Camden, New Jersey and Camden, Maine are two very different places in the world. One, very diverse, largely populated, and overlooked by even the people that live in it. The other not so diverse, a small town, and appreciated by mostly everyone in it. The one thing they do have in common: teenagers trying to better their community one relationship at a time. How do they do it? Trekkers play a big part.
I had the chance to visit Maine this year for the second time in my high school years. The first time, I took everything for granted. I just went on the trip to get away from home and school. I didn’t think that I would enjoy it. It was harder for me to have fun on that trip because of the people that were on it. But when it came to the second trip, I had the most fun in nature I had ever had. It made me realize how fortunate I am.
Leaving from home at 6:00 AM for an unknown 15 hour drive wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I spent time and bonded with people I see every day. I didn’t know it was possible for that to happen in just 5 hours. This ‘Hood to Woods trip changed my outlook on life, and myself.
CAMDEN, N.J. (CIRCA) —Yasiria Lugo spent her summer building handmade canoes, kayaks and paddles in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. For her, the do-it-yourself projects weren’t simply summer pastimes, they were a point of pride.
“You would never think kids in Camden are doing this,” said Lugo, “Like ‘what? A kid in Camden is building a boat?” Like, ‘yeah, we are...they’re really awesome, too.’”
This summer the high school junior worked as a river guide for Urban BoatWorks, a program that teaches kids about boat building and environmental stewardship in Camden, New Jersey. The port city ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country with nearly 1,600 violent crimes committed in 2016, according to Neighborhood Scout, an online database that tracks neighborhood analytics.
While accustomed to the violence and illicit activities of the city, Lugo said one of the most eye-opening parts of the job, was the fact that there was a river here at all.
“I didn’t know about the Cooper River,” said Lugo. “I didn’t know we had a beautiful river literally right next to me. Did not know that at all, and it got me to see a different perspective on Camden.”
Urban BoatWorks program director Tom Calisterio said challenging students’ perspectives about their hometown is one of the goals of the program.
“It’s funny because most of our kids have never been in a canoe or a kayak,” said Calisterio. “So, at the end of the school year, when we bring out the canoes that we built, a lot of the kids are scared to go in the boat. But then after about 10 to 15 minutes, they’re like ’oh man, this is great!’”
Urban BoatWorks is one of the integrated school programs under UrbanPromise, an umbrella organization aimed at nurturing Camden youth through education, ministry and community involvement. The organization offers a myriad of enrichment opportunities ranging from an alternative high school, to summer camps, to after school programs. Students enrolled in Urban BoatWorks take classes geared toward boat building in addition to participating in extracurricular activities like the RiverGuides program Lugo is part of.
Calisterio has been with the boat building program since 2009 as a volunteer and turned full-time last year. Prior to committing fully, he worked as a respiratory therapist at Pennsylvania Hospital for more than 20 years.
“It gives me more satisfaction to be doing this than working in the hospital,” said Calisterio.
Over the past nine years he’s helped the program construct nearly 50 boats, including canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and dragon boats.
In the boat building workshop Lugo and her friends looked puzzled holding their protractors and t-squares. Calisterio explained to them how they could use basic mathematics in conjunction with their new tools to make exact measurements on their custom paddles before cutting them on the bandsaw.
“We incorporate a little of the science, technology, English and math through the little things we make,” said Calisterio.
Throughout the school year, students like Yasiria worked alongside mentors and educators to build their seafaring vessels. Come summertime, though, they set sail on local waterways such as the Cooper and Delaware rivers.
From the river, Lugo said Camden felt like a whole new place even though she's lived there her whole life.
“I was kind of like in shock, like ‘wow, I never knew this,’” said Lugo.
Lugo and her fellow river guides led a group of New Jersey residents on a tour of the Cooper River. The evidence of industry and urban fallout faded from view as Lugo and the other guides explained everything from river ecology to the history of Campbell Soup Company to their patrons. Bobbing up and down in her canoe, Lugo said there’s more to Camden than meets the eye.
“There’s going to be some parts that are not 100% good,” said Lugo. “At the same time, you have the good inside of the bad—you have to just look a little bit closer to it.”
According to Neighborhood Scout, though, the chances of being a victim of violent crime in 2016 remained high, compared to national averages (about 21 victims per 1,000 residents versus four per 1,000).
Despite the high rate of crime and violence, Lugo remained positive.
“Most people think it’s a bad and violent city,” said Lugo, “it’s really not. I’m proud to be from Camden.”
By Ryan Eskalis
September 11, 2018 12:48 PM EDT
Eskalis, Ryan. (2018, September 11). These kids are building boats in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. Circa. Retrieved from https://www.circa.com/story/2018/09/11/nation/these-kids-are-building-boats-in-one-of-the-most-dangerous-cities-in-the-nation
Eskalis, Ryan. (2018, September 11). These kids are building boats in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. [Video File]. https://www.circa.com/story/2018/09/11/nation/these-kids-are-building-boats-in-one-of-the-most-dangerous-cities-in-the-nation.
How can I instill awe and love of the outdoors in others? This question has stuck with me since I was a kid growing up in a variety of environments: the desert in Phoenix, Arizona, the rolling hills and woodlands of San Antonio, Texas, and the Northeastern forest of Baltimore, Maryland. I grew up spending much of my time outdoors, and developed an appreciation for my surroundings early on. I also met and befriended many different types of people throughout my childhood, and became curious about cultures and ways of life different from my own.
