A Willing Hart

There was José, who played soccer with more joy than skill and now drives a cab through the gritty streets of Camden, N.J. He still stops by the field at Dudley Grange Park on Saturday mornings, to grasp hands with teammates from the old neighborhood. There was Michael, who joined the Air Force and was stationed in the Oklahoma flatlands. On his first leave, he drove straight to the field, only afterward heading home to see his family. There was Zaheer, a focused kid who landed an internship in the offices of a major bank. He’s studying for his M.B.A. and hasn’t been in touch since summer break.

Then there was Frankie.

On a street corner in Camden, N.J., Rutgers psychologist Dan Hart ’78 talks with two boys during a tree planting project organized by Hart’s youth group, STARR. Photograph by Bill Cramer.

Flicking through a photograph album of city kids who have participated in his soccer-based youth group, Camden STARR, Dan Hart ’78 stops at a picture of a round-faced, dark-haired boy. The circumstances are murky, but the result is clear: a shot to the head left Frankie with a bullet lodged in his neck. “But he’s still alive,” says Hart, finding the hope — always finding the hope — in a city where being a kid can be heartbreaking.

Just under 80,000 souls inhabit Camden — named the most dangerous city in the country two years running — and more than one-third of them are children under 18, compared with one-quarter across the nation. Hart, a professor of psychology at the Camden campus of Rutgers University and the director of its Center for Children and Childhood Studies, can talk long and passionately about the implications of Camden’s “youth bulge.” He’s done the research: Growing up poor in a youth-saturated community affects everything from personality to moral identity to civic engagement.

Camden’s kids are more likely to live in poverty, die in infancy, be born to unwed mothers, fail statewide tests, drop out of high school, or enter the juvenile justice system than children in other parts of the state. There is much to be done if these children are to get a shot at happy, productive adulthoods. And there is much being done to improve their odds, thanks to Hart, his wife Deborah Kupetz Hart ’77, and a network of Bates students and alumni who share his dedication to Camden STARR.

It’s 8:45 on a peerless Saturday morning in October, and Dan Hart has a mental checklist of the kids who called last night for a ride to the soccer field. The ride takes the form of an ungainly Rutgers shuttle bus, which lurches through Camden’s 19th-century lanes with Hart clinging gamely to the steering wheel. At one faded row house, he expects to find Che-Che; instead, Che-Che’s brother Luís — 16, cornrowed, and groggy with sleep — appears at the door. He clambers aboard the bus, explains that Che-Che spent the night at a cousin’s, and agrees taciturnly to ride along for the day. Dropping into the front seat, Luís looks down at his feet. “Man, I got two different shoes,” he mutters.
Hart glances at the sneakers — one blue, one white. He also notices that Luís has a court-issued monitoring device strapped to his ankle. As the boy sprints off to retrieve matching shoes, bounding back up the steps, Hart, whose dry humor often doubles as a defense mechanism, deadpans, “An ankle bracelet — the latest in Camden must-have jewelry.”

After completing a loop through the Camden streets, Hart heaves the bus to a stop at Dudley Grange Park, spilling nearly a dozen kids onto the field, a scrappy expanse of weeds, chain-link fences, and graffitied walls. From all directions, another 20 or so neighborhood kids, ranging in age from 5 to 18 and overwhelmingly male, converge on the park, mingling with the other STARR volunteers, including Dan’s wife, Deb, their son Matt, and a pair of Dan’s Rutgers students. Also on hand is Dan’s friend and research colleague, Bob Atkins, co-director of STARR and an assistant professor of nursing at Rutgers.

Hand clasps, shoulder punches, and full-body hugs are shared all around, with the adults as likely as the kids to be the recipients. In return, Dan and Deb offer quiet encouragements and gentle admonitions — “Shaquin, did you make the football team?” “Jonathan, are you working on that book report?” “David, there’s a pair of shoes for you to try on” — that reveal just how intimately they know these kids. What started as a pickup soccer league for students at East Camden Middle School, where Atkins was once the school nurse, has evolved into a full-fledged — if rough-edged — youth program called Sports Teaching Adolescents Responsibility and Resiliency, or STARR.

“We want to keep it loose and informal,” says Hart, “otherwise we’ll lose these kids.” Life for children in Camden is fluid and unpredictable — Che-Che, for example, has moved five times in as many years — and that’s why STARR rolls with the punches, too. Attendance is voluntary, participation is discretionary, and recriminations aren’t made against no-shows. “Not many youth programs are geared toward the realities of being an inner-city kid,” says Vanni Thach ’06. A Camden native who was introduced to Bates through her participation in STARR, Thach now mentors her hometown peers, sometimes bringing along her friend David Thomazy ’07, of Houston. “We all come from a very rough background where there’s nothing sturdy,” she says. “If you give us rules, we’re going to break them.”

At the same time, these kids desperately need structure and support, a landing strip for untethered lives. In the harsh socioeconomic climate of Camden, parents are too often absent or overwhelmed. Consider that 19 percent of Camden’s kids live with relatives other than parents, 23 percent of Camden’s babies are born to teenage mothers, and 40 percent of Camden’s youth grow up in homes stressed by drug or alcohol abuse.

Kids without strong, responsible parents yearn for interaction with adults who supplement the role of authority figures, says Hart. Think suburbia, and its plethora of soccer coaches, art teachers, neighborhood moms and dads — adults who shape children’s ideas of life’s possibilities. Then consider Camden and its high population of young people. For example, in Camden there are two adults for every child, while in nearby and affluent Cherry Hill, there are three adults for every child. Furthermore, adults at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale — those with less education, income, and leisure — aren’t as likely as those at the top to donate time to children. Hart and Atkins have estimated that small, youth-saturated cities like Camden would need to hire 250 full-time youth workers to equal the manpower donated gratis by volunteers in the suburbs.

