In the last few years, Camden—one of the poorest and most violent small cities in America—has made inroads in changing the socioeconomic prospects for its 77,000 residents. The state has encouraged corporate investment in the city through hefty (and controversial) tax breaks—including to Subaru, American Water Works and the 76ers—with the promise of jobs and revitalization, mainly along the Delaware River waterfront. That resulted in a 3.7 percent increase in jobs over the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—tied with Dallas for the highest in the country. After a rise in violent crime last year, the number of homicides for the first quarter of this year has come down 80 percent, mostly due to a complete overhaul of the corrupt and inept police department in recent years, which also nearly doubled the number of officers on the force.
Hopeworks has served more than 3,500 young people in its 17 years. Currently, more than 30 youth are in training, 42 work for Hopeworks’ companies and 10 work in externships. Last year, Hopeworks recorded a 122 percent increase in youth completing its training program.
There is still much work to be done. More than 48 percent of residents live at or below poverty. Camden’s graduation rate is on the rise, but still only 70 percent of students leave high school with a diploma. Last year, the city had 44 murders, and was rated the fourth most dangerous city under 100,000 residents in the country, using data provided by FBI and law enforcement agencies. It adds up to a toxic living environment for much of the population with 46 percent under the age of 24.
For young people in the city, the positive changes in Camden could mean a future different from their past—if they can take part in it. That’s part of the mission for Hopeworks, whose program involves technical training that can lead directly to jobs. “The key for Hopeworks is to make sure that Camden’s young people—who make up the majority of the population—are ready for the opportunities,” says its charismatic executive director Dan Rhoton. “If these companies are presented with young people who are trained, ready to work, and eager to make a contribution, that could dramatically change the conversation.”
For teens like Sharday, 18, and Jay, 19—my guides on a recent Hopeworks tour—the organization’s trauma-informed care provides is a path towards that future. Hopeworks has served more than 3,500 young people in its 17 years. Currently, more than 30 youth are in training, 42 work for Hopeworks’ companies, and 10 work in externships.
The organization was founded in 2000 by three local churches with the mission to “use education, technology and entrepreneurship to partner with young men and women to identify and earn a sustainable future.” Fast forward 16 years later and Hopeworks—which serves kids between 14 and 24—is a model of success so potent that other cities have come calling for help.
A 2017 study authored by Natasha O. Fletcher, acting director of Rutgers University’s Center for Urban Research and Education, includes this assessment: “In a way, HW fills a place in the lives of Camden youth that the education system, family and government have not been able to. By equipping youth emotionally, academically, and technically, HW’s long-term outcomes shape not only the success of individual youth but also the success of Camden as a fully educated, productive and healthy community.”
Last year, Hopeworks recorded a 122 percent increase in youth completing its technical training program. Most of those trainees proceed to jobs with Hopeworks’ companies—in website design, data collection, and Salesforce software custom implementation and management—or to part-time paid internships with a variety of local businesses including Subaru, Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, Ronald McDonald House, B2 Web Design and others. It also, in 2017, won the prestigious Scattergood Behavioral Health Innovation Award. About 30 percent of Hopeworks funding comes from the businesses; 60 percent from private donations and grants; and another 10 percent from an annual fundraising dinner.
Next month, Hopeworks will launch a small pilot program in Philadelphia at JEVS Human Services agency’s training facility, Orleans Technical Institute, in the Northeast. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” says Rhoton. “So we’re doing a pilot replication for five months. By partnering with JEVS, we don’t have to worry about space and recruitment. We’ll make our mistakes and see if by that date it shows what we’re doing is effective.”
“You walk with a kid until they see hope,” Rhoton says. “There’s not a magic switch you turn on. It’s just about sticking with them. Success isn’t a permanent state, so you just stick with them.”
To understand what makes Hopeworks so uniquely effective—and why JEVS is happy to partner with the organization—it requires a look back at its evolution and the pivotal 2012 decision to integrate trauma-informed care into its organizational methodology between 2013 and 2015. That decision radically changed success outcomes for its youth.
Rhoton explains the history of Hopeworks and how its operating principle shifted from the punitive to the forgiving. “It was a very traditional workforce development program originally,” he says. “There was a sign that read, ‘If you’re two minutes late, come back tomorrow.’ So the very youth we were trying to help were getting kicked out. Hopeworks was not very successful. The organization had their story of why it wasn’t effective, something like ‘Not everyone is ready to succeed,’ but the net was that out of 100 kids, only 10 would get a job.” Or graduates would get a job or enroll in college, but would almost immediately quit or drop out.
