Hope Thrives in Camden, New Jersey, Through Nonprofit Organization
Hopeworks Founder Father Jeff Putthoff Encourages Youth Development with Technology Training
As a city that has twice been named the nation's most dangerous in recent years, Camden, New Jersey, can be a difficult place for young people to chart successful paths for their lives. In response to this youth crisis that includes a high dropout rate, pastoral teams from three local churches developed Hopeworks 'N Camden. Technology training, including a GIS component, is a big part of what draws youth aged 14 to 23 to this program.
Though opportunities to learn GIS and Web design/development offer important and useful instruction for the youth, the organization's overall focus is youth development. When youth come to Hopeworks, a staff member helps them create a personal development plan to identify goals and outline the steps necessary to achieve those goals. If the target is college, the plan could include staying in school, getting good grades, preparing to take the SAT, and thinking about financial aid.
In general, Hopeworks is set up to help the youth in all areas of their lives by teaching them about being on time, being productive, and addressing problems when they arise. At any given time, the program has 20 to 30 kids participating, and 873 have gone through the program since it began in 2000. Some of these participants are in high school, and others have dropped out; there are also a few who are in juvenile correction facilities.
"They're good kids," says founder and executive director Father Jeff Putthoff, S.J. "They're just youth that are in a tough situation. Here in Camden, poverty is real, and it fundamentally impacts people's lives and creates limitations. We're really working with the youth so that we can work to minimize the impacts of poverty."
Putthoff, a Jesuit priest, developed the concept for Hopeworks and invited pastors from two nearby Lutheran churches to participate. Then, an intern at a neighboring nonprofit organization introduced Putthoff to GIS; he quickly decided to include it in the program. "GIS is a cool technology that's spatial. It helps you think. It helps you do all sorts of things, while being very practical," he says. "It helps us learn about our community."
With GIS, youth at Hopeworks conduct surveys of their neighborhoods and map things such as vacant buildings, green spaces, and malfunctioning streetlights. They have also mapped features for cities such as Baltimore, Maryland; Denver, Colorado; St. Louis, Missouri; and Trenton, New Jersey.
Establishing funding for GIS and Web development projects is one of Putthoff's primary jobs. Clients offer a way to keep money flowing into the program. To conduct this GIS work, youth at Hopeworks use ArcGIS Desktop software and ArcPad along with Hewlett-Packard's iPAQ handheld PCs and a Trimble GeoXT handheld, which are used to gather GPS points in the field.
In addition to receiving valuable training, participants in the program can also find jobs with Hopeworks. When youth enter the Hopeworks program, they learn various technology-related skills and that work is unpaid. After that training period, those who have gained skill and are motivated can earn paying jobs.
In summer 2006, several of the youth were awarded paid surveying positions at Hopeworks for a GIS project that was part of a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. It involved using ArcPad to collect information about trees in their community.
In 2005, Hopeworks paid approximately $70,000 in youth salaries. In a good year, Putthoff estimates that the organization brings in $140,000 to $160,000 from work that the youth produce.
Though the program does help kids get jobs and get into college, Putthoff is quick to point out that the program is not just about GIS or Web training. "In a very basic way, it's about saving a life, giving a helping hand to someone's vision so that the future can be life-giving."
He offers the example of a person who recently went through Hopeworks and is now at Rutgers studying GIS and journalism. A GIS enthusiast, this student returned to Hopeworks to assist with its summer program. Citing this youth's experience, Putthoff notes that Hopeworks is about providing opportunities to people like this young man, in this case, exposing someone to GIS when he otherwise wouldn't have been.
Hopeworks also helps the Camden community overall with efforts such as CamdenResources.org, a Web site that connects the community with maps and area information. Hopeworks heads the site and has digitally mapped all 29,892 parcels within the city of Camden, collecting more than 35 attributes for each parcel. The youth at Hopeworks manage the coding and maintenance of the site.
Though Father Putthoff doesn't practice GIS, he is well-versed in the subject because he helps create the GIS programs and pitches Hopeworks services to prospective clients. Clients include the City of Camden, housing developers, schools, and other cities.
Of his interest in GIS, Putthoff shares, "I've created a program that I wish I could do instead of having to worry about funding it. I absolutely love GIS. I'm a spatial thinker, so I love being able to project data spatially. I like how maps tell stories. I think maps speak to people." One of the first GIS projects Hopeworks conducted was creating a map of a nearby Latino neighborhood to bring English and Spanish speakers together and allow them to communicate about issues in the area using a map.
"Father Jeff is a really good idea guy; he has fantastic ideas and lets us run loose with them," says GIS director Tarren Anderson. "He's a very enthusiastic guy, always going 90 miles an hour, and I'm trying to keep up."
If you would like more information about Hopeworks 'N Camden or are interested in supporting the organization or becoming a GIS mentor, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.