CAMDEN, N.J. (AP) – Kristin Prinn was running around in sweats at a house on Federal Street, anxious but helpful as she led a tour of the new home for the nonprofit she founded a dozen years ago.
In just a few hours, the house would be filled with donors, volunteers, people from the East Camden neighborhood, friends and young people who took part in programs at LUCY (Lifting Up Camden’s Youth) Outreach.
For now, on a crisp mid-October day, Prinn was trying to make sure everything was set up: tables with food and drinks, Trek bicycles LUCY offers for its bike share, a projector and chairs for a presentation, envelopes with LUCY donation cards and “Camden Proud” Tshirts for sale.
Now, 12 years in, LUCY Outreach is moving into its own home after its beginnings in a nearby Catholic Church and later in a space donated by Virtua Health.
For Yoresmi “Beba” Lopez, LUCY was more than a place to go after school. It was a path away from”the wrong kids” she found herself hanging around with in high school, “a safe place to get away from everything I was dealing with at high school.”
It also was a lifeline to college, offering not only educational and college prep support, but also scholarships that enabled her to attend Camden County College, Rowan College at Burlington County and Rowan University.
Now living in Cherry Hill, Lopez felt so indebted to LUCY that she came back, first as a volunteer and now as its full-time, paid program coordinator.
Norma Molina, whose daughter Natasha went to LUCY’s after-school programs, was stuffing envelopes in the backyard of the new building, a two-story house near Woodrow Wilson High School.
The North Camden resident said her daughter gained social skills and got to have experiences she might not have otherwise through the nonprofit’s field trips.
“She loved being with kids her own age, talking with them,” Molina said.
“The friendships she formed while she was here … She met some of her best friends here, like you,” she added, smiling at Lopez.
Prinn recalled growing up in Boston, a teenage “troublemaker” who “had my challenges.”
A strong support system of family and friends helped her get back on track, she remembered, a kindness she wanted to repay by helping others. She went to college at St.
Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, found her calling in social work, then traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, where she worked with gang-affiliated youths as part of a Catholic mission. She learned Spanish, earned her master’s in social work, then resettled in Philadelphia.
She wanted to continue helping young people, which led her to Camden.
“It has that small-town feel,” she said. “It felt a lot like the communities along the border: Everyone was very welcoming and open. There’s a lot of diversity here, and there was a need for Spanish-language outreach, too.”
First established in 1985 under a Catholic Youth Ministry umbrella, LUCY reorganized in 2008 as a more culturally inclusive nonprofit, its mission meant to address challenges faced by Camden’s young people: the lure of gangs, the drug trade, homelessness, teen pregnancy and delinquency and substance abuse.
It turned $368,331 in revenue in 2017 (from grants, private and corporate donations and fundraisers) into after-school and summer programs, educational support, overnight trips, youth advocacy, scholarships, college prep and emergency assistance for about 500 children and teens in the city and beyond.
Many of the topics that come up in its youth nights geared toward ages 12 to 19 come from the kids themselves, so difficult subjects are tackled: sex, drug and alcohol use, LGBT issues. But it’s not all heavy lifting either, Prinn said. They’ll also host cook-offs among the teens, gather around campfires and talk about the same things as teens everywhere do.
The community has changed around it, with Camden becoming safer and new immigrant communities moving into the city, Lopez said. LUCY used to cater primarily to the Hispanic teens of East Camden and Cramer Hill, but now its reach extends to Asian and African American teens throughout the city.
“We’ve grown and diversified a lot,” she noted.
For Najir Lane and his younger brother Zimir, LUCY trips are a highlight. Najir, 13, said before he was shy and introverted. “But everyone here is so friendly, I feel better about being outgoing.”
Zimir, who’s 10, said the field trips, like one the “LUCY Littles” (ages 7 to 11) recently took to a local Sky Zone were “the only time we get to go crazy.”
For Trinity Allen, a 15-year-old from Fairview, LUCY offers her and her fellow teens”a chance to bond, to figure out things about ourselves and each other.”
She’s been going to LUCY since fifth grade, she said, and hopes to attend college in Florida or California, eventually becoming a surgeon and returning to Camden to give back.
That’s something Prinn likes to hear. “There’s so many incredible things going on here,” she said.”This has been such a welcoming community.
“I get to see the good all day.”