Jesuit Uses Technology to Offer Hope to Camden, N.J.’s Youth

Camden, N.J., is just the width of a river away from Philadelphia, but the distance between its poverty and its neighbor’s corporate headquarters and comfortable suburbs is enormous. Growing up in Camden can mean sudden violence, inadequate schools, lack of opportunity and little hope for a better future. According to the 2007 U.S. Census data, more than 35 percent of Camden’s population lives in poverty and the school dropout rate is consistently one of the highest in the country.

Jesuit Father Jeff Putthoff has picked this unlikely place to try a bold initiative that uses digital technology and entrepreneurial business practices to help Camden’s youth find their way forward. Burnt-out homes and empty lots surround the three-story row house headquarters of Hopeworks ‘N Camden, a technology training center where as many as 250 Camden youth can learn technical skills in Web design, programming languages and information systems. They range in age from 14 to 23 and might begin with just a seventh-grade reading level. They leave with technological training, greatly enhanced self-confidence and job experience in the bigger world.

Fr. Putthoff created Hopeworks as a service for commercial and non-profit clients that pay for work by young Hopeworks trainees. Initially, Web design was the main product, but Hopeworks is moving beyond that into other areas and applications such as social media and Geographic Information Systems.

“We are not a business that has internships; we are a youth development program that has a business, and that business is part of our strategy for engaging our youth,” Fr. Putthoff said.

Hopeworks requires no entrance exam and charges no tuition. Most other job development programs for college-age students demand some prerequisite skills just to get in the door, a requirement that would keep out most of the Camden youth. The young people who want to come to Hopeworks are not illiterate, just poorly trained; but they learn quickly, Putthoff said.

“There is nothing the matter with the youth except that they have not been given what they need,” he said.

Young men and women come in with few skills and lots of damage from their environment. They cannot imagine themselves belonging in a corporate setting in what seems a world apart in Philadelphia. Hopeworks challenges them to think about themselves and their futures in new ways. They start to reimagine their lives with a different trajectory.

The data show that this innovative approach works. Nearly 100 alumni have progressed to junior college and around 300 jobs have been created.

Fr. Putthoff graduated from Rockhurst High School in Kansas City and taught at St. Louis University High School, both elite institutions far different than those in Camden that he first visited as a theology student before his ordination. He decided to spend a semester living in Holy Name Parish there while he studied theological and social issues related to serving the poor. After his ordination as a priest in 1998, he asked the head of the Missouri province to assign him to Camden, even though it was outside the boundaries of the province.

The young assistant pastor was asked to focus on the youth of the parish. During a community-organizing training program in New Orleans, he met a Lutheran pastor from Camden. The two became enthusiastic about the concept of using technology to engage youth. When Fr. Putthoff heard about a Milwaukee, Wis., organization that used Web design as a tool for youth development, he had a starting point.

It was not very pretty at first. Fr. Putthoff confesses that he knew nothing about technology at the beginning, but was undeterred.

“One of the phrases that we have coined at Hopeworks is ‘Learning to Learn,’” Fr. Putthoff said, and he has lived it. A Jesuit novice helped Fr. Putthoff set up the first network.

“We knew nothing,” Fr. Putthoff said. “We had a server and five computers, and we taught ourselves how to network. We dove in not because we had a great resource that we knew how to use but because we had a youth crisis, and we had to figure out how to work with the youth.”

Hopeworks continues to evolve. The Crib is a former convent that was recently renovated to house and support up to eight Hopeworks students in college. Residents work in corporate internships while they study. Hopeworks also started a video operation this year and is close to starting a cloud-computing administrative group and a social media consulting group.

“We are trying to grow with the market and grow in the market where we can fit,” he said. “I like that part of the job. It is always new and always evolving, so I am always having to learn.”

The Jesuit is fearless about trying new things. “Being an entrepreneur means seeing an opportunity,” he said. “If you don’t move fast, someone else gets there.”

Hopeworks’ 10 full-time and four part-time staff members, along with 30 to 40 volunteers, help around 250 youth per year in an intense one-on-one program. Since the students don’t pay tuition, Fr. Putthoff must raise money to make up the difference between Hopeworks’ revenue and costs.

He tries to help supporters see the challenges that a youth in Camden faces. That does not mean that he thinks young people should get a handout. Hopeworks pushes them to meet their commitments.

“We have a phrase, ‘Be big,’” the director said. “If a youth comes late to Hopeworks, and we don’t confront him, we don’t respect him. Respect means that you hold them to a standard that they are not used to when they are outside Hopeworks.

“Respect means you have to take up the privilege you have. Being Big means seeing the possibilities in yourself, of having a sense of your own development compared to six months previous. Being Big means actually becoming a resource for someone else and owning the resources inside yourself.”

Fr. Putthoff has to work against the perception that Camden is hopeless.

“We have to distinguish ourselves not in the problem, but in the solution we have,” he said.

“People often assume I do this work because it is what ‘Jesuits do’ and I suppose that is mostly correct,” he added. “However, more personally, I find Jesus alive here. This is the place where my relationship with him has grown. Living and working in such poverty with its accompanying violence and terrible traumatizing abuse challenges my sense of justice, my understanding of sin.”

“I don’t find easy answers every day, nor is God readily giving me platitudes. Rather, I often find myself with the crucified Christ of Camden. As a Jesuit, I have asked to be close to Jesus, especially in his sufferings. How truly little did I understand that till I began working in Camden.”

This article, by Jesuit Father Tom Rochford, originally appeared in Southern Jesuit Magazine. To download the full magazine, please click here. For more information on Hopeworks Camden or to learn how to donate, go to http://www.hopeworks.org/.

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