The setting for this empty-nest, getting-close-to-50 adventure of mine is the poverty-ridden city of Camden, NJ. So easy to write that- and so easy to presume it’s always been this way and that it will always be this way – but my mom remembers donning white gloves to go shopping in downtown Camden in the 1950s. And it takes me only 15 minutes to get to work. 15 minutes to go from one of the wealthiest towns in the region to the very poorest. 15 minutes from one of the safest towns – I still walk my dog every night alone without fear – to the most violent. The disparity is disorienting. So far this year there have been 55 murders in this city of 77,000. If New York City had the same murder rate, to quote Father Jeff from Hopeworks, there would be 5,654 people dead – twice that of the World Trade Center bombings. In Chicago there would be over 1800. Father Jeff goes on to say:
“And yet, there is little outrage about Camden. It is rarely mentioned in the news nor by our political leaders at a local, state or national level…The difference is that unlike NY, Chicago, and many other big cities that face violence in the streets the entire city of Camden is poor. It’s not just poor, it’s immersed in poverty. Poverty that is endemic, piercing and devastating to the human spirit. Neighborhoods in Camden are broke — with crumbling infrastructure, abandoned houses and crime.
“Worse, though, is what this poverty means to the people who live here. Poverty itself is trauma-inducing and threatens the daily existence of life. People are evicted, electricity is turned off, there is not enough food and drugs are sold on street corners (Camden has an estimated 170 such corners). Compounding the trauma is the fact that these circumstances destabilize people and directly produce violence, which, in turn, results in even more trauma.” (Jeff Putthoff, S.J.: Trauma: The Silenced Poverty of Camden, NJ. The Blog, Huffington Post, posted 10/23/2012)
I went for a drive today with a student I have been teaching one-on-one through his last course, Life Skills. For the past 2 months we have been meeting twice a week or so to discuss healthy lifestyle choices, risk taking behaviors, healthy relationships, family life. (I do have to laugh sometimes – the risky behavior curriculum calls for discussing wearing a bike helmet. This student grew up around drug corners and is amazed he made it to 18) We have had thought-provoking discussions about gun ownership, the pressure to turn to selling drugs when there is no food in the house, and the right time of life to become a parent, among other things. I can’t put a value on the insights these discussions have given me so early in this wellness center process, and I can’t think of a better orientation plan.
Anyway, the goal of our drive was to visit the 55 crosses that have been planted by Hopeworks in front of Camden City Hall. Father Jeff had the crosses made when the murder rate kept climbing this year (when it hits 59 it will be the most violent year on record). I have attached a picture of what we saw. Each cross has the name and age painted on it. The youngest child killed was only 2 – there is also a 6 year old. Many are teens but many are in their 40s, too. When another guy from Hopeworks, Sean, spoke to the staff of UrbanPromise about this project, and he described how weird it was to have blank crosses in the basement, waiting to be painted. Not wanting another murder, but expecting one. My twisted mind immediately contrasted that with the other end of the life continuum – how we store what we need when a baby is expected. The sight of these crosses is really moving, and my student paused at one, recognizing the name of a friend.
There has yet to be a murder in Camden, since I started in September, that hasn’t touched at least one youth at UrbanPromise. Part of my orientation to UP has been to spend time at each of the after school programs. The week I was doing this followed the murders which occurred in a car filled with teens and youth at two of the after school programs lost cousins. These youth were calm and quiet as they spoke of their losses.
I have been reading about post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in youth. Literature breaks it down into two types – Type I is in response to a single episode of trauma, such as rape or witnessing domestic violence. Type II is in response to repeated and long standing abuse. But this is where it gets really interesting: Type II PTSD is also common in children who have been reared in violent neighborhoods, or war zones, whether or not they have been personally abused. It is also increasingly found in children who witness violence in the home or community. Symptoms of Type II PTSD include what you would expect – vivid memories, nightmares, hyper vigilance – and perhaps some you would not immediately expect – extreme passivity, dissociation, and the hallmark sign: a detached appearance, seemingly without feelings. Emotional numbness. Is that what I am witnessing? If so, how many of the youth in the UP schools and after school programs fall into this category? I expect the ones who can’t stay still, or who act out. But what about the quiet ones?
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