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Courier-Post Staff

The staff at Urban Promise thanks the college students who spend spring break at the nonprofit’s campus on the Camden-Pennsauken border with a barbecue under a banner that reads “I could have gone to Cancun, but God called to Camden instead.”

The nonprofit has made good use of the banner this spring, when Urban Promise hosted more than 200 college students from 18 different schools.

“These are students that, perhaps a lot of their classmates are off to Cancun or Florida to unwind from their studies, but they choose to be here,” said Jim Cummings, Urban Promise’s work group director.

Camden is becoming a spring break destination for students who want to use the time off to help those less fortunate in a city known for a high crime rate and poverty.

“This little city of 80,000 people has a reputation that goes far and wide,” Cummings said.

Last week, Urban Promise had a group of 16 students from two different colleges, the smallest groups of volunteers this spring.

“They come from all over the United States and Canada,” Cummings said. The students spend their time helping maintain the Rudderow Street campus, which houses an elementary school, a high school and several programs after school that serve a combined 500 children.

“It’s the only way that we can do what we do,” Cummings said. “If we were to pay them, even at minimum wage, we’re looking at thousands of dollars.”

Those are dollars the nonprofit uses to run five after-school programs throughout the city.

“For me, it’s really relevant to faith and what I believe in,” said 24-year-old Jason Murray, the campus minister at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.. “It’s far more meaningful than going to the beach.”

Murray and 20-year-old Nick Palladino, a student at the college, helped renovate the nonprofit Ray Scull Memorial Home, which will house offices and an art studio. They could have done the same type of work in Biloxi, Miss., helping to rebuild areas destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.

“I chose to come here because the vision that Urban Promise has, I think, is very compelling,” Murray said. “This is so different than what I’ve ever experienced in a city,” added Palladino.

Some college volunteers returned after graduation to become part of the staff and others have taken the Urban Promise model to Delaware, Toronto, Vancouver, Honduras and Malawi.

Kent Monma, 17, a native of New Zealand and an international student at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, traded traveling for volunteering.

“I thought the people of Camden needed me more than I needed to travel,” Monma said. Kelly Conner, 18, spent time helping the teachers at Urban Promise’s Camden Forward School.

The religion studies and Spanish major learned as much from the students as they learned from her.

“I’m really glad I came,” the Randolph-Macon student said.

“I really had no idea what to expect,” she said. “I’m from a small town and Camden is a neighborhood that I’m not used to. I’ve learned that good things can come from an area like Camden. These are wonderful kids, wonderful people. Camden is not such a bad place if there are people like this.”

Reach Lavinia DeCastro at (856) 486-2652 or


School Groundbreaking

Construction project will save and create 275 jobsFurthering his commitment to build infrastructure and improve educational facilities across the state, Governor Jon S. Corzine today joined New Jersey Schools Development Authority (SDA) and Camden School District officials to break ground for the new Morgan Village Middle School. The 520-student school, which will serve children in grades 6-8, is the fifth new project to get under way in Camden under New Jersey’s school construction program.


“We have an obligation to transform every school into a positive learning environment for our children,” Governor Corzine said. “Camden’s students deserve to be educated in safe, modern schools and I am proud that the new Morgan Village Middle School project will deliver those surroundings to them while promoting the city’s revitalization and creating jobs during tough economic times.”

The 92,390-square-foot, two-story middle school will be built on a parcel adjacent to the existing building and marks another step in the redevelopment of Camden and stimulating its economy. The school is scheduled to open in September 2010.

“The Morgan Village Middle School project represents New Jersey’s commitment to provide a quality education for all students, no matter where they live,” said Senator Dana Redd, (D-Camden and Gloucester). “The students of South Camden deserve to learn in a modern, state-of-the-art educational setting which inspires them to achieve their maximum potential. I’d like to thank Governor Corzine and Schools Development Authority Chief Kolluri for their dedication to improving education in Camden and giving students a chance to succeed.” 

The SDA has completed two projects in Camden: the Early Childhood Development Center and the Octavious V. Catto Community School. Two other projects, H.B. Wilson and Thomas H. Dudley elementary schools, are scheduled to open this fall.

Camden has three additional projects included in the SDA’s Capital Plan – Camden High School, Lanning Square Elementary School and Pyne Poynt Family School. All told, the SDA has spent or allocated $460 million to date for projects in Camden.

“This school is an anchor in one of the city’s most stable areas and will continue to ensure the vitality of the Morgan Village neighborhood,” said Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison.

An effect of the economic downturn has been the savings to taxpayers resulting from greater competition for construction jobs. The contract award of $20,997,000 was $6.1 million, or nearly one-fourth, below the SDA’s construction cost estimate. Another school awarded earlier this year, Egg Harbor City Middle School, came in $2.8 million below estimate.

“This school construction program is important to improving the quality of our children’s lives and will have a profound impact on the economy,” SDA CEO Kris Kolluri said. “In fact, this project will save and create approximately 275 jobs.”

The school construction program received new funding in July 2008 when Governor Corzine signed legislation authorizing $3.9 billion in new funding – $2.9 billion for SDA Districts and $1 billion for Regular Operating Districts.

The SDA will commit $1.3 billion toward school construction this year, which is estimated to save and create 11,000 jobs. The SDA plans to advance 27 projects into preliminary or full construction in 2009. The agency will soon begin to post monthly job creation reports for these projects on their website.

Today’s ceremony marks the SDA’s first groundbreaking of 2009. Sara T. Davis, president of the Camden Board of Education, remarked, “The Morgan Village Middle School will become a beacon for 21st century learning in the South Camden community. It brings innovative instruction and new technology to a local community that has done without for far too long. Morgan Village Middle School will bring new promise and fulfilled dreams for the Board and our children of that area.”

