Camden, New Jersey Update 2014 – 2015

Read the start of Camden’s work here (2000 – 2013)

Father Jeff Putthoff, SJ, stood at a podium at Rutgers University and recited a grim litany of numbers:

  • 80% of Camden youth and 43% of the total population live in poverty
  • 68% of the city’s households are led by a single parent
  • unemployment is close to 17%
  • in 2012, an especially violent year, 1 out of 75 Camden residents was assaulted

“Often, we don’t talk about toxic stress,” Putthoff said. “We’re not aware of it. But we see the impact of it.” And throughout the room, where 300 community members, clergy, social service providers, physicians and educators had gathered for Camden’s second Trauma Summit, heads nodded in sober agreement.

Hopeworks training room
The computer room at Hopeworks N’ Camden, which trains in-school and out-of-school youth in website design and digital mapping–skills intended to parlay directly into college or career. Since implementing trauma-informed care, Hopeworks training and educational outcomes have more than quintupled.

For several years, Putthoff has been sounding the alarm for Camden, talking about citywide trauma wherever he has a listening ear: to the police department, to youth-serving agencies, to teachers and nurses and ministers.

He also practices what he preaches; as director of Hopeworks N’ Camden, Putthoff has led his small staff through the process of becoming Sanctuary-certified and infusing every interaction—from the daily all-staff-and-youth meeting to the pursuit of grants—with an understanding that no one in this troubled city is immune from trauma.

After introducing that idea at a Trauma Summit in 2013, Putthoff and a small group of city activists created a second Trauma Summit to help spread the word in a deeper way. They wanted their audience to understand exactly how toxic stress hurts the brain, and how that hurt can lead, over the lifespan, to addiction, unemployment, homelessness and violence, along with physical ailments like cancer and heart disease.

There were experts—physician Robert W. Block, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics—and videos, anecdotes and questions. There were new words—“epigenetics” and “HPA axis”—and familiar concepts. There was anger, when one participant stood up near the end of the conference, enraged that there wasn’t more discussion of racism.

And there was a tiny glimmer of hope that perhaps, this time, finally, long-suffering Camden could begin to heal.

Since that summit, Camden has garnered national attention for its new, community-friendly style of policing—the city force was disbanded and a county-led force replaced it in 2013—and the city was recently declared a federal “promise zone,” a ten-year designation that will bring fast-track access to federal funding, help with coordinating public-private partnerships and five full-time Americorps staff.

Youth Healing Team -- TFA
Camden’s Youth Healing Team, a group of 14- 23-year-olds trained in ACEs and trauma-informed interventions, working with Teach for America participants. In the past 12 months, the Healing Team has trained more than 600 teachers and non-profit staff in public and charter schools at at the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers.

The Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers, helmed by MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Dr. Jeffrey Brenner, has been working to shift the focus of health care in the city, especially for the highest-risk patients, to a more holistic, team-based and trauma-informed model. The goal is to keep people out of hospitals and emergency rooms by helping them manage both chronic illnesses and social/emotional needs.

At Urban Promise, a youth ministry that provides adolescent leadership training, a culinary arts program, Urban Trekkers and other programs to Camden children and teens, nurse practitioner Rebecca Bryan received a grant in 2014 to train the entire 55-person staff, from the director to the nighttime cleaners, in resilience and emotional intelligence.

She came to Urban Promise two years earlier to launch the agency’s wellness center. “Our mission,” she says, “is to reduce the impact of toxic stress on our community.” She trained core staff first; then they brought that knowledge to their specific departments.

At monthly all-staff meetings, at least 20 minutes is designated for reviewing and practicing resilience-based initiatives. One session focused on the high percentage of Urban Promise families who use marijuana—viewing that not just as a “problem behavior” but as a crucial, albeit unhealthy, coping strategy. That led to important conversations about why trauma sufferers might turn to marijuana use and what healthy behaviors could replace it.

“I’ve been working with the staff so that when you see a kid whose behavior you question, instead of asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ you ask, ‘What happened to you?’” Bryan says. “And you follow up with, ‘What gets you through the hard times?’”

The Bridge, which operates a weekly drop-in empowerment group in Camden for young people from 13 to 18, has been using that approach for 35 years. As director and assistant director of The Bridge, Renee and Maria Pinardo left the Trauma Summit with a sense of affirmation.

“We came at this work knowing that experiences from childhood make an impression on who we are,” says Renee.

“To us, it’s not ‘trauma-informed care,’ it’s just care,” Maria adds. “It means that experiences affect people. Not everyone is coming from a place of wellness. They’ve had scars or injuries.”

The Pinardos, Bryan and others long active in Camden say there is a growing sense—aided in part by the Trauma Summits and follow-up events such as a self-care workshop—that, all across the city, people are beginning to speak the language of trauma and adversity.

At the YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties, an organization focused not specifically on trauma but on boosting physical activity and healthy eating, Valeria Galarza, the vice president of strategic expansion, now sees the relationship between community open space, obesity, housing and jobs. “Everything that happens in a child’s life impacts their health,” she says.

“It is great to see agencies collaborating,” says Maria Pinardo. “Now we all have this common vocabulary. It’s creating a deeper bond.”

What’s missing is an organization to harness and guide the ACEs-and-resilience efforts of Camden’s various agencies, public and private. Putthoff and Brenner, the United Way and the Center for Family Services, the police department and the beleaguered school district—all struggle to maintain their basic services while incorporating new knowledge about trauma and recovery. Funding requires a constant chase. Even the most vigorous leaders can succumb to feeling overwhelmed.

“If you had one human being whose job it was to connect all the organizations, that would be a full-time job,” says Bryan of Urban Promise.

Meantime, at Hopeworks, a five-member “youth healing team,” well-schooled in the experience and theory of ACEs, has conducted two-hour seminars at schools, for Volunteers of America and in other venues. Hopeworks completed its Sanctuary certification in the spring of 2015. Youth—sometimes a dozen, sometimes a roomful—come to The Bridge every Tuesday night for enrichment and connection; in the meditative moments of each session’s closing, they give voice to their pain: “A prayer for my father who’s in jail,” or “A prayer for my grandmother, who’s really sick.”

The ever-restless Putthoff believes the city is poised for change, but that the hard work of healing lies ahead, both for trauma-affected individuals and for the community. He’s pleased that more people are speaking the language of adversity and resilience, but he believes the next step is just as important: for trauma to become a spur for practical interventions in every human services sector.

He’d like to see the city consider the impact on brain health when facing any decision—from whether to construct another building on the waterfront to whether to pursue a block grant. “We can’t talk about justice if we don’t talk about brain health,” he says.

Meanwhile, Putthoff himself faces a transition; after 16 years, he will leave Hopeworks in the fall to complete a degree in organizational dynamics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Truly, ‘sweating for hope’ has been an amazing gift to me,” he wrote in a letter announcing the change. Dan Rhoton, a former teacher and vice principal who has been at Hopeworks since 2012, will become executive director.

At last fall’s Trauma Summit, in a room of people touched by adversity—some in their own lives, others because they simply walked Camden’s bruised streets—Putthoff encouraged audience members to ask themselves the questions that begin each day’s meeting at Hopeworks: How are you feeling? What is your goal today? Who in this room can help you?

“If we only think about what’s happened here, about how bad it is, then we get stuck,” he said. “We want Camden to be known as America’s healing center.” The crowd applauded.


Camden Story Timeline - Click Year to View Highlights

  • “Father Jeff” Putthoff co-founds Hopeworks N’ Camden, an organization that provides in-school and out-of-school youth with GED classes, job training and website-design instruction so they can enter college or the work force