Meet Hopeworks: the Camden nonprofit offering GIS and web development training to youth

Meet Hopeworks: the Camden nonprofit offering GIS and web development training to youth

Recently, I was invited to tour Hopeworks ‘N Camden and had the opportunity to meet Executive Director Dan Rhoton and GIS Director Luis Olivieri. Hopeworks does truly amazing work in Camden and I hope you enjoy learning about their organization. My interview with Dan and Luis is below.  

What is the Hopeworks organization and what do you do?

Hopeworks ‘N Camden is a nonprofit that has been working for over 15 years with Camden youth.  Utilizing an advanced training curriculum in website design/development, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Salesforce, Hopeworks works with youth 14-23 to get back in school and find a safe pathway to their future using the Sanctuary model!   Recently, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce named Hopeworks ‘N Camden their 2016 Nonprofit Organization of the Year!

As part of it’s program, Hopeworks runs four businesses, offering a complete array of website design & development, along with online GIS mapping products, and a complete set of Salesforce implementation, optimization, training, and support offerings.  In addition, Hopeworks Youth Healing Team offers training and consultation to schools and nonprofits about working with youth and adults affected by trauma.  These businesses help to generate over 50 youth jobs a year.  

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Hopeworks and how GIS became one of the focuses of your training and client work?

In 1999, members of three churches in north Camden, the most blighted section of the city, came together and organized the Hopeworks program. Our original concept was to offer training to high school dropouts. During 2000, we formed a Board of Directors, hired an Executive Director, wrote grant proposals, and got startup grants from the Campbell Soup Company and the Society of Jesus.  In March 2000, we opened our doors to the first trainees and started our non-profit website design business.

Early in our experience, we learned three vital things. First, we saw that our youth needed more than training; they also needed help in setting goals, making plans, and sticking to those plans. Second, given the weak academic backgrounds of our Camden youth and the advancing complexity of website design, we realized they would need college degrees to get jobs in website design or other high-tech fields. Third, we confirmed that in-school youth needed additional motivation to stay in school.  

Thanks to Matt Grove, a Univ of Pennsylvania Grad student who loved GIS, volunteered and Hopeworks expanded its tech expertise from Web into GIS early in 2003.  Our clients have included the City of Camden, the EPA, and many others.

In 2012, we made another important discovery.  Training just was not enough.  Our youth were successful, but many more dropped out, did not complete the training, or were not successful in internships.  Technical training was not enough.  We also needed to help our youth heal.  Hopeworks made the decision to become a certified Sanctuary organization.  What does this mean?  It means we have radically shifted our values/priorities/interactions to a “trauma” framework.  

What do you consider to be your greatest successes relating to the GIS work you do?

The fact that our youth are able to collect and process data faster, more accurately, and more economically than professional staff is powerful!

Where do you see your organization, and specifically, the GIS team heading in the next five years?

Hopeworks has been invited to grow both in Camden and replicate our model regionally.  The next few years are exciting!

We would like to have a GIS Program that is recognized as a good alternative to traditional consulting services in the area of GIS.  We want people to know that when they hire our GIS Program at Hopeworks they can expect a very professional level of service, at a very competitive cost.  

How can members of the greater Philadelphia tech or GIS community volunteer their time or get involved in your work?

We have so many ways to volunteer, mentor, and support our work!  We need help to grow!

Even though GIS has been around for years it’s still a technology that is developing.  Keeping up with everything is very hard.  We could use people that can help us with trainings or just by volunteering time to help the GIS Team.  

One example of how volunteers are helping is our GIS Advisory Board, a group of well known professionals in the area of GIS from academia, government and industry. The board provides advice, support, guidance and recommendations which are key components for the development of the GIS Program at Hopeworks ‘N Camden. 

If you’re interested in volunteering, get in touch with Hopeworks! Also check out their upcoming hackathon on April 16th!

Lastly, what is your dream for Camden?  

We dream of a Camden where our youth are starting their own tech entrepreneurial ventures, healing both their families and their communities!