Morgan Village’s construction will be accomplished in two phases. Phase one involves construction of the replacement school. Phase two, which will require procurement of a separate contract, will entail the demolition of the old school to provide for play areas and a parking lot. The second phase will begin after students occupy the new building. Chanree Construction Co. is the general contractor, Fletcher-Thompson Architecture Engineering is the design firm and URS Corporation is the construction management firm.

The school will include general-use classrooms, special-education classrooms, science labs, school-to-career classrooms with labs, small-group instruction

rooms, a media center, a cafeteria with a kitchen, an auditorium and a gymnasium.

Overall the SDA has completed 592 projects: 46 new schools; 41 extensive additions, renovations and/or rehabilitations; three demonstration projects and nearly 400 other projects.

Camden, New Jersey, March 2009 –

Instead of fleeing the dorms, cafeteria food, and schoolwork, eighteen college groups are headed to Camden, NJ to do a different kind of work with UrbanPromise Ministries. From Malibu, CA, to Williamsburg, VA, universities including: Pepperdine University, The College of William and Mary, Bowdoin University, and the University of New England, among others. Over two hundred and twenty students of various backgrounds occupied with all fields of study are coming together over the next six weeks with at least one thing in common; an urge to get involved with service at the grassroots of America—the children being raised amongst some of our countries most dire issues.

UrbanPromise has a clear mission, to build a city of promise, one child at a time. By equipping Camden’s children and young adults with the skills necessary for academic achievement and moreover, life management, UrbanPromise has grown from a tiny summer camp program to a multifaceted institution with a reputation of solidarity and success. Among their many programs are private schools for all ages, after school programs, summer camps, and various other recreational and educational programs, each targeting different parts of the lives of Camden’s youth. College students will have the opportunity to help with and learn about programs in each category.

Students in “Workgroups” will be engaged in a variety of work projects during their week stay in Camden including: maintenance projects on the UrbanPromise campus, tearing out the old floor of a building under renovation, and re-painting busses, to name a few. Oddjobs have piled up over the winter and the staff and youth of UrbanPromise are happy to have a wave of excited and energetic college students to give a hand.

A student reflecting on her time working on a run-down UrbanPromise house “felt like she was actually doing something for Urban[Promise].” Anna, nineteen, from Pepperdine University went on to say, “While I’ve had the opportunity to volunteer at many other non-profit organizations, I’ve never been involved with the real, nitty-gritty grunt work before…it’s been really rewarding so far.”

After children enrolled in UrbanPromise’s many school programs are dismissed to afterschool programs, the workgroups get to jump in and interact with UrbanPromise’s most treasured resource—the children of Camden. Many children stay all the way until six in the evening, giving the students many chances to help out with homework, tutoring, or simply just playing around with the kids. According to Brent Liebman, UrbanPromise Intern Director, between three and six PM are the most dangerous hours for a young person to be left alone in Camden. “WorkGroups are great not only to lend a much needed hand to the staff, but the kids love them.” Andy Joshua, director of AfterSchool Programs went on to say, “Our youth have the opportunity to get to know university students from all across the country…it’s a great way to get kids excited about college!”

At first, Prarna, twenty, from The College of William and Mary, assigned to Ms. Thomas’ “Aftercare” program was skeptical about how much of a difference her presence would actually make to kids whose situations were so unlike her own. “Coming from an affluent area I doubted my skills would be adequate to deal with some of the hardest issues these kids face. I was struck, though, by how quick the kids responded to me and how friendly and open they were after hanging out for only an hour.”

Ms. Thomas noticed it too, and commented that “they want a lot of attention, some of them need it, and don’t have many other places to get it.”

As university students learn about Camden and its people, they will be better able to help. For now, though, their kindness and attention, as explained by Jim Cummings, Director of Work Groups, “is the work of super-heroes.”





CONTACT: Shannon Oberg, Marketing Coordinator UrbanPromise Ministries

(609) 876-9958





Walt Whitman spent the final years of his life in Camden, New Jersey. In the final manuscript he wrote, Leaves of Grass, is the following poem:

I Dream’d in a Dream

I DREAM’D in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;

I dream’d that was the new City of Friends;

Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love–it led the rest;

It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,

And in all their looks and words.

116 years after Whitman’s death, Camden’s motto remains: In a dream, I see a city invincible. The sad reality is that Camden itself is largely a city invisible. And Camden’s children suffer the consequences.

Diane Sawyer’s special report on Camden helped shed a little light on the problems facing Camden.

  • 58 percent of children in Camden are living in poverty.
  • In the 2002-2003 school year, Camden’s graduation rate was 37%, compared to New Jersey state’s 81% graduation rate.
  • While Camden city makes up less than 1% of New Jersey’s population, almost 8% of murders in the state took place in Camden city in 2005.
  • Camden has in recent years been named The Most Dangerous City in America, and The Poorest City in America–while New Jersey retains the highest median income in the nation

Camden kids are living in unacceptable conditions, facing daunting odds for making it to college and lifting themselves out of poverty. Meanwhile, just 5 minutes down the road, some of America’s most fortunate children are living in large comfortable homes, attending some of the most excellent schools in the nation, and enjoying a relatively carefree childhood (I know, I was one of them).

Camden kids deserve an equal chance in life. CamdenCityKids is a non-profit project that aims to weave together organizations, businesses and individuals whose priority it is to help children in Camden.

This blog will chronicle the CamdenCityKids journey… beginning in our current planning mode. Please stop by to check out our progress, our challenges, and eventually our inspiring results! And I’d like to formally invite anyone interested in helping out to please contact me.

Let’s make Walt Whitman’s dream a reality… Camden: A City Invincible.

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