Hopeworks has trained 1,000 young people for tech jobs. Next up: a Kensington office

From its Camden headquarters, Hopeworks has trained and found jobs for 1,000 web designers, GIS analysts, and other budding professionals — most of them young people of color — since 2000.

The nonprofit organization expects to double the number of young people it can help following the addition of a new training center in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. The facility on J Street just off Kensington Avenue is set to open in December, thanks in large part to a $600,000 grant from GreenLight Fund Philadelphia.

“What we’re most excited about is the opportunity to help ambitious young people get ready to transform Philly,” said Hopeworks executive director Dan Rhoton. “We’re trying to help more young people qualify for entry-level jobs that pay a living wage, while also helping employers who need to fill those jobs.”

Felicia Rinier, executive director of the Philadelphia office of GreenLight, a Boston-based philanthropy that funds innovative, results-focused nonprofits in 11 cities nationwide, was moved by Hopeworks’ mission and enthused about what it can bring to Philadelphia.

“Hopeworks has energy and passion for the work they do. They’ve built partnerships with big companies like Comcast and have sustained such a positive presence in Camden for so long,” she said.

“Now they get to open their doors in another city.”

Opening doors has been at the heart of Hopeworks’ mission since it launched on North Camden’s State Street with a few PCs and a single server in 2000.

The nonprofit was established by three neighborhood churches and led by Father Jeff Putthoff, a Jesuit priest who set up small businesses within the organization. These firms continue to sell technical services to local clients as well as provide paid, in-house internships for Hopeworks trainees.

“We are not a company that has interns,” Putthoff told an interviewer in 2011. “We are a youth-development program that has companies.”

» READ MORE: Farewell to pastor who brought web development to Camden teens

Founded on State Street in North Camden with two staff members, four trainees, and an annual budget of less than $50,000, Hopeworks increased the number of trainees and partners until ”we realized that being in two houses on State Street was a bottleneck,” Rhoton said.

“We had all these employers who wanted to hire our young professionals, and we didn’t have space for more trainees,” he said. “So we worked harder, did more business for commercial clients, and raised more money.”

And in 2018, the organization moved to downtown Camden. It now has a staff of 40 and an annual budget of $4.5 million.

Hopeworks trainees hired for entry-level tech jobs earn an average starting salary of $43,000. The value of the opportunities for Hopeworks alums to build wealth, buy homes, and raise families is incalculable, Rhoton said.

» READ MORE: At Hopeworks, preparing city kids for jobs in a changing Camden

“I am 100% confident, not just because of the skills I learned, but the mind-set,” said Jared Bradshaw, 24, who grew up in Camden and Woodlynne and now lives in Somers Point.

A quality assurance analyst at Open Forge, a Philadelphia firm that develops, designs, and monetizes mobile apps, Bradshaw said he heard about Hopeworks from a friend. He began training — and earning a stipend — the day he was interviewed in 2018, and Open Forge hired him in 2019.

After Hopeworks staff observed Bradshaw’s flair for graphics, he was named to a newly created, in-house paid internship as a communications professional, which gave him a hand in designing promotional and program materials.

Another of Bradshaw’s essential takeaways from his Hopeworks experience was public speaking — whether to a roomful of people or during a job interview. “Because you have to present your projects to everyone at Hopeworks, I learned how to present myself, and how to share what I am capable of doing,” he said.

At its busy Camden training center, Hopeworks staff members said they teach not only hard skills such as website building, but also soft skills such as professionalism and preparation for job interviews.

Trainees include high school and college students and graduates, as well as those who have dropped out (classes on site provide opportunities to earn a high school diploma). Some have stable families and living situations, but others have faced challenges since childhood; some are reentering the community after incarceration.

So while expectations at Hopeworks are high, so is the level of attention and support provided to trainees who may not have gotten much positive feedback from a world too often skeptical of young people from under-resourced zip codes.

“Some people don’t have the built-in access that other people have,” said Lindajoy Jackson, director of business.

“For our young brown and Black people, who are capable, and work hard, some workplaces are still not accessible,” she said. “Hopeworks closes that gap. And that’s not a small thing.”

Trainees generally “need people who can help them with advocacy,” said Jay Jackson, who, as director of workforce solutions, helps develop and sustain partnerships between Hopeworks and partner companies including American Water and Subaru.

“My biggest role is to be a fierce advocate for our young professionals,” he said. “To place them in living-wage jobs is in our DNA. We’re not going to settle for anything less.”

Said Lawrence Burden, director of youth development: “Word of mouth is our greatest form of marketing. Our young professionals may be invisible to some [employers], but not to our partners. And we see our young professionals. They’re not invisible to us. We know them and we know what they have to offer.”

Hopeworks has enabled Ashley Peña of Camden and Courtney Wakefield of Pennsauken to get jobs with New Jersey American Water.

“When I came to Hopeworks, I was interested in science, but I wasn’t familiar with GIS. And now I love the work,” said Wakefield, 32, an operations specialist with the GIS (geographic information systems) department and works in New Jersey American Water’s Delran, Burlington County, office.

“I always wanted to work in the professional world,” she said, “and this is a whole new identity for me.”

Peña, 24, said she was inspired by Luis Olivieri, who directs the GIS program at Hopeworks and is a passionate advocate of the employment opportunities the technology can provide. Peña started as an intern and now works as an analyst at the water utility’s national headquarters on the Camden Waterfront.

“I was a very shy person, but Hopeworks has coaches and does mock interviews [with employers], to show young people how to dress, how to present yourself to get into the workforce,” Peña said.

The second oldest of seven siblings, she described growing up in Camden as “a struggle. I remember my sister trying to buy a house on $10 an hour.”

“And now I’m taking care of my family,” she said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do my whole life, and now I can do it.”

A living wage “is life-changing,” Wakefield said. “For people who live in places where there’s poverty, you don’t really think that dream is possible.”

Hopeworks’ expansion into Philadelphia is a $1.3 million investment.

Asked why the organization chose Kensington, Rhoton said Hopeworks “has found that the solutions to big problems are always with the people who are experiencing” them. The majority of the center’s staff lives within a half-mile of the site.

“The answers are in Kensington,” he said. “We see people there having success in [one of] the hardest places. Imagine what they could do with support.”

Rinier, of GreenLight, said Hopeworks will add to, and not duplicate, what is available in the human services ecosystem of Kensington. And the organization is already is making friends and creating partnerships in the neighborhood.

Adriana Abizadeh is executive director of the Kensington Corridor Trust, which buys local real estate and holds it for development or use by the community. She said Hopeworks complements her organization’s “collective neighborhood wealth-building” mission.

“The need is here, and their model has proven itself on the other side of the bridge,” she said. “Kensington is a logical next step.”

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