Bringing hope to at-risk youth: Q&A with Jeff Putthoff, S.J.

Jeff Putthoff, S.J., is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Camden, N.J. for the last 18 years. He is the founder and outgoing executive director of Hopeworks ’N Camden, a youth technology program that teaches web design/development, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Salesforce Administration to youth between the ages of 14 and 23. Earlier this summer, Father Putthoff announced that he will step down from running Hopeworks but will continue temporarily in his role as founder.

Father Putthoff holds a B.A. in philosophy from Saint Louis University, an M.A. in English from Loyola University Chicago and an M.Div and M.A. in Theology from Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. He is currently studying at the University of Pennsylvania for an M.A. in Organizational Dynamics and is an AKRI consultant.

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He founded Hopeworks in 1999 as a response to the youth crisis in Camden, where over 50 percent of the population is under 18, only 25 percent of adults have a high school diploma and the per capita income is $5,700 a year. The public high school dropout rate is 70 percent in the city of Camden and 53 percent of all youth there are living below the poverty line.

On Aug. 6, I interviewed Father Putthoff by email about his work and the legacy he leaves behind at Hopeworks.

What difference did Hopeworks make to Camden during the 16 years you ran it?

In the poorest and most violent city of its size, we have been present. At a time in which so much pain is happening in our country around racism, wealth inequality, abuse and neglect, we created a community of healing and hope. We have a saying at Hopeworks, “Hope Is Sweaty,” and for 16 years we did just that. Hope is not some pill you take or a whimsical ideal—rather, it is a choice to be present, oftentimes when the future seems muddled and unsure. Hope is a daily decision that ultimately is to draw near to others, others who are often in extreme pain, and to be willing to share that space with them. Sharing the space is the beginning of hope.

How has Hopeworks grown and evolved during your time as founding director?

When we started, we were in one room with five computers. Today we have two buildings and work with between 250 and 300 youth a year. We have three social enterprises—website design/development, GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and Salesforce. Over the years, we have also had a video business and a computer repair business.    

What legacy do you leave behind at Hopeworks?

Legacy isn't really a word that I use. I was missioned to Camden and from that gift all of this flowed. For me, my time at Holy Name Parish as associate pastor and then as one of the founders of Hopeworks is directly connected to staying in touch with Jesus.  

Over the course of 16 years, we were innovative, present and sustainable. Besides the work with close to 3,000 youth, we were able to be in the black for 15 of those years and at the end of this last fiscal year, we had over a $3.5 million reserve. We were named nonprofit of 2016 by the Greater Philadelphia Chamber Of Commerce. We also just completed a three-year certification program to become a trauma responsive Sanctuary organization. That doesn't simply happen. Smart, competent people, working hard every day, made that happen.  

Innovation has been a key piece of the Hopeworks history. Can you elaborate on this?

Innovation is what has set Hopeworks apart from many other programs. From our inception, we have seen ourselves not as a program to find work for youth, but as a youth development program that is working for the future of our youth. We were started because of the ongoing youth crisis in Camden. The three founding congregations were struggling with how to respond to a youth population where up to 70 percent of their high school youth were dropping out of school. It is crazy.  

A key thing that we have learned in our work is about trauma. We shifted our program about five years ago to focus on "brain health" as it is clear that the exposure to toxic stress impacts the health of our youth's brains. The neuroscience is increasingly clear that such exposure leads to poor health outcomes. Using the ACES (Adverse Childhood Experience Study) we have adapted our program to help youth understand “what has happened to them.” This shift from “why” to “what happened” has had a profound impact on how we run.

Toxic stress is much like radiation: You don't see it, but the impact is evident. In a city like Camden, often referred to as America's most violent place and the poorest city of its size, this radiation makes our city a hot zone. People are impacted daily by the trauma and the trauma impacts them physiologically. We can now measure this impact better than ever. To be an organization that is healing, that responds to the injury, requires an understanding of trauma so that the people in the organization can be trauma-responsive in their work.

This responsive framework also means that we have had to grapple with how we as an organization have been impacted by the toxicity of the abuse, neglect, violence and poverty around us. In fact, a number of years ago, we came to a place in our development where we basically stopped liking our youth. Their behaviors—being late, aggressive and inconsistent—we saw as “bad behavior” that we needed to fix. We call this vicarious trauma—when an organization becomes irradiated itself.

However, we now understand that all human behavior “makes sense” and we understand the importance of our realizing how that behavior works for our youth. In fact, often such behavior is a way for a Hopeworks youth to survive. Of course, we want them to thrive—that is what God wants for all of us. In order to move from surviving to thriving, we have had to seriously work with brain health. The good news is that our brain is resilient; its neural plasticity is well documented. When we focus on the injury and on the healing that can take place, as opposed to behavior change, amazing things happen. 

