By Andy McNeil, Courier Post
Sunday, May 5, 2013
MEDFORD — The first 10 miles of the eighth annual Pedal for Promise bike ride held Saturday in Burlington County was a struggle for Camden teen Faith Kroma.
“My breathing was really heavy, my bike seat was too low and my knees started hurting,” the 16-year-old said. “I wanted to just give up and do the 15 miles instead of 30.”
The UrbanPromise Academy sophomore found the inspiration to finish alongside the eight other teens on the school’s elite team after her coach, Dan Higgins, reminded her that she would have to complete the 30-mile ride in order to take a spin on back of his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Kroma also wanted to uphold the team’s ethos of togetherness.
“We start together and we finish together,” she said.
In all, about 375 people participated in the ride, which took cyclists on a 15-, 30- or 65-mile loop beginning and ending at Johnson’s Corner Farm in Medford. The event raised about $70,000 for the academy’s boat-building and UrbanTrekkers programs, according to Jim Cummings, director of experiential learning at UrbanPromise.
He said the nonprofit programs bring learning experiences outside the classroom by connecting kids to the outdoors and nature.
“Intuitively, I’ve always known that if you want to get kids excited about learning, you’ve got to get them excited about living first,” Cummings said.
Started 25 years ago by college students as a summer camp, UrbanPromise now runs its own schools and has expanded to nearby cities like Trenton and Wilmington, Del., as well as such far-flung places as Miami, Vancouver, Honduras and Uganda.
For this year’s ride, UrbanPromise Academy’s team started training in January by attending two spinning classes each week at the Cherry Hill Racquet Club. In March, the teens took Sunday rides around Camden and wrapped up their training in Burlington County last month. The teens’ road bikes and helmets were donated by Higgins, whose wood flooring company in Medford sponsored the team.
UrbanPromise Academy sophomore Nai-Nai Thomas said she didn’t realize how many bike paths were in Camden and enjoyed the beauty of rides along the city’s waterfront. She and Kroma will also soon take to the Cooper River to test a two-seat kayak they created through the school’s boat- building program.
This summer, several of the students will join Cummings on a two-week hike through five national parks in Colorado and Utah. The bulk of the funding for the trip comes from Pedals for Promise.
John Bahm of Tabernacle spoke to the importance of the inner-city trips. He and his wife, Beth, were among the trainers supporting the kids during the character-challenging rides.
“We wanted to show these kids that they could actually ride bikes in their own neighborhood,” he said.
Reach Andy McNeil at email@example.com or (856) 486-2458.
Senior Alexandra Gonzalez, from The Urban Promise Academy in Camden, uses a toothbrush to clear dirt away from letters on a gravestone at Johnson Cemetery Park in Camden, Friday, April 26, 2013. With her is freshman Brandon Benitez. The Urban Promise Academy in partnership with Clearview and Voorhees High Schools clean up Johnson Cemetery Park in Camden, Friday, April 26, 2013. (Staff Photo by Tim Hawk/South Jersey Times)
Few people know that under Johnson Memorial Park on Federal Street in East Camden lie the graves of possibly more than 100 African American soldiers, many of whom served in the Civil War
The 41 high school students at UrbanPromise Academy are trying the change that.
Before the minuscule, nondenominational Christian school adopted the park last autumn, dirt and weeds as well as the occasional hypodermic needle or beer bottle covered nearly all the gravestones at the park.
Now, 15 grave markers, all of them dating back to the 1890s, have been exposed, including four unearthed for the first time on Friday by a group that included nine UrbanPromise students as part of a senior service project.
“A lot of these people stepped up for our freedoms, and I feel like they’ve been disrespected by the state of the cemetery,” said Carlos Garcia, a senior at Urban Promise and one of 68 students who took park in Friday’s cleanup at the park. “I want to join the military, so for me it’s important that we clean it up, bring in some flowers and honor the people who were buried there.”
Joining the 41 UrbanPromise Academy students were 27 seniors from Clearview Regional High School in rural Harrison Township, Gloucester County. While some raked leaves and cleared litter, others searched for buried gravestones by gently striking the ground with picks and listening for the sound of metal on stone.
Johnson Park is Camden’s first African American cemetery, and is the final resting place of hundreds of soldiers, as well as the city’s first black police officer.
