Melding hope and high tech: this New Jersey nonprofit has built a reputation for turning high-risk youth into highly skilled employees

Melding hope and high tech: this New Jersey nonprofit has built a reputation for turning high-risk youth into highly skilled employees – Earthkeepers

Alexis Harte

Although the weekend moving company job left him plenty of time for schoolwork and skateboarding, Frank Castillo didn’t want to load and unload trucks forever. When a friend told the 16-year old Camden, New Jersey, resident about Hopeworks’ website design and development program, Castillo thought it was “worth checking out.”

Now 18 and bound for Rutgers in the fall to pursue computer and information science, Castillo readies his crew of 11 Hopeworks youth for a day in the field. Clutching hand-held computers and DBH tapes, the group’s summer goal of completing a detailed survey of every Camden street tree.

When the New Jersey Tree Foundation (NJTF), a statewide tree planting nonprofit, needed detailed information on the city’s existing tree cover, it partnered with Hopeworks to conduct a study using AMERICAN FORESTS’ CITYgreen software. When completed, the project will help NJTF and the Camden Public Housing Authority find the most suitable locations for new trees while quantifying the air quality, energy conservation, and water storage benefits provided by the existing tree canopy.

It’s an example of how Hopeworks has built a reputation as one of Camden’s premier geographic information systems (GIS) and website design outfits. Engaging more than 400 at-risk youth, the nonprofit has completed more than 30 major municipal GIS projects, including Camden’s first-ever property parcel map. With this important data layer in its portfolio, the contracts keep pouring in. And so do the city’s youth, looking for scant opportunities in a city with a high school dropout rate of 70 percent and more than half its residents below the poverty line.

After young trainees complete a nonpaid training in which they design and build personal web pages, they are offered paying jobs to ply their new skills contributing to actual client projects secured by Hopeworks staff.

When the Internet bubble burst, Hopeworks’ staff and board decided to expand its computer training beyond web design. Enter Matthew Grove, then an urban studies major at University of Pennsylvania with a strong interest in applying GIS, who parlayed an internship into a full-time job offer. Through Grove’s leadership, Hopeworks has landed many sought-after GIS contracts and greatly expanding the palette of skills available to Camden’s youth.

With the softened economy, Hopeworks also shifted from pure job-training programs to those that encourage youth to stay in school and pursue further study. Through new relationships with several local schools and colleges, participants now receive GED and college credit for their work.

Grove is particularly excited about the CITYgreen study and its impact on Camden’s youth. “I’m really surprised how well the youth have taken to this program,” the GIS program director says. “Here we are walking down the street and these guys are rattling off the name of every tree on the block.”

Still, Grove is aware of the challenges faced in a city where, according to the state of New Jersey, everyone under 18 is automatically designated ‘atrisk.’ “Many of our participants are on probation or parole,” he says “and no one program can solve all the problems in a person’s life.” Nevertheless, Hopeworks’ success stories continue to grow.

For his part, Frank Castillo wants to stay involved even while attending college full-time in the fall. Supervising the survey of hundreds of street trees gives him a newfound appreciation for his city. Says Castillo; “It makes you see the world differently when you know what is growing around you.”

Alexis Harte writes from Berkeley, California.

COPYRIGHT 2003 American Forests

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