Many programs seek out the youth who can make the program work. At Hopeworks, we have adapted our program to meet our youth where they are at and to help them first heal so that they can then take advantage of opportunity and move towards a future of thriving.

Some people burn out in social justice ministries after a brief period of enthusiasm. What kept you grounded and sustained during your years in this ministry?

I take serious the impact of toxic stress on me, the people I work with and the people I serve. This is not something that I was taught as a Jesuit. Rather, it is something that I learned on the job here in Camden and it really has become such an important part of Hopeworks.  

Often, I have found that people equate self-care with getting away from work, going on vacation, taking a break, etc. Self-care in this regards is episodic: We tend to go on vacation and then come back “refreshed” and gut it through, seeing how long that lasts.  

I have developed a different idea: I think about self-care like a bike tire. If you have ever ridden a bike with a low tire, then you know how much more energy you need to exert to get to where you are going. I think self-care is much the same. We need to keep our "tire" of self-care properly inflated so that we can do what we need to do. Tires are functional just as self-care is functional for our health. Good self-care helps us stay regulated and in prime shape to manage what comes at us.  

So for me, I have adopted a self-care plan called TIPSE—for Time, Inquisitiveness, Prayer, Sleep and Exercise. Under each of these categories, I have about three or four things that I can do throughout the week to help myself. For instance, under sleep, I have begun the custom of simply waking up and staying in bed for 5 minutes each morning. It is a simple thing, but for me, an important orientation to the day. Instead of jumping out of bed, I take some breaths and welcome the day. Simple, easy, but profound for me.

Under Inquisitiveness, I have to have one conversation a week with a good friend. Now, it isn't that I don't have conversations—in fact, I have lots of them. They often are functional—about work, projects, etc.—and important. They take time and often require a great deal of energy. However, I have found that if I make sure I have a conversation with a good friend, one in whom I can share what is going on, laugh, be curious, etc., then my “tire” stays inflated. The same is true under Prayer, where one of my practical items is to make a gratitude list.  

I do these and the other things on my list throughout the week. They are little adjustments that allow my “tire” to be inflated for whatever road I take. Obviously, sometimes the road can be bumpy or steep. At those times, I am especially grateful for a properly inflated tire of self-care that helps me encounter what is before me.  

What were some highlights of your time in this ministry?

There are so many highlights—like remembering when our first shipment of computers arrived and I realized that we were actually going to do this.  

Our first grant from Campbell Soup and the understanding that others had also taken up the mission—that was exciting.

Watching many youth attend client meetings, interacting with our clients with a sense of self-authority and pride.

Visiting so many of our youth who are out working—seeing Angel at Symantec, Sade at Google, Jordan working as an electrician, Frank who is in the Army travelling the world with his kids, Javier who is a carpenter, Mark who runs his own business while juggling his kids and family, Jose who is out looking for a job as a Salesforce Administrator. It makes me happy to see folks working so hard, taking up the opportunity that is before them.

I also think of many youth who I have seen display so much resiliency. I especially think of those who have gone on our Mexico service trip. The reality is that it doesn't have a lot to do with service—it is more of an opportunity to grow beyond Camden. For many, it’s the first time they have been on a plane or to experience being called “rich” by the folks they meet in Mexico! That is certainly world changing, an openness to growth that is spectacular.  

Perhaps most powerful, though, are the many youth who on a daily basis work hard to simply survive—to care for a brother or sister, to find a safe place to sleep, to grapple with a history of a parent who is not present. There are youth who have witnessed terrible abuse in the home and struggle to find enough to eat daily. So many Hopeworks youth stitch together daily survival. I am amazed at their courage, their strength and their vitality in the face of such adversity. Interacting with them was such a privilege and grace.

What were some challenges for you?

Seeing so much suffering every day was often numbing. A year ago, one out of every 75 people in Camden was assaulted. It is important to say the number, as often the daily details of life wash over me, and simply taking stock of how hard it is to live in Camden is important. Witnessing, being close to, accompanying the people of a community—a city—in which survival is the daily diet has been difficult.  

Privilege is different here. My experience of Camden is that the rules that exist outside of here are different. In Camden, it is not A-B-C-D-E but rather it is P-J-X-A-C. A life of survival means that the safety that others have, isn't here. The predictability that that safety entails is in short supply.   

I recall when a Hopeworks youth, Cory, was shot and killed only one block from the Ben Franklin Bridge—a bridge that carries some 50,000 people a day to Philadelphia. Nobody stopped; there was no outrage or even interruption in people’s busy days. Cory's death made me think about Christ's crucifixion, especially the Good Friday tradition of being quiet or reserved from 12:00 to 3:00 pm. In my family, my mom would always make us settle down during this time. That memory came back to me when Cory was killed, for the world didn't “settle down” but just kept on going.  I found myself wondering where I would have been in Jerusalem when Christ was crucified. Would I have been with him, near him? Would I have been in the market or the temple and not even known of his death? My privilege is that I choose who I stand with, while others often struggle to simply stand.  