The organization hit the pause button around 2011 and reflected on what it could do better. They were mystified by the behavior they were seeing. They had built a student housing program, C.R.I.B., in a nearby row house. It was an expensive investment and yet no one wanted to stay at the safe and stable environment. Young people would move into the C.R.I.B. and for the first three weeks everything was great just like expected; but by week four, they’d start having fights with staff, see ghosts, or say it feels too artificial and like a prison.
“That was the wakeup call,” says Rhoton, who joined Hopeworks in 2012 as the chief impact director before assuming the role of executive director in 2015. “It’s full now, but originally it was run very ‘old school.’ We know now that with trauma, youth have been hurt emotionally, and in order to be successful we have to heal those wounds.”
Rhoton says a lesson in the long-term effects of trauma was the first step to fixing the problem. Research in the last several years has shown that continued trauma—of the sort children experience in war or urban environments—elevates their level of cortisol, the hormone released by the body in response to stress. When they’re removed from a dangerous environment—like at C.R.I.B., which is safe and quiet, and where they have enough food—those cortisol levels start to drop. But that feels different and uncomfortable. So the reaction is often to create additional trauma.
“If I’m used to operating under constant threat, and my levels drop to uncomfortable new levels, I make a traumatic reenactment not because I want that in my life, but that’s what I’m driven to do, even though it’s not in my self-interest,” Rhoton says. “But we can identify and change those behaviors.”
In 2012, Hopeworks started the process and went on to adopt a trauma-informed approach to management, known as the Sanctuary Model, that was created by internationally recognized trauma expert and Drexel University Associate Professor Sandra Bloom. It has served as the organizational blueprint that has revolutionized Hopeworks’s success.
Last year, Hopeworks recorded a 122 percent increase in youth completing its technical training program. Most of those trainees proceed to jobs with Hopeworks’ companies—in website design, data collection, and Salesforce software custom implementation and management—or to part-time paid internships with a variety of local businesses.
The Sanctuary Model addresses childhood trauma and organizational stress simultaneously with specific systems like a group “Huddle;” individual “Safety Plans” with quick and easy de-stressing techniques for when someone feels overwhelmed; and the “Systems Check” used to address conflict between staff, youth, leadership and board members democratically. Hopeworks integrates these values into every aspect of the way it runs, every day.
“One time during a trauma training with a young woman, I see tears coming down her face,” recalls Rhoton. “I asked her what was going on. She says, ‘I’m just happy. My whole life I thought I was broken, but you’re telling me I’m normal.’”
That’s why youth from Hopeworks are so employable. Sure, they have tech skills and know professional etiquette, but through the behavioral tools taught to them by Hopeworks they know how to regulate and manage their emotions.
Sun streams through the windows of the colorfully painted building. Standing in the hallway of the second floor of the row house, my tour guides stop outside the conference room and show me where the daily morning “Huddle” for all staff and trainees takes place. It’s one of the kids’ favorite parts of the day and has been credited as one of the most effective components of the trauma-informed care approach, used to create a work culture of compassion and warmth. During Huddle time, everyone gets to voice how they are feeling and what their goals are for the day, troubleshoot issues, and sort out who they might ask for help to meet goals.
With the Sanctuary Model of trauma-informed care in place, Hopeworks has become a center for healing and a model that other cities want to replicate. That puts the organization at a crossroads. One path has Hopeworks expanding and running centers in urban settings where they can control the implementation of its methodology. Another path has the organization assuming a consulting role by dropping into similar entities, training staff, and moving on to the next city or group in need of help.
“People would say to us ‘We need you in Philly and Atlantic City and Detroit,’” says Rhoton. “But we’ve seen highly effective programs become big and mediocre. And there’s nothing in our mission about being big. We’re about transforming lives.”
By the fall, with the data gathered from the Philadelphia pilot program, Hopeworks will have a better idea of where their journey will take them. If it commits to Philly, Rhoton says they’ll target Kensington for a permanent space. Regardless, Hopeworks already plans on moving in about 18 months to a bigger location in Camden.
For now on this late spring day at Hopeworks, the smell of bread baking in the kitchen wafts through the halls. Tour guide Jay and his friends take time during their lunch break to practice skateboarding tricks out front. “If I wasn’t here,” Jay says, “I’d be doing whatever I could to make ends meet, probably working at some dead-end job.”
As I head back to my car parked on a nearby street, I think about how Rhoton described handling a kid who is not sure they want to commit to the program’s demands. “You walk with a kid until they see hope,” he says. “There’s not a magic switch you turn on. It’s just about sticking with them. Success isn’t a permanent state, so you just stick with them.”Header photo: Courtesy of Hopeworks