“We require all of our students to do community service, and each class does a group service project, so when we heard about the story of Johnson Park, it just seemed like an obvious connection for us,” said Kevin Watkins, a history teacher at UrbanPromise Academy. “We watched a documentary about it made by a local attorney named Kevin Walker, with historian Sam Asbell, and they learned all about it.
“It was a surprise that something right here in our community is an incredible piece of U.S. history and Camden history.”
Many of the headstones are illegible, but those that can be clearly read mark the graves of Civil War veterans who died in the last decades of the 19th century.
There’s Jacob Brisco of Company E, 2nd regiment, who died on Feb. 17, 1885. His grave reads “US colrd troops.”
Also buried there is Private George Lodine. Etched on his tombstone are the words “colored volunteer.”
Joining him are Milton Dix, who served on the USS Princeton and died on March 10, 1891; John W. Hamilton, born in Essex County, Va., who died on Oct. 18, 1896; and several others.
Alexandra Gonzalez was one of the seniors who cleared the dirt off the stones with a toothbrush.
“Growing up in East Camden, I always knew there was at least one gravestone out here, but mostly this was a park we came to when it snowed and made snowmen,” said Gonzalez. “Eventually we want to get a gate, so we can help protect the grave sites, and respect them.”
The students have only inspected a small fraction of the park. Joseph Palma, another senior who worked on the project, said the memorial likely holds approximately 110 graves.
"I already knew it was a cemetery," said the Camden native. "I just didn't know it was important.
"I feel a certain connection to the soldiers here — from the Civil War, to the Spanish-American War, World War I and II, and the women who served, too."
The park is only a few blocks away from two liquor stores. Palma said the site over the years had been neglected and became littered with trash, including empty cans as well as marijuana bags.
“There was a bronze plaque at the park, but someone stole it,” said Palma.
On the other hand, when residents of the apartment complex, located just feet from the graves, saw the students working, they walked outside and asked how they could help.
“It’s about getting the community involved, and that’s exactly what they did when they realized what was going on,” said Demetrius Marlowe, principal at UrbanPromise Academy. “Death was being dishonored here in East Camden — the park can be easily forgotten and it has been, but hopefully not anymore.”
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Faith Kroma, vivacious and full of energy, clipped her riding shoes into the toe holds of her aluminum framed Fuji racing bike. Faith was about to do something she’d never done before: ride 15 miles through Camden in preparation for our Pedal for Promise bike race. She and her peers were training for the event’s 65-milecourse—the longest UrbanPromise has ever offered.
“I’m used to riding the smooth roads of Medford Lakes, but I’d never really thought about training in our own city,” Faith said.
Her wonderment made sense. Camden streets are notoriously narrow and wounded with potholes. Drug dealers promote business on prominent corners—not the ideal place to train for such a long ride.
“But, here’s the thing,” added Jim Cummings, UrbanPromise’s director of experiential learning. “I want the kids to start seeing their city as a resource for good. We’re all a little nervous about the experiment. But we can’t let fear control us.”
So, as part of their three-month training, Jim, a handful of volunteers, and students on our UrbanPromise Academy “Elite Cycling Team” rode along the back streets of Camden.
Our small high school may not have a basketball team, football team, or cheerleading squad. But the Academy is the only school in the city with a cycling team. And it’s open to both males and females of varying athletic prowess. Each spring the teens dust off their bikes, pull out their Spandex shorts and helmets, and begin logging miles.
“People started cheering for us,” shared Kevin, an Academy freshman, in reference to his first ride through Camden. “Even a drug dealer cheered. He wanted to join the ride. It felt really good.”
And that’s why we encourage our students to ride. Being part of a team builds community, and accomplishing goals increases self-confidence and teaches discipline. And training for a 65-mile race keeps our young people in shape—and out of trouble.
When Faith and Kevin heard I was writing about them, they asked me to tell you that they’re looking for rider sponsors. Sponsorships support experiential and expeditionary learning at UrbanPromise Academy and within our UrbanTrekkers program, and help offset tuition, buy new textbooks, and underwrite extracurricular activities like camping and hiking.
So just as I challenge my students to get involved, I’m asking you to pick a rider—or two or three—to support. Sponsor each mile our teens complete or give in full. Your sponsorship will encourage our riders deeply and send a message that they matter.
