July 8, 2015 — After 16 years of changing the lives of at-risk youth in Camden, New Jersey, through Hopeworks ‘N Camden, Jesuit Father Jeff Putthoff is moving on. He leaves the technology training program financially sustainable and vibrant, having served over 3,000 youth since its founding in 1999.
Fr. Putthoff first set foot in Camden on a Stations of the Cross walk in 1994. There, he was struck by the attitude of the Jesuits already serving in the neighborhood. “They were engaged, they were on edge ... I loved their energy,” he recalled.
When he returned to Camden a few years later as a newly ordained priest, he learned of the town’s historically low high school graduation rates — less than 50 percent. Seeing an opportunity to serve the community, Fr. Putthoff sprang into action, founding Hopeworks.
The program provides both entrepreneurial and technological training for about 300 teens and young adults a year, equipping them to enter the job market with a set of valuable skills. Hopeworks has also created tech-based businesses.
Fr. Putthoff’s success comes from his dual approach to both the practical and psychological side of the youths he works with.
“When we look at the amount of stress and work it takes to get some of our youth to our door, it's courageous," he said. "It's heroic. And we don't always say it that way. We say, 'It would be good if you stayed in school.' We don't always recognize the depth of their challenges."
This holistic approach seems to be working: Close to 3,000 Camden youths have earned the equivalent of a high school diploma from Hopeworks’ in-house tutoring program. This year alone, the program helped 20 students enter college; overall, 200 Hopeworks youths have gone on to college. Those who don’t have found jobs at companies like Google. And about 30 percent of Hopeworks’ annual operating budget comes from businesses that students have created and run within the organization.
“We’re viable and sustainable,” Fr. Putthoff said. This gives him the freedom to step back, leaving the organization secure in the hands of Dan Rhoton, Hopeworks’ new executive director.
Next for Fr. Putthoff? He'll complete his fourth master’s degree, this one in organizational dynamics, at the University of Pennsylvania. “I have accomplished what I set out to do, helping to build a foundation and get the organization accelerating in the right direction,” he said. “So it’s a good time for me to explore new pursuits.” [Sources: National Catholic Reporter, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice]