mind this fall to illustrate this point. We had planned to take our senior class for a bike ride around Cooper River Park, a local park with many great paths for the amateur and experienced biker. Unfortunately, the trails were quite wet this particular morning due to some rain that had been falling steadily through much of the night, morning, and showed no signs of stopping. Some of our students seemed certain we were going to cancel our morning activities. We surprised them with a choice: we could continue with our scheduled programming and go for a bike ride, or we could do something unplanned and go for a nature walk in a park that many of us had never been to before. A vote was held and the hike was chosen. So, after a short drive and some wardrobe changes to include waterproof boots, ponchos and extra layers we set out in the relative wilds of Hopkins Pond. The rain had continued to hold up in a strong and thorough fall all through the hike. However, no one complained of the hike, some even were jumping through puddles with glee in their boots! As we returned to the vehicles at the end of a half-mile hike, soaked through and through, we congratulated the students on their grit and upbeat nature. We on the Trekker decided to reward this optimism with some warm drinks on the way back to school.
This memory stands out to me as a testament to both the unpredictable nature of the world, but also the resilience of our team and students. We don’t know what the rest of the season may hold for the world or our state, but we are working to be ready for it. We are preparing a number of programs: some tried, some different, and prepared for the unexpected. We are thankful to those that support us through this season with its twists and turns. We look forward to sharing more of this new season and its stories with you soon. As C.S. Lewis said, “There are far, far better things ahead than any we leave behind.”
“Hey Kevin...I can’t go tomorrow on the trip...sorry”
I got that text from one of our Seniors at 9:33 PM on January 28th - the day before we left for our Winter Outdoor Leadership Training. Yamiletz is a tough student to get to commit for trips. After a few weeks of trying to convince Yami to join her classmates for the trip, she was finally on board. Until we got that text Monday night.
Kris and I were winding down from a long day of final preparations for the 4-day visit to Nockamixon State Park, and Kris insisted that I call Yami back as soon as we saw the text. She later told me that she wished she never picked up the phone, but she did, and we spent more than thirty minutes talking to her before she finally committed.
One of the big things that stood out to me from the phone call was Yami’s response after Kris preached to her about the great leader that she is within the program. Many of the staff here have spoken highly of the role that Yami plays on the Leadership Team, but she couldn’t seem to wrap her head around the fact that she is a strong leader and role model.
I texted Yami after our phone call. Here is how that exchange went:
“I believe you...I don’t think that me going will make my class think I’m a leader or look up to me in that kind of way but we’ll see.”
“I beg to differ. I don’t think they would tell you they look up to you or see you as a leader, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“If you believe that then I’ll try to believe it too because honestly they are wayyy smarter than me to even look up to me. Just because I stay to myself or that I’m shy doesn't mean I’m going to be a better leader or that I’m smarter.”
“Smarts got nothin’ to do with it. Being shy has nothin’ to do with it. Don’t sell yourself short.”
I had to stop the conversation there. I knew that I had a lot to say, so I saved it for the bus ride and told her I would try to hear where she was coming from.
This is a hot topic for me these days – doubting myself and not being able to see what other people see in me. I don’t like the idea that other people feel that same way. Especially young students who have so much potential to make an impact and be an example of kindness to the people around them. I made it my goal for Yamiletz to believe in and be confident in her leadership abilities, and her gigantic, kind heart.
I tend to be pretty quiet sometimes too. I am terrified of speaking in front of people, leading group discussions, and doing most of the things that my boss Kris is amazing at. I shared all of that with Yami, because I wouldn’t feel so strongly about all of this if it wasn’t coming from my own experience.
For as long as I have known her, she has shown how kind, thoughtful and genuine she is. She takes the time to talk, always asks me how my weekend was, asks me thoughtful questions about my family and what goals I have for my life. She doesn’t realize it, but all of this comes naturally to her. She isn’t a fan of speaking in front of people, but she is a master of leading by example. She quietly leads, thinking that others are more capable. That others are better. But, in my opinion, she takes on the most important role as a leader. She leads others by being compassionate and taking a real interest in others. She leads by being herself.
On the third day of our trip, Kris decided that he wanted Yami to be one of our “Leaders of the Day,” which meant that she would be communicating with the group on the trail, making sure everybody was drinking enough water and hiking at a comfortable pace, and that we kept a pace that would get us off the trail in time for dinner and the rest of the day’s activities. She was not so happy with me when I told her that she would be doing this, and she made it very clear to me that she did not want to be in this role.