“Over the long range, Camden needs to succeed in becoming an economically attractive place to live for a heterogeneous population of young families, middle-aged adults, and older residents,” says Hart. “In the short term, it would be helpful for adults in suburbia to provide some of the social capital that’s missing.” Early on, Hart and Atkins, both residing in the suburbs of South Jersey, saw the potential to transform STARR from a group that plays soccer to a program that increases life chances. By creating a group history of experiences shared and relationships sustained, STARR could provide a counterweight to the kids’ destabilized lives.

With the support of private donors, the Harts and Atkins orchestrate a slate of activities: charity fund-raising walks, back-packing expeditions, turkey-basket giveaways, whitewater rafting trips, and — the highlight of the year — the annual weeklong camp adventure at Burke Mountain in Vermont. Twice the Vermont excursion has included a stopover at the Bates campus, where the kids caught a soccer game and — not incidentally — were exposed to the possibility of college as a life option. But the Bates connections don’t stop there.

“Without the help of friends from Bates, year after year, STARR simply wouldn’t be able to survive,” says Dan. Indispensable volunteers Dori Carlson Reinhalter ’78 and Mark Reinhalter ’78 and their three children have braved Burke Mountain — not to mention the chaos of a dozen or more city kids in the country — each of the past five years. Their involvement in STARR has deepened, encompassing canoe trips, back-to-school shopping, and donations of sporting goods and athletic gear. And then there was the year that the Reinhalters opened their home in Silver Spring, Md., to STARR during a road trip to Washington, DC. “Luckily, they really like kids,” laughs Dan. A second Bates family — that of Dan’s brother John Hart ’83 — also chaperones the Vermont trip.

Then there’s STARR board member Bill Tucker ’67, a colleague of Dan’s on the Rutgers psychology faculty. Last year, while attending the annual Christmas Eve ice-skating party, Tucker learned that two brothers would be receiving no presents the next day — their mother, a single parent, could not afford any. Remembers Hart, “Bill teared up, went shopping, and delivered Christmas presents to the boys’ mother that very evening.”

Bulldozers hoist 15-foot-high saplings and lug them down the middle of South 24th Street, trailing a small army of children with shovels balancing on their shoulders and work gloves flopping off their hands. The STARR kids have abandoned soccer this Saturday to join other community groups in planting the donated trees throughout the neighborhood. Planted at even intervals along the sidewalk, mulched and bordered with ornamental edgings, the trees transform the streetscape. Residents gather on their porches, the pleasure of the unexpected lighting their faces.
Through volunteer service and shared activities, STARR captures the energy of youth, gives it a positive spin, and releases it back into the community, says Hart. “Drive through Camden and you will find streets that are overflowing with kids. There’s an exuberance and a vibrancy on these streets that you just don’t find in many places.”

Indeed, in a series of studies, Hart and Atkins found that “youth bulges” — a disproportionately large cohort of 16- to 25-year-olds within a community — are usually associated with high levels of civic engagement. That association disappears, however, when poverty and its attendant social ills conspire to limit kids’ opportunities to play sports, join clubs, and do volunteer work. Kids bereft of interaction with socially engaged adults may find surrogates in other misguided peers, with consequences like antisocial behaviors and juvenile delinquency. “It’s energy,” says Hart. “The question becomes, does that energy get channeled in a positive or a negative direction?”

At the center of the pair’s research is the interaction between personality and neighborhood environment and its influence on how children develop their moral and social identity. When kids grow up fatherless and impoverished in a high-stress home environment, they often adopt maladaptive coping behaviors that can literally transform their personalities. Even upbeat and cooperative children may become defensive and aggressive — a personality type associated with academic and behavioral problems. Instead of giving up on these kids, says Hart, society needs to “focus on the things that encourage positive development in children, like interaction with supportive adults and the opportunity to engage in altruistic behaviors like volunteering.”

But are the ideas they explore in their research borne out in the lives lived by STARR kids? There’s no reliable way to answer that question, even in a well-designed research study, say Hart and Atkins, so gut feelings and small victories will have to substitute for hard data. Atkins recalls a recent trip to a buffet-style restaurant, where one 14-year-old marshaled a half-dozen run-amok youngsters into a well-organized line that efficiently maneuvered through the food stations. “That was gratifying,” beams Atkins. “I watched him taking care of the little ones and thought, ‘Man, this really is working!’”

Temperamentally more cautious than his younger colleague, Hart has a tendency to downplay the sway of the STARR program. Just as in any community, he notes, Camden has its share of happy children who live in stable homes, do well in school, and meet life’s challenges with confidence and resilience. “Some of the kids do need us,” he says, “and some come out just to play soccer and talk trash.”

Trees planted and shovels stowed, the STARR kids file back onto the bus and jostle for the best seats, their exuberance undiminished by a morning of hard work. Hart assigns Anthony the responsibility of taking a head count and, with everyone present and accounted for, reaches for the gearshift. Just then David appears at the driver’s side window. He’s made his high school’s soccer team, but with two parents on disability, he doesn’t have the money to suit up. “Coach Hart,” he says, “Those shoes Coach Atkins gave me, they don’t fit.”

Hart absently taps his fingers against the steering wheel, lips lightly pursed. Back home in suburbia, the approach of fall means a thousand little chores. Hart casts about for a scrap of paper and a pen, then reaches out the window and places the slip in David’s hand. “Here. I’ll be home in half an hour. Call me, and we’ll figure something out.”

Freelancer Lori Chambers writes for university magazines and the higher-education market from an old red barn in Metuchen, N.J. A version of Chambers’ story previously appeared in Rutgers Magazine, and is reprinted here, edited by the author, with permission. The names of some children have been changed.