Camden County Invests $250K in Hopeworks Job Training, Social Services to Attack Truancy Rates


Camden City has seen a spike in violent crime and youth truancy since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. County officials hope to combat both problems with vocational and social services.

By Matt Skoufalos | June 2, 2024

Camden County Commissioner-Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. announces a $250,000 commitment to Hopeworks. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

In an effort to curb chronic absenteeism among Camden City high-schoolers that authorities correlate with a rise in violent crime, four Camden County organizations are investing a quarter of a million dollars in localized job training and social service programs.

Those funds will cover the cost of placing 50 at-risk youth with the Camden City-based nonprofit Hopeworks, a self-described “social enterprise” that helps young people develop vocational skills and experience, while guiding them through personal issues with trauma-informed care.

The project is a joint initiative among the Camden County Youth Services Commission, Rowan-Rutgers Joint Board of Governors, Camden Community Partnership, and Camden City School District.

Students selected for the program will receive transportation to its headquarters on Market Street, vocational and academic guidance, and wraparound services to stabilize their housing and health needs.

At the conclusion of the 12-month program, typical outcomes include job placements, completing general educational development (GED) studies, and brighter outlooks on the future.

As reported by the New York Times in March, the national rate of chronic absenteeism is on the decline from a post-pandemic high approaching 30 percent to more than a quarter of the U.S. high school population in 2023, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute.

Camden County Commissioner-Director Louis Cappelli, Jr. spoke about the “tremendous increase in truancy” in Camden City specifically, and its impact on the lives of young adults there.

“We lost track of kids of all ages,” Cappelli, Jr. said. “We are certain that many of the adolescents who didn’t return to school became involved in some criminal activity.”

The commissioner-director spoke about the county having “a target list of the individuals” among students who haven’t returned to high school, and specifically engaging with them through social services programs.

Camden County Police Captain Vivian Coley echoed his remarks, adding that the vocational training at Hopeworks “is going to be extremely helpful for local law enforcement.


Camden County Police Captain Vivian Coley. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

According to data presented by the Camden County Police Department, teens aged 16 to 19 have been the largest driver of violent crime in the city in 2023, with 119 repeat offenders, 95 of whom were arrested multiple times for violent crimes.

Those teens accounted for eight homicides in the city, and six were themselves shot.

Among those repeat offenders, 24 were arrested for crimes involving a firearm; possession of a firearm was the top charge for teens in that demographic, and distribution of narcotics ranked third.

“Kids had a lot of time on their hands in COVID,” Captain Coley said.

“There was an uptick in crime dealing with juveniles,” specifically in vehicle-related crime, like joyriding and auto theft.

The alternative programs at Hopeworks, which include job training, wraparound social services, transportation, and housing, have changed the lives of many families in the city, Coley’s included. The program helped her children get on track: her son, after he dropped out of college, and her daughter, who has been with the program since her freshman year of high school.

“This is the place where they offer housing, life skills, trauma-informed care for our youth,” she said. “Something kids actually need.”

Camden City Mayor Victor Carstarphen said that as city officials continue to “look for creative ways” to resolve socioeconomic issues in the city, finding opportunities for its young people to thrive is critical.

“Not everybody’s path in life is the same; we have to offer alternative learning and career paths for our youths during the day, and I think this program is doing exactly that,” Carstarphen said. “We’re working in partnership, trying to find solutions, trying to work together to support our youth, adding value for our youth.”

The mayor also spoke directly to the students enrolled in Hopeworks programs, offering his own encouragement on their paths.

“It’s important that you all recognize and know that you have support,” Carstarphen said. “Sometimes that’s all you need in life — to know that someone is there for you.”

Camden City Superintendent of Schools Katrina McCombs described the Hopeworks program as “a critical assessment to serve our young people who are disengaged from the traditional education system.

Hopeworks CEO Dan Rhoton. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“This is a partnership that is not just an intervention, but a proactive transformation that offers our amazing young people a viable path forward, and for many of them a second, third, fourth chance to move forward,” McCombs said.

“We are confident that this program will not only equip our young people with the essential, high-tech skills that they need in our workforce, but also will also provide a stable path forward to paying careers.

“Thank you for continuing to help us reflect our deep commitment to transforming every single student,” the superintendent said.

“They deserve the chance. They deserve the patience. They deserve the grace and the commitment.”

Hopeworks CEO Dan Rhoton said that although truancy is a national problem, the young people affected by it cannot be abandoned to its outcomes.

“Young adults who are not maybe where you think they’re supposed to be, they’re not a problem, they’re the solution to the city’s problems,” Rhoton said.

“They’re mapping water infrastructure, mapping streetlights, building websites for businesses; they are the solution to make this city greater.”

Hopeworks vocational programs help students build their technical skills — in areas like web development, data analytics, geographic information systems (GIS), software coding — as well as social and emotional learning.