Dr. Bruce Main
P.S. Consider joining our students on their Pedal for Promise ride on May 4. For more information »
Written by: Michael Lovaglio, UrbanPromise Academy Language Arts and Literacy Teacher and Education Coordinator
The seven founding members of the Johnson Cemetery Restoration and Maintenance Project in Camden, New Jersey are Adrian Alicea, Maria Arroyo, Carlos Garcia, Alexandra Gonzalez, Kirk Johnson, Joseph Palma, and Tyrone Richardson; they are high school students. Johnson Cemetery is located on Federal Street at Terrace Avenue, only a few hundred feet away from the students’ U.S. Government and Economics class at UrbanPromise Academy High School. Veteran soldiers who fought for the 54th Regiment of the Union Army in the Civil War, as well as veterans from the Spanish-American War were laid to rest in Johnson Cemetery. Still, not one student in the senior class was aware that the very men they were studying in history were buried across the street.
The mean income of a resident living within the city of Camden is approximately $26,000 (United States Census Bureau), which is far below livable wage estimates. As a result of insufficient funds and neglect of the grounds, Johnson Cemetery became so unkempt that people forgot that it was sacred ground, a cemetery. Residents began using the grounds as a park, hosting barbecues and playing field games on the cemetery grounds, over the resting places of American heroes.
“I would drive past,” said UPA senior Maria Arroyo. “I never noticed it was a cemetery. I always thought it was a park.” Fellow UPA senior Alexandra Gonzalez shared Arroyo’s unawareness. “Growing up, while visiting that park, I always noticed one visible tombstone.” Gonzalez would wonder, “Are there actual people below me?”
When the senior class learned of the valor and sacrifice of those resting at Johnson Cemetery, they chose to work to restore dignity to these grounds. Both Adrian Alicea and Carlos Garcia felt compelled to act. With the knowledge that the park was and still is a cemetery, they felt it was now their responsibility to reinstate honor to the cemetery.
What if it was my “family member there?” said Garcia. “I was doing something constructive, positive; paying respect to all those heroes who are buried here,” said Alicea. “I feel like I am taking part in maintaining my community and making sure that our environment is taken care of.”
Motivated to make a difference, the students first spent time cleaning the grounds. Once weekly, as a team, the senior class would pick up trash, weed, and rake the grounds. The students took special care and consideration when working around the tombstones. Their immediate task was to clear the tombstones so that they would once again be visible. The students then began spreading awareness throughout the city of Camden. They wanted Camden County residents to know exactly what the patch of ground at Federal and Terrace was and who exactly was buried there. The students also invited other schools and community groups to participate in cleanup and maintenance projects at the cemetery. During these projects, the senior class would speak about the history of the cemetery and explain the importance of maintaining it.
After spending weeks working to maintain the grounds at Johnson Cemetery, the senior class petitioned the Camden City Council to make a proclamation stating that the students of UrbanPromise Academy will take the charge of maintaining the grounds of Johnson Cemetery. The senior class then extended an invitation to Frank Moran, Camden City Council President and Director of Camden County Parks, to UrbanPromise Academy in order to discuss the present maintenance and future development of Johnson Cemetery. In December of 2012, President Moran guaranteed Camden City and Camden County’s support of the Johnson Cemetery Restoration and Maintenance Project before all students of UrbanPromise Academy. After President Moran visited the Academy the Camden City Council passed an official resolution making the school “Friends of Johnson Memorial Park” on February 12, 2013. In so doing, the City Council honored the service of the UPA seniors while guaranteeing the future maintenance of Johnson Cemetery.
UPA History Teacher, Kevin Watkins, who attended the meeting, said, “Specifically he [Councilman Moran] gave UPA stewardship” over the grounds.
During a recent cleanup a student uncovered a tombstone that had been veiled by overgrown grass. The engraving read, “Gone but not forgotten.” For Jim Cummings, Director of the Experiential Learning Program at UrbanPromise, “It is what our efforts in the cemetery are all about—paying tribute to and recognizing those who long ago were buried at that cite. He isn’t forgotten.”
