'Within this city … there is this beautiful river.' South Jersey canoe program aims to expand horizons and change lives
Updated: JULY 8, 2018 — 5:00 AM EDT
MAGGIE LOESCH / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Philadelphia's skyline is visible over trees from the Cooper River in Camden, NJ, on the afternoon of Friday, June 29, 2018. Students enrolled in the UrbanTrekkers program through Urban Promise Academy in Camden, NJ, led the canoe trip on the river. These teens are employed as RiverGuides for the summer and are trained in the ecology and history of the river, as well as canoe safety.
Destiny Wilson spent the other day drifting down the languid Cooper River away from Camden, toward the Delaware, in a canoe that she built with her own hands. Excitedly, she identified a double-crested cormorant, then a bald eagle and a few blue herons as they dozed in the shade or soared above.
It’s difficult to imagine that, growing up in East Camden, Wilson, 18, once knew the Cooper River only in passing, her imagination stifled for years by Camden’s concrete confines. These days, she’s something of an expert on the water, but her aspirations don’t end at the Delaware.
“I always wanted to go places when I was a kid, but I just never put in the work to get there,” she said. Today Wilson talks seriously about traveling beyond the city of her birth to such far-flung places as Greece and Switzerland. First, her sights are set on college. If all goes according to plan, she said, she’ll be her family’s first college graduate. She wants to study environmental science.
Wilson is one of five Camden high school students who are spending the summer as “river guides” for the nonprofit RiverGuides program sponsored by UrbanPromise Ministries, a nonprofit that works with the city’s young.
Founded three years ago through a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the RiverGuides program pays students such as Wilson to guide folks through the river. Camden residents paddle free of charge. Others must pay a small fee. Throughout the trip, the young guides narrate the local history of landmarks on the river and present ecological findings from their own research.
Students lead a canoe trip on the Cooper River. These teens are enrolled in the UrbanTrekkers program through Urban Promise Academy in Camden, and employed as river guides for the summer.
“Some people think because the Cooper River’s in Camden, it’s dirty,” said Hannah Morales, 22, who has supervised the program the last two years. “We make residents see that within this city, which can be a bit rough around the edges, there is this beautiful river.”
All RiverGuides expeditions are led by Wilson and this summer’s four other guides, joined also by two paid supervisors like Morales and usually one volunteer. The typical paddle is for the benefit of Camden residents who have never been on the river before, Morales said.
The canoes, most hand-built by students in the UrbanPromise Boatworks shop, hit the water near the Kaighn Avenue Dam. They traverse toward the Delaware River, winding among such landmarks as the Campbell’s Soup headquarters, Gateway Park, and the Federal Street Bridge. After roughly three hours, the trip ends at Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden where a shuttle returns participants to the launching point.
The guides not only know the history of the Federal Street Bridge back to the American Revolutionary War, but they also gladly identify an amalgam of birds that have come to call the Cooper home. And as part of their job, guides conduct water-quality assessments on the river twice a week, testing for pH level, dissolved oxygen, turbidity level and nitrates. All tests come back within the standard range, the river guides said, and then explained the purpose behind each test.
Wilson, in particular, took the lessons she learned with RiverGuides to heart. Now she’s returned for her second summer as a guide.
“This is actually my job,” she said. “I can’t believe I get paid for this!”
Wilson said the RiverGuides program changed her life, and made her appreciate her city in new ways.
“[My view of] Camden has changed a lot now that I’ve gotten to be on the water and see it from a different point of view,” she said. “I just love everything here so much.”
Most who sign up for the tours have never been on a boat, Morales said, like most of the seven kids who came from Trenton last week to join the Camden guides. Those who hadn’t been on the water before were a bit shaky at first.
Uriah Missouri (left), a 15-year-old who is part of UrbanPromise Trenton, and Eric Martin, leader of UrbanPromise Trenton, take a break from paddling on a canoe trip on the Cooper River in Camden. Teens from UrbanPromise Camden, a sister program of the one in Trenton, are employed as river guides for the summer and are trained in the ecology and history of the river, as well as canoe safety, and led the paddle.
“Oh, Jesus, how am I getting in that thing?” asked Arianna Alexander, 15, just before the paddle. But as the group pressed toward the Delaware River, everyone became visibly more relaxed and comfortable with one another. Some raced, others collected litter, searched for birds. Still more lingered behind to chat.
