Jesuit Father Jeff Putthoff ministers in Camden, N.J., a city that experienced a record-breaking number of homicides in 2012. “I have learned that poverty is not pretty, nor is it romantic. The traumatic experiences of violence, abuse and endemic poverty deeply wound the people of Camden,” says Fr. Putthoff.
Fr. Putthoff founded and runs Hopeworks ‘N Camden, which trains youth in technology and helps them get back to school and away from the violence that plagues their hometown.
Among the 67 killed in Camden in 2012, 34 were younger than age 30; 11 were teenagers; one was 2 years old and another was 6 years old. Fr. Putthoff was one of the organizers of a new group, Stop the Trauma, Violence and Murder, which has a Facebook page documenting both the ongoing violence in the city and activities to bring attention to the problem, including painting and planting of crosses for victims.
“Camden is a place that is very bloody and disfigured, and it bothers us fundamentally to look at it because if we acknowledge it as disfigured, then we have to do something about it,” Fr. Putthoff told the National Catholic Reporter. “The alternative, what most do, is avert our gaze and find ways to justify it. We either make it invisible or we blame people for it.”
Fr. Putthoff and the staff of Hopeworks understand that changing lives go beyond teaching new skills. It also means they must help the youth to see possibilities that would have been previously unimaginable.
Fr. Putthoff said that even many from the program who “succeeded,” by moving on to college or to good jobs, often sabotaged that success by acting out inappropriately under stressful circumstances.
“What’s important is recognizing that even if we had no crosses, we’d still be saying, ‘Stop the trauma,’ because people are living an existence that is only about survival and not thriving,” Fr. Putthoff said. “They learn a whole set of behaviors to help them survive, but lamentably, those behaviors don’t help them thrive.”
The Hopeworks staff is currently undergoing a two-year training program to be certified in “trauma-informed delivery of services.”
“We believe that we’re operating more and more out of a model of trauma where our youth basically have a form of PTSD and their survival mechanism doesn’t allow them to actually move forward,” Fr. Putthoff said.