The students of UrbanPromise Academy were not searching for a project. But once they learned about Johnson Cemetery, they understood the value and importance of it. “On our first cleanup I was brought to tears,” said Gonzalez. “The role of the dead is to teach the living a lesson.” For Gonzalez that lesson is “to respect people and to always practice compassion.”
The senior class’s efforts are one step in revitalizing this city of 77,000 people who deserve to have a place where the strength and endurance of their heroes are honored—a location for legacy. Johnson Memorial Park and Cemetery is becoming one such place.
"Stay in the city until you've been clothed with the power from on high..." Luke 24:49
Occasionally our lives cross paths with a truly extraordinary person. Their mere presence radiates a kind of light and aura, leaving us better and bigger people. Their words--although sometimes few--linger with us like a welcomed friend. Their actions remind us of the kind of people we long to become.
So when I heard the story of Millie Gordon on NPR tonight, I felt I was given a gift at the end of a long, hard day at work. I needed to be reminded that there are saints still at work in the world. Millie, it seems to me, is the kind of person that leaves everyone in her ake a little more like God intended each of us to be.
"You've got to treat each one like they are your grandchildren," confessed this 86 year old music teacher. "Everyone in my choir has done something bad in their life. Some have murdered, some have committed robbery, some have raped...but I treat them all like they're my grandchildren." That's what makes Millie so extraordinary.
Trained as a musician at Julliard, Millie has been teaching prisoners for the passed 30 years. "After my husband left me, I had a dream," revealed Millie in the interview. "In the dream I saw young men reaching through cell bars with their arms. When I woke up I remembered a conversation I had two years earlier.
Someone had offered me a position to teach music to prisoners. I flatly turned them down." Millie found the number, called the individual. To her surprise, the position was still available. Three decades later she's the most popular staff worker at the correctional facility.
Ironically there is only one reserved parking spot at the prison where Millie works. It's not for the warden, or the CFO. It's for Millie, the woman who spreads love, and passes out an endless supply of Butter Scotch candies to her pupils.
"I remind my pupils that they are blessed to be in prison and that God has given them a second chance. They could be dead, but God has allowed them to come to prison because God has something special for them to do with their lives." So as Millie teaches her young men another verse of "What A Friend We Have in Jesus," they receive her message of hope, purpose and new life because of the one who carries the message embodies the message.
What creates the Millie's of the world? What gives an 86 year old woman respect and authority among some of the nation's hardest criminals? What gives this woman the capacity to love difficult people year after year? What makes a frail, tiny, grandmother "indispensable" to a warden? It's got to be God. It's got to be the fact that this resurrection event is alive and still clothing people with the "....power from on high."
Dr. Bruce Main
"Are we willing to give until it hurts?" Mother Teresa of Calcutta
“It was a wonderful dedication and it was a joy for me to be there...The room bearing my name is so light and perfect. I didn’t notice the names on the door, but Don, my pastor, did, and like you—I smiled when I entered. God had me choose right when I used my 'new car' money for the room. My ’86 Caravelle is still running, but it belongs to Rev. Don now. I no longer drive but am blessed to have others drive me. God does provide. Now I feel led to donate money to furnish a classroom.” (Doris, June 6, 2006)
Reflect & Discuss
Take some time this week to think about the choices you’ve been making about your money and possessions. Talk with your spouse and perhaps the whole family about this. This is an invitation to do some fresh analysis of your priorities. What choices can you make today that will have an eternal, enduring impact? Do you trust God enough to let go of your manna and share it with others? Don’t just get “guilted” and write a check. Invest some serious thought and prayer in this, and set up some long-term patterns. How do you make your financial choices? How can you most effectively honor God with your resources?