“It was a good experience,” Alexander said to the group after the paddle. “I’m glad I didn’t drown.”
The kids from Trenton and Camden were joined last Friday by Maria Blatcher of Moorestown, who volunteered to help organize the trip.
“The contrast of the wealth in a community like Moorestown to the poverty in a city like Camden is striking,” Blatcher said. “And it’s just inspiring to watch these kids try something new and see their city from a new perspective for the first time.”
Camden’s poverty seems almost impossible to escape, even out on the Cooper River. As the canoes glide peacefully under bridges, it doesn’t take long to notice the glaring evidence of Camden’s reality, the makeshift living conditions of the city’s poorest beneath bridges.
Blatcher said she was inspired to volunteer her time and effort when she saw a 20/20program on child poverty in Camden more than a decade ago. As it turned out, one of the river guides, Ivan Stevens, now 17, was featured in that 2007 episode. At the time, he and his mother and younger brother were homeless.
Today, Stevens aspires to be a journalist, he said, and keeps a journal on him almost all the time.
Stevens said that his mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm last month and that the UrbanPromise community and the RiverGuides have given him a second family. “They were always there for me,” he said. “They gave me a shoulder to lean on.”
And as for this summer, Stevens is ready to share the river with any and all who are interested: “I see stuff differently now. It’s a new life out here. It’s waiting for different people to see.”
“Alright everyone,” asked Tyann, one of our 12th graders, “who wants to continue down the trail, and who wants to turn around now?” We had hiked a couple hours that morning on pretty flat ground around Lake Nockamixon, situated in a small state park in eastern Pennsylvania. We had the option of continuing another couple miles down the trail or turning around to head back to our cabins. Tyann was our “leader of the day,” a role each student took on for a portion of the trip, including responsibilities of monitoring wellbeing of the group, keeping the group on schedule and on task, and making informed decisions based on the best interest of the group. Tyann put the decision to a vote- and found that one third of the group wanted to return, while about two thirds wanted to continue on. She was part of the group that wanted to return to camp. I was curious to see what would happen.
The day prior, we spent time looking at four different leadership styles- directing, selling, consulting and engaging. Students and volunteers took a self-evaluation to see which leadership style aligned most with their personality. Directing leadership is mostly directive, Selling leadership looks to explain the reasoning behind a decision, Consulting takes others’ opinions into account before making a final call, and Engaging leaves the choice completely in the hands of the group. We had spent the prior evening talking about the pros and cons of each leadership style, and when was appropriate to use each of them.
As Tyann consulted the group on our hiking route, she decided that because of the majority wanting to continue on, that we would keep going, but we were able to come up with a compromising plan which brought us to a beautiful lakeside lunch spot that fell in between our two options. Tyann put into action what she learned about herself the day before, laying aside her personal preferences to put the group first. She acted with confidence and thoughtfulness, making the experience the best one possible for everyone involved.
Psalm 139:13-14 says, “For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother's womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, and my soul knows it very well.…” Leadership takes on many forms. Each of our students were created uniquely by our loving and personal God. Anytime they can live out that uniqueness and discover the way their leadership can be a gifting to the group is a chance to reflect on the way God designed them to be. My hope is that they continue to flourish as leaders- whichever trail they decide to take.
The morning we went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, two of our students, who also happen to be sisters, were fighting a lot with one another. You know the kind of way siblings fight? It was the kind where they are impatient with one another, and every little thing done or said annoys the other one. Then they realize it annoys the other one, so they dig in to get a greater reaction and laugh about it.
We had just arrived at the Holocaust Museum, probably one of the most somber places in DC, possibly in the whole country. I had briefed students going in about how to carry themselves with respect inside. Well, our two sisters were still caught in their world of petty sibling arguments. I told one of them to chill out and back off. I was getting fed up with them at this point. This really just made her more upset- now both at me and at her sister. The rest of the museum visit, the two avoided each other, and the one I spoke harshly to avoided me.
After walking through the museum, which still strikes me to the heart every time (even after my fifth visit) we headed to lunch to decompress a bit. The two sisters sat kind of near me towards the end of the table, along with Yasiria, a sophomore student on our Student Leadership team. I could tell they were still bickering about something, but this time I overheard Yasiria interjecting. When I listened closer, I discovered she was giving them advice on how to work through whatever argument was going on. She spent the next 20 minutes or so actually counseling them through things! And they listened!
