CAMDEN, NJ — Serving as a basketball coach at the age of 16 only struck N'namdee Nelson as something that was novel in hindsight.
At the time, he was working as both a coach and child care counselor at Camden’s YMCA on a volunteer basis.
“Only when I got older did I come to realize I was helping to coach players that were not that much younger than me. They’re now 36, 37, 38 years old. It didn’t hit me what I was doing...not only helping my community but serving in a leadership role for some of my very own peers,” Nelson, 40, told TAPinto Camden in an interview.
Nelson, who was born and raised in the city and lives in Whitman Park, attributes that level of maturity to the period of his life when he was a student while attending Camden Catholic High School. And, at home, where lessons came in abundance every day from a mother who taught in the Camden district for more than 30 years and a father, who owned retail businesses in the city.
“I had a great upbringing that I’ve seen pay off in so many ways,” said Nelson, who was elected as the Camden school board’s vice president at the end of May. “They made sure I had the best education, but also that I understand the power of being a positive leader. I honestly didn’t expect I’d be helping to teach kids...I saw myself in law enforcement but things have come full circle for me.”
Nelson took over the role from Minister Wasim Muhammad, who replaced Board President Martha Wilson following her death in April.
Coming up on almost two years since he began serving on the advisory board, Nelson says he’s optimistic when he sees improved test scores, lower dropout rates and “the sustainability of district schools” amid the growth of alternative forms of education in the city.
“There are still challenges, of course,” he said. “When it comes to the budget for one. I feel we need to get to a point each year, so we’re not in a position to have to carry out layoffs, since we have so many people as part of our staff and administration that do an excellent job in helping students.”
The Camden City School District (CCSD) announced its budget in May, which translated into a $5 million tax levy increase and over 30 layoffs. At the time, Superintendent Katrina McCombs highlighted that the district could have faced up to 250 layoffs, noting also that no school closures would be necessary.
School leaders are now in the process of collecting feedback from parents and other stakeholders regarding how to move forward in the upcoming academic year — as COVID-19 remains a threat.
But Nelson knows that helping younger members of the community extends beyond the classroom.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business and communications from Ursinus College and a master’s of public administration from Rutgers University, he and four friends started Phenomenal Entertainment in 2005.
The organization “used entertainment to engage young students” at schools throughout Camden. Ultimately it grew into Rising Leaders Global, which Nelson founded in 2008 in order to provide a wider breath of mentorship.
The Camden non-profit helps teenagers and young adults navigate their future through tutoring, employment training opportunities, financial literacy training, recreational opportunities and other community-based resources.
“Our focus has been children who want to better themselves, but also those with more challenging behavioral issues, kids that may be neglected, that have entered gangs or are dealing with issues at home,” Nelson said. “We’ve helped clean up streets, hosted community cook-outs and started a program helping to feed those in need too.”
Among the offerings still in their adolescence for Rising Leaders Global is their Youth Career Entrepreneurship Program. The program works with students as young as 6 to help create the building blocks for their career.
“As the pandemic got worse we transitioned online,” Nelson explained. “Our volunteers give so much of their time and you can tell it’s genuine, it’s like they were helping their own kids.”
Nelson says the connections his group and others like it in the city build between the youth and the older generation is crucial.
“People may be traumatized but because they seem normal we don’t think anything of it in communities like ours,” he said. “The youth can struggle with that and not reach out for help. That’s our job.”