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Dan Rhoton knows all about Camden’s reputation. The New Jersey city ranks among the most dangerous in the nation. But “your future doesn’t have to look like your past,” he insists. That’s the mentality he’s working to instill among Camden’s youths through his work at Hopeworks, a job training program that combines coding and other computer training with life readiness coaching.
Mr. Rhoton learned early on as a student teacher that great rewards come from taking the time to work with students overcoming trauma. He went on to spend 16 years working at a youth detention center just outside Philadelphia, first as a teacher and later as a vice principal. He walked away from that experience with a powerful lesson that he brought to Hopeworks. “You can’t unhurt a young person,” he says. “But by helping them heal, celebrating them,” you end up with someone who is stronger.
Hopeworks alumni affirm that idea every day. “Some folks have to go and watch an inspirational movie,” Mr. Rhoton says. “I am an extra in an inspirational movie.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the Hopeworks office in downtown Camden is positively buzzing with activity. Clusters of computer banks are filled with teens and young adults working on everything from website development to sophisticated data projects for clients throughout the region.
The space more closely resembles a tech hub than a nonprofit centered on supporting youths.
As 18-year-old Jonathan Colon walks through the offices, he points out the training area where he has been learning about various platforms. He also sees his math teacher and two of his academic coaches.
“I am learning a lot,” says Mr. Colon, who had only spent six weeks with Hopeworks at the time, but already felt at home. “I wanted to make myself better, and make my mom proud.”
Founded in 2000, Hopeworks works with young people in and around Camden to help them develop technological skills and connect them with internships and jobs. The focus on real-world job training and experience is coupled with what the organization describes as “a positive, healing atmosphere” capable of helping participants break the cycle of poverty and violence.
Perhaps no one is more excited about this organization, and the effect it has on participants, than Executive Director Dan Rhoton.
“At the end of the day, what we do is make a promise to our young people: If you come and let us work with you, we will help you transform your life,” says Mr. Rhoton. “We will help you get the job you want, we will help you get the education you want. Your future doesn’t have to look like your past.”
Much of Camden’s past has been marked by poverty and crime. The New Jersey city ranks among the most dangerous in the nation. In recent years, however, crime rates have fallen significantly, with 2018 New Jersey State Police data indicating a continued downward trend.
Mr. Rhoton is familiar with the narratives about Camden’s downtrodden, but he sees a different reality – one featuring “an ambitious, energetic group of young people ready to change the world, often young people who have overcome tremendous obstacles and are still going.”
The Hopeworks team seeks to mobilize those young people – some 120 at any given time – through a multifaceted program that takes each person from entry-level training to an in-house paid internship before funneling them to a firm for a permanent job.
Participants receive computer training ranging from HTML to Photoshop, while a life readiness coach conducts mock job interviews, assists with resume writing, and offers advice on budgeting and other practical necessities.
Youths are then hired by the nonprofit to work on client projects. After six months of earning pay and building their professional portfolios, Mr. Rhoton and his team then help connect youths with permanent jobs. Some 93 landed jobs last year alone.
Turning bad moments into ‘superpowers’
Mr. Rhoton, who joined Hopeworks in 2012 as its chief operating officer and has been at the helm for the past four years, was inspired by student teaching experiences he had both at an elite private school and with youths on probation.
“Both were awesome, but the one for the youth on probation showed me where the real impact was,” he says.
Mr. Rhoton went on to spend roughly 16 years working at a youth detention center just outside Philadelphia, first as a teacher and later as a vice principal. He walked away from that experience with a powerful lesson that he brought to Hopeworks as the nonprofit was looking to adopt a trauma-informed model.
“If you take young men who made really bad choices, but help them figure out how they had been hurt, their worst moments in life could become their superpowers,” says Mr. Rhoton. “I took those lessons and then came to Hopeworks so we could start doing that in the community.”
That trauma-informed approach recognizes the difficulties that youths have experienced, and works with them to help acknowledge and own those experiences rather than pretending they didn’t happen.
“You can’t unhurt a young person,” he says. “But by helping them heal, celebrating them,” you end up with someone who is stronger.
Also critical is the nonprofit’s focus on technology as a driver of opportunity for youths.
“Very few young people can actually code or use technology to solve problems,” he says. “That’s where the economic power is. That is where the real potential is.”
He adds, “and if we can train the next generation of technologists, who are brown and black, who are coming from communities like Camden, if they are the ones who are controlling the conversation, then we are going to be living in a very different Camden.”
Many Hopeworks alums are already part of that movement, working with organizations like the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers.
“Hopeworks has found the balance between growing professional and interpersonal skills,” says Abigail Fallen, associate director for the coalition, in an email interview. “It provides their graduates with a set of skills to make themselves marketable in a professional setting.”
Ms. Fallen sees Mr. Rhoton’s passion and commitment to making change.
“Dan has helped to grow Hopeworks into an organization that can provide these talented, young individuals with a set of skills that makes them marketable to organizations,” she says, “but also a set of skills that allows them to become independent, confident young individuals.”
In the past year alone, three former participants have launched their own businesses. Mr. Rhoton sees that number growing, especially in a city where approximately 45% of the 70,000-some residents are under 25.
“Imagine if some significant portion of that huge youth population is tech savvy, entrepreneurial, and ready to go,” he says. “How long is it going to take before Camden is the tech mecca of the East Coast?”
‘A beacon of light’
Corey Thorpe, 21, completed his Hopeworks training and internship before moving into a full-time job, and describes the nonprofit as “a beacon of light for youth in the community, encouraging them to pursue something greater than life in the streets.”
“It gives youth that have little to no opportunities in other entry-level positions, (the chance) to meet other professionals and front-runners of many organizations to achieve potential that no one convinced them that they have in the past,” says Mr. Thorpe in an email interview, also speaking highly of Mr. Rhoton. “He goes the extra mile to make himself available for any youth who needs to speak about an issue, and he will do what he can to bring about change.”
The Hopeworks annual budget is approximately $2.5 million, with roughly a third of revenue coming from clients who hire the firm for tech projects, a third from donors, and the remainder from grants and events. Some of those proceeds are paid to youths working on projects, with $346,000 in stipends in 2018 alone.
In a recent interview, Rhoton spoke about why he loves working at Hopeworks.
“Some folks have to go and watch an inspirational movie,” he says. “I am an extra in an inspirational movie.”
For more, visit www.hopeworks.org.