God of abundance, God of plenty, we acknowledge that all we have comes from your hand. Nothing we own is ours. We are stewards of your goodness. (The Promise Effect, p. 175, 176, 177)
Recently I have noticed a trend in our culture. I would call it an aversion to the difficult, the strenuous, and the challenging. We prefer the easy road—the road well trodden—with lots of rest stops and Starbucks along the way. Somehow we have come to equate Christian faith with ease, abundance, and continuous pleasure. Faith certainly opens our lives to blessing, but it also calls us to confront the most difficult of human challenges. Daniel Taylor reminds us of a forgotten virtue: “Perseverance means carrying on in the face of obstacles, continuing in what one is doing despite unfavorable circumstances. The marathoner perseveres despite a protesting body, the sculptor perseveres despite the unyielding stone, the husband and wife persevere despite the strains of marriage. In the things of the spirit, perseverance means continuing in faith when the conditions for faith are unpropitious. The Bible is a very realistic book. Its writers understand human psychology and the realities of life far better than most modern practitioners of mental therapy. It is full of encouragement to take heart in the midst of struggle, and of admonitions that the long run is more important than the short.” (The Promise Effect, p. 200, 201)
Look for indviduals in your church or community who serve quietly and faithfully. Chances are they don’t want anyone making a big deal about them—but you can thank them, affirm them, and tell them you’ll pray for them (and then really do so!). That kind of support will go a long way toward bolstering their perseverance. Pray Lord, help us to notice those who serve with no spotlight, no headlines, no need for recognition. Inspire us through their lives.
“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Matthew 14:27
A mentor of mine used to pray, “Lord, help me to take the way of the cross in all that I do today.” It’s an interesting line, one I’ve never forgotten. My friend was trying to say that he wanted God’s help to subvert his own ego needs, responding to difficult relational situations with humility and forgoing the need to win, gloat, or belittle another human being. Jesus reminds his followers that they must “carry the cross” to truly follow him. I don’t believe Jesus was talking about a physical cross. It was certainly an instrument of physical death, but I think he was talking about something beyond that, something far deeper. “
Carrying the cross” is an invitation to live differently. It’s a willingness to submit one’s whole self to a new lifestyle. It means allowing ourselves to voluntarily suffer, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, forgive, and surrender our need to get the last lick in an argument. It is a radical challenge Jesus issues. How hard it is to voluntarily appear weaker, submissive, and non-combative! But there is freedom in this lifestyle. “Dying daily” brings life. Instead of getting swept into whirlpools of tit-for-tat violence, cesspools of bitterness, and quagmires of grudges, reach out for the life that is truly life. Let go of your compulsion to get even, and find your new identity in the way of Christ.
Lord, relationships are complex. Life is messy. We all need your help to “take the way of the cross” in all we do. Give us the insight to discover what this means and the courage to do it. (The Promise Effect p. 184, 185)
“A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’” Mark 12:42-44
Take a day of your life to see your world through Jesus’ eyes. Don’t just look for needs, but also for the examples of love and generosity around you. You might want to take notes as you go through the day, and you might need occasional reminders, in case you slip back into your normal way of seeing. It might help to gather some other people that night or the next day, just to review your “sightings.”
Thank you for people who live your Gospel. Open my eyes so my life can be enriched and challenged by their witness. (The Promise Effect, p. 40, 41)
Today's youth are often characterized as selfish, or the "me" generation. Read about some amazing students who sacrifice their time and money to sponsor the tuition of Noah, a kindergartner at our CamdenForward School. http://urbanpromiseusa.org/haddonfield-teens-sponsor-school-tuition-camdenforward-school-student
When Michael Lovaglio, UrbanPromise Academy English teacher, passed along Carlos Garcia's personal statement, he described the essay as "spectacular." We couldn't agree more. The following are the two opening paragraphs from the UrbanPromise Academy senior's essay:
I love to train. When I am working the heavy bag it is not just my body sweating out physical toxins, but my mind too is sweating – shedding – out all of my daily stresses. Stress over how to provide for my family. Stress over whether or not to finally accept the dealer’s offer to begin to sell on my block. Stress over the murder of loved ones, and fear over who could be lost next. All of this weighs on me throughout the day, the choices, the anxiety. It is when I get to the gym, wrap my hands, put on the gloves, and begin to hit the bag that the added weight begins to trickle down. Though I am leaning into the bag with every hit, I feel taller than before I walked through the gym doors.
According to Mohammad Ali, one of the brightest and bravest American fighters both in and out of the ring, “Champions aren’t made in the gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside of them – a desire, a dream, a vision.” I love this quote because anyone can work out in the gym, but to be a champion takes leadership and hard, dripping, work. Champions feel the passion of our craft. What first started out as a seemingly implausible idea, maybe only a feeling, soon developed into a vision. My vision of being a champion has saved me, helping to shape me into a better, stronger, more reliable person – the person I am today.