Hopeworks Aims to Increase Understanding, Reduce Crime in Camden

By Michael Hill

Fourteen-year-old Saiheem Lewis recalled the day his now imprisoned father came home drunk or drugged again and went after Saiheem’s mother with a knife.

“Next thing I know, I’m in front of my mom. And next thing you know I’m sittin’ there in my mom’s arms in a puddle of blood,” he said.

Saiheem says his response later on to that adverse childhood experience — drinking, drugs and self-destructive behavior.

That was his story to this “Hopeworks Youth Healing Team” teaching some members of the Camden community about trauma and its impact throughout life if there’s no healing.

“The connection that they make is that they’ve made choices in their life because of what’s happened. So, it’s not uncommon for me to hear youth say well just always thought life was this way. Well, no. Life isn’t always this way. Life is this way because of what happened to me and I made some choices to protect myself, to try to get through things, to try to survive and when that conversation begins we’re able to begin a conversation around thriving,” said Executive Director Father Jeff Putthoff.

Hopeworks teaches that healing requires dealing with a traumatized person’s history. The root of their hurt instead of the symptoms.

And it says adverse childhood experiences and not recovering or healing from them can produce the kind of violence seen in Ferguson, Missouri. To prevent that in Camden, Hopeworks runs an initiative called “Trauma Informed Care” for police, social workers and several other segments of the community.

“Literally in a community that’s over stressed with toxic stress, people are half cocked and when something goes off — bam! Something happens. So the event that causes people to go off isn’t the reason why in a sense people are hyper aroused. It’s just the occasion for the moment of the half-cocked gun to go off,” Putthoff said.

“I think it’s important to have real conversations about the real situations we’re working in instead of just kind of covering over things or sugar-coating things or pretending issues don’t exist to get the root of really what’s going on so we can make the city a better place,” said Gayle Christiansen, Rutgers-Camden School Partnership.

For Hopeworks, it’s all about individual healing and through that healing comes understanding and progress for an individual and peace perhaps for an entire community.

“You can have a police officer on every corner but until we understand what happened to them and help them heal, they’re never going to be able to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to them by a safer, more economically robust Camden,” said Camp Director Don Rhoton.

“Living in Camden is living in despair, I think. And any opportunity you have to give kids hope, a chance that they can get out this and they can break the cycle and here’s how, is important work,” said St. Joseph’s Parochial School Clinical Social Worker Mickey Steinitz.

Hopeworks says by taking on the real issues of why people hurt and why they’re depressed can make Camden the healing center of the country, avoiding the pitfalls of Ferguson.

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