The Hopeworks GIS team gets ready to survey local water assets (from left to right: Ashley Pena, Rosemary Irizarry, Jennifer Pena, Acire Roberts). Hopeworks 'N Camden

An unusual nonprofit for disadvantaged youth combines real-world work experience with counseling to overcome past pain.  

How can you help a young person with a painful history prepare for the working world when you can’t see what stops her from keeping a good job? The answer lies, according to a nonprofit called Hopeworks ‘N Camden, in therapy that teaches the young person to know and change how she deals with past trauma.

A person may show up on time, sustain eye contact, speak crisply, and dress properly, but still lack readiness for the job. Consider Melissa*, a young woman in Camden, New Jersey. According to Hopeworks’ chief Dan Rhoton, Melissa would get jobs and quickly lose them. “Managers would say: ‘She became unhinged; we move her burrito, and she’s cussing at people,’” Rhoton says.

An employer who has to meet payroll and please customers will rationally fire Melissa. Many did. But Hopeworks, a nonprofit in this small, impoverished city across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, exists to help people like Melissa see, name, and fix the inner injuries that can prevent workplace success.

Melissa now works in cybersecurity at a local bank, Rhoton says.

Unlike most other social-service nonprofits, Hopeworks measures its success in youth employment. It runs its programs through a framework called “trauma-informed care,” which addresses the ways that years of poverty and abuse—or worse—can block any brain from developing job skills.

Translated from caseworker-ese, trauma-informed care entails resetting the question you pose to a young person. Instead of asking what’s “wrong” with a client, a trauma-informed professional asks, “What happened to you?”

In Melissa’s case, men had trafficked her and she had known homelessness since she was 12. “Her brain had adapted to logically freak out when someone moved her burrito,” Rhoton says. Getting possessive over food constitutes a rational response to years in dark, rowdy shelters where you can’t assume food will remain and you certainly can’t trust people.

Rhoton says he embraced Hopeworks’ method of trauma-informed care, using a national model called Sanctuary, after he and his predecessor saw clients careen in and out of training and work. When he arrived in 2012, the group offered high-school equivalency classes and trained people in coding, web design, and GIS (geographic information systems), but its numbers were growing slowly.

Now Hopeworks trains 50 or so youth (some enrolled in high school or college, some not), and runs four in-house businesses: a web design and development team, a GIS department, a salesforce team, and the “youth healing team”—the newest line, whose staffers go around to schools and social service agencies to explain how to work with survivors of trauma.

Trainees learning HTML and web design. (Hopeworks ‘N Camden)

Rhoton’s staff is preparing for a pilot Hopeworks in Philadelphia. He wants the model to scale. If it does, it will flow dozens of young people into stable careers. It will also outline a tighter bond from psychological care to economic growth than might seem obvious.

On a Wednesday in January, staff and students slid past each other in Hopeworks’ townhouse. Upstairs, Rhoton told me how the organization grew. The group’s founder, a Jesuit priest named Jeff Putthoff, had been running businesses and providing care since 2000. When Putthoff introduced trauma-informed care, he did so in tandem with opening a residence down the block, dubbed Community Responds in Belief (or the C.R.I.B.). The C.R.I.B opened and went through some bumps shortly before Rhoton’s arrival.

Rhoton, who had worked with probationary youth in a Philadelphia jail and nonprofit, describes the C.R.I.B.’s messaging as blunt: “There was a sign on the door, saying, ‘If you’re here at 9:02 p.m., the gate is locked!’” Youth were dropping out, not finding work, eddying in their symptoms.

Putthoff and Rhoton agreed to find new ways to help their clients heal. They decided to stop slamming doors and turned to the Sanctuary model.

Sanctuary’s founder, the Philadelphia psychiatrist Sandra Bloom, sits on Hopeworks’ board. In a lecture you can find on YouTube, she describes the approach as one that discards labels like “broken” and “bad” and treats youth the way one would treat someone with an injury.

As Rhoton put the model into practice, Hopeworks staff worked one-on-one with young people to identify patterns—like Melissa’s outbursts—and evolve “safety plans” that the youth can turn to when they feel their emotions roiling. Melissa’s safety plan, Rhoton says, involved noticing when her fingernails were digging into her skin and then picturing her little sister.

Not that this change came easily. Instilling the Sanctuary approach required a two-year certification and a complete training for all staff. Some left. “When staff is dealing with vicarious trauma,” Putthoff says, “everyone has to own their own history of childhood events. When you make that move, you lose staff.”

But some employees recast their sense of mission. Everyone who stayed—from the web developer to the GIS veteran to Rhoton himself—had to create a safety plan and consent to “systems checks,” which means agreeing to slow down when a colleague calls you out on unproductive behavior.

The web design team works on client projects. (Hopeworks ‘N Camden)

Today, Rhoton says about $500,000 of the group’s $1.5 million operating budget comes from business income; the rest comes from individuals, foundations, and corporate gifts. The organization wants to grow while sustaining this percentage. But one factor capping Hopeworks’ earning outlook is that it never fires anyone. Youth go through a self-paced training in job skills; if they don’t find work, they can repeat training or work for the organization.

“If a youth turns out unemployable, that means we are not done working with them,” Rhoton writes in an email. “The best analogy is someone who has a broken leg. First we work to heal the injury (a cast, physical therapy, etc.). … Our youth have been hurt by the violence and trauma in their lives. Some heal fast, some heal slow, and some are really badly hurt. No matter what, however, we stick with them until they heal.”

Young people who thrive at Hopeworks often do GIS fieldwork, like mapping mains and gauges for the local water utility. On my visit, the GIS head Luis Olivieri saluted his corps for taking on more work faster than the employing partner, New Jersey American Water, had budgeted. By deploying teams of three youth to handle gear, Olivieri said, the team earned a renewal and went from inspecting six miles of water mains to inspecting 70.

Rhoton says the organization checks in monthly on outcomes that range from trainees’ employment to their savings and college completion. Hopeworks doesn’t act as a placement agency. It does, however, encourage youth to pursue long-term goals that they may be able to meet by working or retraining at Hopeworks.

Charlene, a young woman who toured me around the site, is using coding income to save up for social-work school. Chris, who just signed on as Hopeworks’ first full-time GIS technician, also wants to go into social work. “I was bouncing around from job to job before coming to Hopeworks,” he said. “I worked as a youth monitor in the summer, and in [parking]. Then I thought, I might as well give this a try.”

He finished training in less than nine months, discovering a love of maps and an ability to teach. Now that he has a full-time gig, he hopes to be a practicing social worker by 2027.

“I want to be able to say I’m giving back,” he said. And Hopeworks wants him to be able to say he’s earning a stable living.

*NOTE: Because of concerns about her privacy, CityLab has changed her name in the post.

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