Hopeworks in Camden Helps Young People Heal

The organization provides real-world training for individuals who survived childhood trauma.

hope works
Nilviani Garcia, left, and Semaj Sullivan at the Hopeworks headquarters in downtown Camden. Courtesy of Hopeworks

Nearly two-thirds of adults experienced one major stressor during childhood. Camden children experience an average of five. It’s a statistic that Hopeworks, a Camden youth-development organization, knows well.

Three local churches started Hopeworks in 1999 to train high school dropouts in computer skills. The nonprofit has evolved to offer day-training programs in web design and geographic information system mapping, internships, academic support and job coaching—all in a trauma-informed setting. The nonprofit works with up to 115 youths, aged 16 to 25, at a time. 

“The whole point of the program is to get people off the streets,” says Semaj Sullivan, 18, a recent Camden Academy Charter High School graduate who will attend Rutgers–Camden this fall, “and it keeps you off the streets because you’re here from nine to four.”

Participants spend three months in the training room, where they learn to code, design and develop websites. “I didn’t know how to do any of that when I came here,” says 21-year-old Nilviani Garcia, “but I found I really like it.”

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Trainees then have the opportunity to join the six-month, part-time, paid internship program. Staff and volunteers conduct mock interviews to further prepare the interns. But giving youths technology skills doesn’t always equal jobs. 

“Teaching them coding isn’t enough,” says Dan Rhoton, a former youth detention-center teacher and vice principal who joined Hopeworks as executive director in 2012. “You have to help young people heal.”

Many in the program have experienced homelessness, trafficking, chronic violence, abuse, the death of a parent or other traumas. “They’ve developed skills to survive,” says Rhoton, “but that does not allow you to thrive.”

To address unresolved issues, Hopeworks offers weekly one-on-one coaching and academic counseling. A residential community living center called the CRIB is available for interns and alumni who are experiencing homelessness or unsafe living situations as they pursue college and new careers at companies such as Cooper Hospital, New Jersey American Water, Subaru and Comcast.

True to its name, the organization ignites hope. Says Rhoton, “We want our young people to know that their future doesn’t have to look like their past.”

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