Camden, NJ—Mark Lee first met Joe Wysocki when authorities raided Lee's home about 20 years ago. Wysocki was Camden Metro Police officer then.
Now Lee and Wysocki are friends, and were together on Thursday to speak to a group Camden City teenagers.
Lee, who was arrested by Wysocki and served 10 years in prison for selling drugs in North Camden, told the group of about 30 teens inside the center's chapel that he was just like them. when he met a man named “Cowboy.”
“He taught me how to sell drugs. But I didn’t realize I was selling drugs and giving him the money, because I had things — cars, clothes, status, girls,” said Lee. “But what he was doing was manipulating me because he needed my friends and I couldn’t see that."
“What they teach you on the streets, it comes easy. And sometimes it pays well, but you’re going to pay a heavier price. You can’t buy time, and you can’t make it,” said Lee.
Lee, Wysocki and the group of teenagers were at the Kroc Center as part of Project Guardian, an intervention program for the city’s youth started three years ago by the Camden County Police Department and Wysocki, now an assistant chief.
The program identifies at-risk youths in the city, and invites them to come to the Kroc Center and meet with members of law enforcement, clergy and social service agencies who will try and “give these kids the tools to go in another direction in life,” said Wysocki.
“You’re asking why are you here? You’ve been identified as at risk,” Wysocki told the teenagers. “What does that mean? You could be a constant runaway, you could be on the corner, associating with gang members, associating with people that are going down the wrong path and they already made their choice. But you have a choice in life, you have a choice in the services that we support here to help.”
Wysocki said that when the program was started in 2015, when one third of the city’s violent crimes were committed by juveniles.
“This is probably around our 10th Project Guardian that we’ve had, and you have to judge your successes in twos and threes,” said Wysocki.
He added that about 150 kids were identified by the Camden County Police Department and hand-delivered letters to the teens’ homes. Out of the group, “50 people you knock on their door and they get a letter from our deputy chief. And they say we are concerned about your child, and people shut their door. The other 50 say you have the wrong kid … and -then you have the other 50 who say that they’ll come,” he said.
Tim Gallagher, a social worker who runs the CASA (Camden Adolescents Striving For Achievement) program at Guadalupe Family services, has been involved in Project Guardian since it started.
“This is a big group today, I’m surprised there’s this many kids here,” said Gallagher.
Wysocki said that once the teens arrive at Project Guardian, they are handed-off to the social workers like Gallagher to work with them and provide them resources to “persuade them to leave the life that they are going toward and go toward a more successful future,” said Gallagher.
“For us, it's one-on-one, it's talking, its mentoring … it's kind of this continuum of care day-to-day, asking how can we help you be your best self,” he added.
According to Gallagher, roughly 65 percent of the children who participate “will have no further negative contact with the police after the program in the program.”
Another agency involved is the Center for Family Services, a Camden nonprofit that provides counseling among many other programs to help the kids.
“We get to know them a little bit,” said Judyann McCarthy, associate vice president. “Each one of my social workers is going to try and connect, and then we’re going to follow-up and we’re going to try to help them out.”
McCarthy said they’ll do things like make it easier to join a basketball league, or find them a job.
“You have to find what they’re interested in, and then you connect with them and you can build a relationship up,” she said. “I try to teach them their rights as a human being.”
Lee, who works for the city now, said it was bittersweet to have the opportunity to come and talk to the teens.
“In North Camden, you see people sitting on the porch again. When I was a kid, you know, it was a community. I ran most of those families out by selling drugs. Campbell’s soup closed, and it was hopelessness, and the drug era came in the 80s.
“If I can just help change their perspective, and say, ‘Believe that it’s worth it in here. Invest in yourself now so you can be that homeowner, you can be that guy sitting on your porch.’ It’s up to me to right the wrong, I can’t just say I did it, I paid my time. It’s a little deeper than that.”