We talked on the bus ride to the trailhead and I encouraged her to own the role for the day. I reminded her that I also dread speaking in front of the group and being a vocal leader. She was still a bit resistant when the hike started, but she allowed herself to be uncomfortable and pushed through the day. And she did a great job, obviously.
To finish up the night, we did an activity called “Pass the Story.” Everybody wrote a sentence, fact or fiction, about the hike earlier in the day. Then we all passed our notebook to the right and the next person down would add a sentence on without reading anything but the sentence directly before it. By the end of the activity each person had a short, 13-sentence story in their notebook. The stories were hilarious and barely made sense, which is the point of the activity. We all spent about a half hour that night crying from laughter as we read the stories.
There was a common thread in each story. At some point, “the Almighty Yami,” the fearless leader of the group, came into the picture and saved the day. It was a fitting role for her to play in every story that was passed around. Although she may not always believe it, she is the Almighty Yami - our genuine, kind-hearted and thoughtful leader.
It’s a sunny afternoon at Pyne Poynt right here in Camden, NJ. It’s low tide so the Stream Stewards walk down the boat launch and make a left onto the dry riverbed. We see a nice flat rock to put our water testing supplies on and get to work. The sky is blue with few clouds and we see geese, ducks, and then a hawk flying by. We remark how the air smells like spring and that we feel energized as winter slips away.
Two Stream Stewards throw our bucket on a rope into the river to take a water sample, then take turns testing temperature, pH, turbidity, nitrates, phosphates, and dissolved oxygen. As we carefully test our water sample and record our results, we discuss school days, work days, tell jokes, and admire the beautiful weather and take in the start of a new season. We chat about things to look forward to during the remainder of the school year and beyond, and simply enjoy the moment.
Stream Stewards may be a space to learn about what is happening below the surface of our waterways, but it is also a space to consider ourselves in the context of our environment. It is a space to step away from our phones and laptops, school books, and busy schedules to really connect with the river in our backyard. It is a space to connect with each other when the chaos of the day has finally taken a break. We come to complete a task, but we gain much more. This particular spring afternoon, I think about the fact that this space is a sort of refuge that we can return to week after week.
On the short ride back to UrbanPromise’s campus we enjoy each other’s company, eat snacks, and talk about our plans for our next Stream Stewards’ meeting. Until next week and until our next refuge!
Rachel Abbott, Environmental Education Program Director
Since I started working here in July, no trip has gone exactly as planned. This year’s 12th Grade trip to New York City was no different. Wind, snow, and ice forced us to postpone the trip to the end of November. The seniors made up the entire itinerary for the trip and chose to walk the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn as our premier event of the day. I found a museum in Brooklyn for us to visit and discovered a TedTalk that I wanted to share with the students and have them reflect upon throughout the day.
I played the talk in hopes of generating ideas among the students about how we can impact the community through simple acts of kindness and generosity. I also thought it would tie in very well with the museum, but the museum turned out to be a dud, and I was left wondering where our conversation would go and what we would talk about.
Turns out there was no reason to worry. Several students began sharing their experiences as StreetLeaders and the impact that they have made through the StreetLeader program. Then the conversation shifted as the seniors began to think back on their time together at UrbanPromise. The group admitted that they have not always gotten along. They acknowledged the growth and maturity of their classmates. They told each other how close they now feel and how they want to make the most out of the rest of their time together.
After leaving the museum we hopped on the subway and the group parted ways. Half of the group took the Metro to Times Square while the others split off early to see a young lady sing Christmas tunes outside of the New York Stock Exchange for their annual Christmas Tree lighting. Our friend Heavenly Joy, who we saw practicing earlier in the day, was not performing when we made it back to Wall St. Instead we got to see Jake Miller perform.
Although I have never heard of him, the 12th Grade girls are huge fans, so, despite the fact that we had to walk a mile to catch the ferry by 5:30 and were short on time, we stuck around and watched. Like a lot of other things on the trip, this was not in our plans; but as I looked up from my watch hoping that we would have time to make the ferry, I saw a row of Trekkers beside the stage smiling from ear-to-ear. I decided to wait it out. In one last unplanned moment, I felt the closeness of the 12th Grade class, and I thought it was much more important to let them share this moment together than it was to catch the Ferry. Anyways, what’s the worst that could happen?