CAMDEN, NJ — You wouldn’t know from walking down the 2700 block of Federal Street in East Camden, but nestled between a bakery and an H&R Block lies a new re-entry program with lofty goals.

“We’re still working on the signage,” PathStone instructor and program coordinator Darryl Thomas told TAPinto Camden. “But we’re here...make no mistake about it.”

The program was made possible through a $5 million federal grant from the US Department of Labor. The funds, $1 million of which will be dedicated to Camden locals, were awarded last summer for PathStone to expand its services nationwide in at-risk communities.

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Although PathStone set up their offices in Camden at the end of last year, it's only now in January that they're working to spread the word.

“We chose Camden for our New Jersey operations in order to bring hope to the city,” said Thomas. “We’re here for anyone touched by the juvenile or adult justice system, whether they’ve had some type of charges or said charges were adjudicated.”

According to a 2018 report from the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for qualified ex-offenders ages 25-44 was roughly 27 percent and 5.2 percent for the general public. The mere fact of having a record at all reportedly reduces employer callback rates by 50 percent.

The PathStone program, Thomas explained, is for any Camden residents 18-24. As of now of the 142 slots, only three have been filled as of this week.

Program benefits include educational and vocational assessment, high school equivalency classes, career planning, paid-vocational training, on-the-job training opportunities, resume development, job search assistance, interview preparation and other supportive services. 

The program also helps with drug and alcohol counseling and pays for entrants to take their GED.

PathStone, which is based in Rochester, New York, also set up operations recently in Oakland 

“Our goal is to help young people in Camden to become self-sufficient by removing any type of barriers they may have,” said Thomas, who noted that the program works to individualize the experience for participants. 

“They may need shelter for instance, so we deal with all their immediate needs first,” he continued. “We sit down with each one of our participants, and we work on both a long-term and short-term plan with them.”

Tyonna Johnson, 19 — one of the three participants currently in the program — said her first concern was her two-year-old daughter, Damonie Biddle.

“I heard about the program through a friend, and right now we’re working to find a good daycare center for her. This way I could focus on what I need to do,” said Johnson. “So far the program has been helpful. Everyone here is available even when it gets late, and they’ve pushed us a lot.”

A crucial year

The program also comprises placement and career service developers Carla Goldsboro and Soccoro Ortiz, as well as adult education instructor Belinda Gordon-Pelo.

Melanie Quinones, also 19, was recommended the program by her old probation officer.

“I joined the program to get my driver’s license,” said Quinones, who faced assault charges last year for an incident she didn’t go into detail about. “But I’ve also taken advantage of some classes here.”

PathStone also has offices in Pennsylvania, Ohio, as well as Puerto Rico. Its services extend beyond formerly charged and convicted individuals and also helps at-risk youth and senior citizens.

“We are trying to get as many people in as early as we can,” added Thomas. “Right now it’s been about getting the word out at local events, city meetings and online. The sooner we can get them in, the sooner we can start providing services.”

Thomas hopes to have the bulk of participants signed up for the program by June 20.

Between early and mid-2021, the program will have a follow-up with the state in order to determine whether the services have made a difference and are truly justified in the city.

Thomas added, “We know it's a need, it’s just a matter of doing the work in order to prove it. Even though we just got here, this really is an all-out-effort to create roots in the community and expand more in the future.” 

Anyone requiring PathStone's services can visit 2706-12 Federal St. in Camden, call (856) 283-0066, or visit pathstone.org/contact-us/.

In addition to participants, the Camden program is also currently in search of a Placement & Career Services Developer. Anyone interested should email apply@pathstone.org with subject line, “149-19.”