The rest of the day, I didn't hear a single dispute between the two. I was so impressed with Yasiria; she has a heart of gold and always leads the group by example, showing compassion and kindness along the way. Earlier on our expedition, we walked through the Martin Luther King Jr. monument. On the monument walls, there was a quote that said,
"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." -MLK
I was struck by the way Yasiria handled things in that instance. She did a much better job at showing love and patience than I did! We had just walked through a memorial showing the world what happens when we let darkness and hate take the reins, but in the end, it's purpose was to show how light prevailed, and how we have a choice everyday how to respond to our world. Yasiria that day chose light, and it drove out the darkness. She chose love, and it bridged a gap between two sisters. I call that a victory.
“Pleeeeease, please please…. I have to be able to bring my cell phone!” were the words being pleaded to me Tuesday afternoon. Anjelika was getting ready for her eleventh-grade class trip to New York City. She couldn’t believe we were going to have our phone-free policy implemented on this trip. “It’s New York City Kris…I have to be able to take pictures on my phone!!” I said that was a good point and let her know I’d give her first dibs on using one of the student cameras we have set aside for just that purpose. We spent the next thirty minutes or so going back in forth, Anjelika trying to convince me with through half-tears and a pouty face that it was an essential to bring her phone.
We have a philosophy built in to all our UrbanTrekkers trips that students leave their cell phones at home. We want to live in the moment and be engaged with the people immediately around us. It’s so easy to miss those beautiful landscapes, or memory-building moments on the bus, or a deep conversation, or that cool view of the Statue of Liberty on the ferry ride if we are constantly looking down at our screens. By not having the distraction of cell phones, it opens the door for us to really engage in conversation with our students and build those strong relationships that can carry on back home.
The day of the trip, I was impressed- Anjelika didn’t bring her phone. And she didn’t mention it once throughout the entire day. We took the Staten Island Ferry into Manhattan, toured the 9/11 Memorial and museum, traversed the subway up to Times Square, entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral, passed by the Rockafeller Center Christmas tree, and handed out scarves and hats to the homeless.
When I returned home that evening, I got a text from Anjelika asking me to send her the pictures I had taken on my phone. Here’s the conversation we had after I passed them her way:
“I applaud your patience with not bringing your own phone“ -Kris
“I forgot all about it once we got on the ferry. I had so much fun.” -Anjelika
“I’m so glad to hear! That’s the goal! Make it fun so that you don’t even need your phone to enjoy it” -Kris
“Yes, of course. I probably would have been on it during the ferry ride. And the subway ride.” -Anjelika
“Haha, hmmm, I think I remember mentioning something like that! Glad you enjoyed the journey.” -Kris
“So am I” -Anjelika
Looks like this time we accomplished our mission- to enjoy the journey, and the people who are alongside us. It was a beautiful reminder to me of the great responsibility and privilege I get to live alongside my students. Ultimately, it was the best example of experiential learning- for Anjelika to discover on her own the power of living in the moment.
Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. -Benjamin Franklin
If you ask, Danny and Alex will readily tell you that they don’t like to sit down in class and they don’t like worksheets. In Biology class, they are learning about unifying traits of all living things--from single cell bacteria to a great white shark—which could be viewed as a list, or it could literally come to life when seen playing out in living things. Early in November, the class went to the Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory where a lot of work is being done with the oyster population on the NJ shore. Mrs. Van Osten, the UrbanPromise Academy science teacher was impressed with how engaged Danny and Alex were during the trip, noting a big difference from the classroom version of these young men. They both shined while making slides of the oysters, using a blade to create hair-thin slices of the specimens, requiring a great deal of precision and focus. Danny shared, “I like to work, I don’t like to sit down.” He enjoyed making oyster bags (bags of oyster shell pieces, maintaining a sustainable habitat and giving oysters substance on which to attach themselves). The students made it into a competition and made 100+ bags! Upon returning from the adventure, Alex shared that he liked the experience because it was “hands on, it wasn’t just working on some paper writing stuff down.”
While we can’t bring the biology class to the research laboratory every day, we were able to connect meaning to the material learned in class. Meaning translates to motivation and motivation to success. Thank you for your support of experiential learning at UrbanPromise and the academic success of our students.