As a young girl, I did not realize I could turn my love of both the outdoors and people into a career. It was not until college and graduate school that I had the opportunity to act on these passions. Since graduation, I have had the opportunity to coordinate a youth initiative at the Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of Public Engagement as an AmeriCorps VISTA, have worked as an environmental educator through Let’s Go Outdoors and Riverbend Environmental Education Center, and as an outdoor educator at the Philadelphia Outward Bound School. These experiences have allowed me to do what I love: stand alongside all kinds of people learning in and about the outdoors, and discovering more of themselves, and more of their communities.
This is what draws me to environmental education. The environment, in many ways, provides a clean slate for people. In this age, many people spend their lives indoors, removed from the outdoor environments that support their lifestyles. I enjoy helping people take literal breaths of fresh air, as they uncover how the environment serves them, and how they can be stewards of these life giving places. I enjoy helping youth, in particular, build skills, become leaders, and build confidence while challenging themselves in unfamiliar situations.
When I first happened upon the UrbanTrekkers website, I immediately thought this organization gets it. UrbanPromise’s Office of Experiential learning combines youth empowerment, challenge, environment, hands on projects, and compassion. I was struck by the holistic, but very intentional, view of youth development, and wanted to be a part of it. Since taking on the Environmental Education Program Director role in late August, I have seen an organization that is welcoming, compassionate, flexible, and is not afraid to push the envelope or fail. I enjoy working on a diverse, energetic, and mission minded team, and see the constant relationship building that happens with our students.
Yes, our team alternates days in the office with days outdoors, and yes, we aim to share the beauty of the outdoors with our students and Camden community members. But more than that, we aim to help our participants see the beauty in themselves, in others, and in our communities at large.
Rachel Abbott, Environmental Education Program Director
One of the first students that I met when I started with UrbanTrekkers was a rising senior named Johnani. The second I met him I could tell that he was a fireball of energy. Every day Johnani was off work, he was at UrbanPromise. Usually with someone from the Trekkers office. No matter the task, no matter what was going on, he was always there to lend a helping hand. He is a jokester too, even when his timing may not be the most appropriate.
I noticed several students like Johnani in my first few weeks here. There were handful of students that always seemed to be around; even if they had no real reason to be. It felt like there was some sort of magnet at Urban that kept people around.
Since Johnani was always hanging in the Trekker office, I was able to spend a lot of time with him throughout the summer. I had the chance to spend some more time with him when he decided to be a part of our Outdoor Leadership Training and New Student Orientation at Hickory Run State Park a few weeks ago.
During our five days camping in Hickory Run State Park with Johnani and the 7 other student leaders, we spent a lot of time discussing the meaning of community, the communities we are a part of, and the reasons those communities feel safe to us. We spent hours on the trail, on bikes, and around the campfire together. We made a little home in the woods for ourselves where we could crack jokes, laugh, and spend time in reflection. Our reflection times revolved around community, and they served as a time to prepare for New Student Orientation. Kris even took notes on what each student was saying about community and the community that exists at UrbanPromise. Later, when we were prepping for the new students, Kris would remind each student of what they had said so that they would have it down when they were later asked to share.
Throughout most of our rehearsals, Johnani did not seem like he was taking anything seriously. His responses always came off as joke-filled, but with a little bit of truth in them. When the new students showed up and it came time for our student leadership team to share their definition of community, they were having a hard time recalling their previous answers. “Can you tell everybody what you said the other day,” Kris kept saying as he tried to nudge students along. His nudges were helpful, but none of the responses seemed quite as genuine as I had hoped.
Then it came around to Johnani, and I must say that I was a little bit nervous. But when he started speaking, you could feel the authenticity in his voice. He carried on with the most beautiful and genuine sentiment, and he finished with “For me, Urban is a family.” I could feel the chills going up and down my arms, and for some reason the whole campfire seemed to go silent. “You’re about to make me cry over here!” Hope, one of our other student leaders, shouted from across the campfire.
That was the moment I realized exactly why Johnani is always hanging around Urban. It made me understand why the students were having such a hard time explaining the community that we have at UrbanPromise and in UrbanTrekkers. It can be hard to define something when the definition goes beyond words. UrbanPromise is more than just a community. It is a family. And when the new students started school last week, they weren’t joining just another community. They were becoming part of a family.
Professional Intern (July 2018-June 2019)
MAGGIE LOESCH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Philadelphia's skyline is visible over trees from the Cooper River in Camden, NJ, on the afternoon of Friday, June 29, 2018. Students enrolled in the UrbanTrekkers program through Urban Promise Academy in Camden, NJ, led the canoe trip on the river. These teens are employed as RiverGuides for the summer and are trained in the ecology and history of the river, as well as canoe safety.
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.
Students lead a canoe trip on the Cooper River. These teens are enrolled in the UrbanTrekkers program through Urban Promise Academy in Camden, and employed as river guides for the summer.
“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.
Uriah Missouri (left), a 15-year-old who is part of UrbanPromise Trenton, and Eric Martin, leader of UrbanPromise Trenton, take a break from paddling on a canoe trip on the Cooper River in Camden. Teens from UrbanPromise Camden, a sister program of the one in Trenton, are employed as river guides for the summer and are trained in the ecology and history of the river, as well as canoe safety, and led the paddle.
“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 20/20program 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.”
Full article title: 'Within this city … there is this beautiful river.' South Jersey canoe program aims to expand horizons and change lives