Tuesday, July 29, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

In Camden, a focus on success

By Sherry Wolkoff

'What do you expect from me? I'm from Camden."

That was the heart-breaking quote from a report by the Inquirer's Julia Terruso on a recent education summit sponsored by Catholic Partnership Schools, the foundation that operates five Catholic schools in Camden. The goal of the summit was to find ways to overcome the self-defeatist attitude of many Camden students, summed up by the quote above. A teacher reported that was the response of a boy she tried to engage in learning.

I also find myself wondering how parents and educators can overcome the hopelessness weighing down children who come from poverty and broken homes, where life sometimes boils down to sheer survival.

I grew up in a different Camden in the 1950s, and have always wanted to give back in some way to the city that gave me so much. I read to elementary school children, then served as a mentor and homework helper with the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County. I felt children deserved a safe and welcoming place to spend their time after school, and thought I could be a good role model.

However, it wasn't until I volunteered to serve as a judge for the club's Youth of the Year competition that I really began to comprehend what a game changer this organization is to its members.

On a cold winter night in February, six young adults stood before a panel of 18 volunteers and board members to compete for the title of Youth of the Year. One by one, they told their gritty stories and spoke about how the club helped them to overcome personal obstacles and motivated them to want to go on to higher education. They answered tough questions. It had to take a lot of courage, but all six comported themselves with grace, poise, and dignity.

I thought I was more or less prepared for what I would hear. But as each person took a turn, the abstract became real. They described how the club saved their lives.

One 18-year-old woman, Abigail Jimenez, spoke of her loneliness as the daughter of a working single mom, and how hard it was for her mother to support the family financially. Her sister is four years older, her mother was usually at work, and there was never much family around.

Jimenez told us that as she grew older, opportunities for getting into trouble increased. Her mother enrolled her in the club so she would have supervision after school, hoping she'd spend time on her homework instead of finding other less savory activities. Jimenez saw this as a punishment at first and dropped out of the program for a few years. Finally, she realized that the club was much more than a building. It had become a place of opportunity, hope, love, and friendship, a place where she could escape from her problems and find friends who cared about her.

That young woman was recently accepted at Rutgers University-Camden, where she plans to study business and accounting.

Other stories were equally compelling.

Another young woman said the club became a haven where she broke out of her shell and created friendships that she expects to last a lifetime. A young man remembered a teacher who told him he could never make it into college and would probably work a hard job living paycheck to paycheck. Not surprisingly, the student didn't believe college was an option for him, and never gave it a second thought. Growing up in Camden, he was constantly told about all the things he couldn't do and how impossible it would be to succeed. But after receiving extra attention and encouragement at the club, he decided he wants to start his own construction business, and he plans to attend Stockton College to help make that happen.

And so the stories went.

In the end, Abigail Jimenez was selected as our winner. She'll compete at the state level for scholarship money and the chance to represent the region, and maybe even the country.

But what we learned is that all the contestants are winners. They had learned it takes hard work, discipline, and drive to obtain your goals. They understood that it's just not worth it to get sidetracked by the violence that is occurring outside their homes. They saw that their parents had done the best they could. Most importantly, they had somewhere to go to think about a future, somewhere people believed in them, and encouraged them to be their best.

The Boys and Girls Club of Camden County, which has branches in East Camden and Parkside, provides a variety of crucial services to help young people succeed in school, learn life skills, pursue interests in the arts and sports, and explore vocational choices in a safe and supportive after-school environment. These are worthy goals, especially in a city known primarily for its violence, drug problems, and poverty. As Angela Duckworth, the education summit's keynote speaker, said: "Focus and tenacity drive success. . . . Perseverance and passion lead to high achievement."

Indeed they do.


Sherry Wolkoff is a retired director of communications for Jewish Family and Children's Service. She attended Cramer Elementary School in Camden and now serves on the Board of Directors at the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County. For more information, visit www.begreatcamden.org, or contact executive director Bernadette Shanahan at 856-602-4128 or bshanahan@bandgccc.org.

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