A final challenge has been my experience of the diminishment of the Society of Jesus. When I came to Camden, we were 10 Jesuits in the city. I am now the last Jesuit here. I am troubled by this. I often wonder how comfortable we Jesuits have become with taking the Ben Franklin Bridge and bypassing places like Camden.  

How has your faith changed or evolved over the years?

I came to Camden because of an incident I had when I was here during my theology studies. During Holy Week, we were walking the Stations of the Cross through the neighborhood on Good Friday, and I remember coming up to a street corner—it was 5th and York. To this day, that corner is one of the worst corners in Camden. At that time, there were burned out buildings on three sides and a weed-covered old playground on the other.

I remember hearing the crunch of glass underfoot as we approached that corner. I don't remember which station it was. Folks lifted the cross in the air to begin the station and I simply had a powerful moment. I didn't understand how people were able to proclaim Christ from such brokenness. How were they able to lift the cross here, on this corner, where so much violence had happened? So much pain had coursed through these streets and yet they proclaimed Christ. I was filled with a desire to have the faith that they had, to know their God. It is why I came to Camden.  

That memory has been alive with me throughout my 18 years. I have found God in the people and in sharing in this community. It is a God of the flesh, an incarnate God who is present in the daily sufferings, flows and pieces of life. My faith has become so much more practical, so much more rooted in what happens with each of us. I have a deep sense of God caring about this place. 

In the Spiritual Exercises, in the mediation on the Incarnation, St. Ignatius asks us to prayerfully imagine the Trinity looking down upon the world and being moved by our lives. The Trinity is moved by what is seen and experienced. Then we are asked to experience the “Divine Leap of Joy” of knowing what is about to happen—the Incarnation. That very same joy—that anticipation of entering into history—has been very real for me here in Camden. Flesh has become the medium for encountering God, and knowing God's love for what happens to that flesh has been a life giving grace for me.

How do you pray?

I talk with Jesus and, over the last few years, Mary has also become so important. I love those two. It is important for me to have familiar conversation with them. Lately, I have been asking them a lot about their experience of suffering and loss. I wonder how it was possible for Mary to talk with those who yelled "crucify him, crucify him" after Jesus was raised up. Or I ask Jesus about how he was with the apostles when he first met them after he was raised. Was he upset at what had happened? Was he bitter? Did he ruminate on the betrayal? Both draw me in and have been so accessible to me. I find connections with them in their own lives and the sharing of our histories with each other.

Over and over again, my experience of prayer is not formulaic—it is fleshy. My salvation takes place through my own history, and asking Jesus about his history is a way that I encounter God and God encounters me. It is not that I seek to imitate Jesus; it is that I want to be connected to God as he was. That is, that all of my being be united with my creator. That connection, that intimacy, I find happening daily through familiar conversations with Jesus and Mary. 

How does your Jesuit charism influence the ministry you’ve done at Hopeworks?

Being a Jesuit for me is about being a follower, a friend, a companion of Jesus. It is talking with him and being influenced by him. Fundamentally, it is knowing that he is crazy about me and from that responding with him in our world. He wants the healing of the whole world and my being asked to be a part of that mission is what has propelled me forward at Hopeworks. Knowing him, my desire to be his companion is what drew me to Camden and it is what gave me my life for these 18 years living here!

In ministry to marginalized people, what have you taken from the words and example of Pope Francis, our brother Jesuit?

Pope Francis said that if you want to be a shepherd then you need to smell like sheep. I am working on being smelly!

What is your favorite Scripture passage and why?

I love the story of the hemorrhaging woman. First of all, I am amazed at her strength, her determination. Here is someone who has been in chronic pain for years, has worked hard to figure out how to get healed, trying all sorts of remedies and seeing anyone who possibly could help her. Her energy of survival is amazing to me—strong, determined and courageous.  

I am also amazed at the image of Jesus here. He is literally “oozing” healing. The woman just touches him and she is healed. There is no thought on the part of Jesus—as the Scripture says, “the power went forth from him.” Wow! What a God we have: One who is looking for any opportunity to heal us. Such a profound image of abundance in a place of such great injury as Camden is consoling and quite motivating!  

What do you hope people will take away from your life and work?

That God cares about their lives. That the history and flesh of their lives is sacred and claimed by God.

Any final thoughts?

The work has been hard but so good. I am different because of my time in Camden and I owe that to the many youth who have touched my lives and who have let me be a part of their own lives.  

I have also learned that social justice, without attention to brain health, won't bring about healing. Justice demands a great reverence for our own history and what has happened to us.  

Personally, what is really powerful about my own transition is that I found Jesus in Camden 18 years ago and now I find him on the move again. That transition was quite disorientating at first for me. However, I am clued in with him again and I have no doubt that there is another Camden on my horizon!

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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