Editor's note: This is the last in a series of profiles on newly-elected members of the Camden City Council and School Advisory Board. The series also features Nyemah Gillespie, Shaneka Boucher, Victor Carstarphen, Falio Leyba-Martinez, and Felisha Reyes-Morton.
CAMDEN, NJ — Elton Custis’ parents have both played pivotal — if disparate — roles in his journey as a leader in Camden, which recently culminated in winning a seat on the Board of Education.
His mother, Nazel Custis-Combs, was a “pillar” for him growing up in Parkside.
“And not just me, for my siblings and all the kids from the neighborhood she took in too. Whenever somebody is in need my mom is the first one on the scene,” Custis told TAPinto Camden during an interview. “To this day too, we gather every Sunday and everyone comes over. We sit around and share. We always try to set up a goal every week for something we want to overcome or accomplish.”
Custis-Combs, a single mother for Custis growing up, had at one point held three jobs to support the family with the help of grandparents and other relatives.
Custis explained that when he was 13, his father, Elton Phillips, faded from his life due to issues with drug addiction.
Years after he re-entered it when he was starting college around the age of 18, Custis would begin to take steps into a career in mental health — helping individuals dealing with their own issues with addictions.
“I’m proud to say [my father’s] twenty-one years clean today and I do believe he is the driving force for what I do in helping others get back on track,” Custis said, noting that he speaks over the phone with him every Saturday.
Now that he’s on the school advisory board, his first time in public office, Custis said he wants to apply the lessons he’s learned from both parents to better the futures of Camden school children.
In large part he wants to alleviate any internal hardships children may be keeping to themselves.
“We have a stigma about mental health in the community. No one wants to talk about it. No one wants to reach out for help. People say ‘get it together’ but depression has no name, bi-polar [disorder] has no color. These things are pivotal in anybody’s life so we have to learn to lighten the burden,” Custis said.
Custis in every class
Any classroom in Camden would benefit from having a fifth-grade version of Custis, he joked.
Back then, he recalls he and other Parkside students being unsatisfied about the lunch options.
So what did he do? Start a petition.
“I’ve always been mature for my age and I’ve always been outspoken,” Custis explained. “I never let anyone talk down to me. I didn't care what role you were in...even with my family I was challenging, which I admit got me in trouble sometimes.”
Like the students that surrounded him in elementary school and motivated him to take action, Custis said something similar could be said about running for school board last year.
He’d had previous runs, in 2009 for mayor and around 2013 for City Council.
When the opportunity to run for a seat representing schools arose — it being the first time the school board would be elected instead of appointed — Custis said he was hesitant at first.
I soon realized, “this was an opportunity for us to really have a voice as far as what the Camden School District needs to do,” Custis said. “I would say the community led me into running and looking back…[I’m] happy that was the case.”
Custis has helped inspire up-and-coming Camden advocates with other initiatives locally as well such as the Daelight Foundation, the Camden We Choose Coalition and Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, Inc.’s Zeta Rho Sigma chapter.
“The city has been silent for so long. We have been told who our next leaders are going to be and now it delights my heart to see more young people stepping up,” Custis said. “We need more of that.”
Note: This interview was conducted prior to the coronavirus outbreak. Anyone in Camden seeking help with their mental health can view services here.