After they develop their proficiency, they still need work experience, so the nonprofit pays for their labor to help build their resumes and place them in careers to which they’re suited and qualified. It can do this because the companies with which it contracts pays market rates.

Rhoton said $1.3 million has been put into the pockets of Hopeworks student workers in the past year, and the program generates more than 100 jobs annually.

“We weren’t doing anyone a favor,” he said. “That’s because companies are paying market rate for the work we’re doing.”

Some 85 percent of Hopeworks students go on to earn livable wages in careers with a 90-percent 12-month retention rate. The infusion of cash from the county government will allow the project to scale up, covering 50 more roster spots in the program

Former Camden City Mayor Dana Redd, CEO of Camden Community Partnership, offered encouragement to the youth at Hopeworks because she was herself supported at a young age through traumatic circumstances.

“My parents died when I was eight,” Redd said. “I was raised by my grandparents, and by the community, and by teachers and faith-based leaders because they saw something in me. Never did I think I would serve in public office at various levels.

Hopeworks intern Janiyah Gonzalez, flanked by Camden County Commissioner Jeff Nash (left) and Camden City Mayor Vic Carstarphen. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“We want the young people to know that we’re going to lift you up to the next level because we were in the positions that you are now standing in,” Redd said. “We need you to succeed, and we need you to excel.

“Every child is important to us,” she continued. “We all have a story to tell; we all have gone through traumatic experiences, but we worked our way through it, and we want you to carry that message forward.”

Janiyah Gonzalez, a senior at Mastery High School of Camden, said that Hopeworks helped her into a job co-op in the second semester of her senior year, and that even after a few short months in the program, she’s thriving.

“In the beginning I wasn’t sure that college was where I wanted to be,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve had the opportunity to attend women’s conferences, speak at a board meeting, networked with amazing people, started my own business.

“I’ve truly blossomed, socially, mentally, and physically,” she said. “My peers are not the same people; they’re stronger, better. Please keep presenting these opportunities.”

Other of her peers in the program spoke about their individual challenges, and how Hopeworks gave them a chance to reframe their outlook on life and their opportunities.

Aaizon Trusty, 18, said he didn’t know what I was going to do after graduating KIPP High School, until his counselor told him about Hopeworks.

“They work on real problems, and they pay you,” he said.

“I was instantly intrigued. I followed the steps to get into the program; met Dan, took tours. I felt welcomed immediately.”

From left: Hopeworks interns Darnell Moore, Masai Truitt, Aaizon Trusty. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Today, Trusty is working on GIS software that helps map Camden City infrastructure while attending the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.

He would like to pursue a career in sports management.

“I lost a lot of people, so that took a toll on me,” Trusty said.

“Some people take that mentality that ‘I gotta avenge this person.’ I took a different take.

“People always say, ‘I would die for you.’ I flip that. When my friend died, I said, ‘I’m going to live for you. I’m going to be successful. I’m going to see out our dreams for you.’

“I refuse to let myself slip and be in the streets,” he said. “I try to look at it different and be different for my people.”

Seventeen-year-old Masai Truitt started at Hopeworks in 2022, and returned during the current school year “to finish what I started.” Truitt, who is attending Rowan University, said that he appreciates that the work skills he learns at Hopeworks makes him feel productive, and like a contributor to his community.

“My hope for this was to take away the professionalism and technological skills,” he said. “I want to go into athletic training. If I don’t end up doing that, I want to stay here and focus on things I can control.”

Growing up Camden City is difficult, Truitt said, because adulthood “comes a little early” to children who should be able to have more of a childhood. Children at the basketball courts know more of the realities of the world at 10 and 12 that he learned at 14, Truitt said.

“Camden is dangerous,” Truitt said. “It was a dangerous city when I was coming up to. It’s hard to be looked at [by non-residents]because all they see is the danger, the risk. We are underrated; overlooked.”

Darnell Moore, 21, lost his job due to a medical emergency — and then his job, housing, and vehicle went along with it.

“It was a struggle to pick myself back up,” Moore said. “I was searching for resources to help me improve my life.”

At Hopeworks, Moore said he got social services to help with his personal life at the same time he got the job training and coaching necessary to rebuild his career. Now he’s stacking up his software certifications on his way to a career in engineering.

Hopeworks Director of Career Training Fred Harris outside the nonprofit in Camden City. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

For Camden City residents who don’t live near commercial or transit corridors, life can be isolating, he said; likewise, for youth who don’t have the right people taking an interest in them, life can be full of pitfalls.

“There wasn’t many programs for teens or young adults,” Moore said. “I’ve witnessed friends going to jail, or losing their lives, or never seeing them again and you don’t know [why]. Turn a blind eye and get on with your life.”

Moore said he believes that greater youth engagement would not only prevent crimem, but would also save vulnerable people from being manipulated.

“I’ve had friends and I’ve known people that were exploited by adults, and that’s completely changed the course of their life, and it makes it tough,” he said.

“That’s something that you’d never expect. Children are children; you should have time to be a kid.”

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