Camden community calls for public investment in healing for youth at Take Back Our Health forum

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By Shelby Kehoe

On November 7, community members, local experts, and government officials gathered at Rutgers University—Camden for a public discussion focused on youth trauma and behavioral health resources in New Jersey. The Camden Coalition’s Community Advisory Council co-hosted the event with Healing 10 —a cross-sector collaboration working to bring a trauma-informed model to the city of Camden — with the goal of building support for elected officials to redirect funds from youth incarceration to community-based programs that serve the behavioral health needs of Camden youth. This was accomplished by highlighting best practices for trauma-informed care and programs here in Camden and the surrounding areas.

The public discussion served as a culmination of our Community Advisory Council’s work this year, which focused on trauma-informed care through its Take Back Our Health initiative. The forum focused on the strategic reinvestment in community-based services for youth to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and improve the overall health of our communities.

James Williams, Manager of Community Engagement at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), emceed the event and tied the forum’s goals to NJISJ’s “150 Years is Enough” campaign seeking to transform the state’s youth incarceration system. James shared that New Jersey’s youth incarceration system has the worst black to white racial disparities in the country, and the city of Camden is the highest feeder into the youth justice system. In one year, he noted, it costs $281,000 for every incarcerated youth in New Jersey — funds that could be directed towards programs that support, rather than criminalize, youth.

Representatives from Hopeworks, Saving Grace Ministry, Youth Advocate Programs, the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, KIPP Cooper Norcross Academy, and Moms Demand Action spoke about their work with youth in Camden and the region. Charlene Newbill, Youth Healing Team Lead at Hopeworks, shared how her experience with the organization taught her to ask “What happened to you?” rather than “What’s wrong with you?” when working with others who have experienced trauma. Markeith Alvelo, a student at UrbanPromise Academy, provided a youth perspective when he shared the benefits of his education and participation in afterschool programming.

Charlie Vazquez, a graduate of our care management program, spoke about the trauma he experienced in his youth that he said led to his incarceration as both a teenager and an adult. Charlie emphasized that the availability of community-based behavioral health services and other programs, like those discussed at the event, would have allowed him to better process his trauma and could have changed the course of his life.

Following the testimonies, Todd Pisani of the Rutgers Youth Success Center presented next steps to push for the strategic reinvestment of resources in community-based services for youth. Suggested actions include engaging in local advisory and accountability bodies and reaching out to elected representatives.

A follow-up meeting to discuss next steps and potential joint fundraising efforts will take place on December 11 at 3:30 pm at the Rutgers Youth Success Center. Contact Nancy Pope-White at [email protected] for more information.

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