Helping Camden's Kids Make the Right Moves

by Jerry Carey

They say that every journey begins with a single step, but what if you are a kid from Camden and yours is the journey from childhood through adolescence and on to adulthood? For a lot of Camden's children, those steps have to avoid obstacles — like drugs, violence and gangs — that their peers from the surrounding suburbs would never encounter.

David DiCaprio is a third-year student at SOM from Cherry Hill, NJ. Although Cherry Hill is just a few geographic miles from Camden, from a socio-economic standpoint, the two towns are light years apart. Today, DiCaprio spends much of his spare time in Camden, helping the kids there learn some steps he picked up in college, steps he hopes will help them chart a safe and productive course through their teen years.

"I started PAYO during my first year at SOM because I wanted to bring something new to the table that would really engage the kids and appeal to their creative sides," DiCaprio said. "A lot of programs donate books or supplies to Camden's children. That's great, but PAYO is meant to be more dynamic and be more attuned to their interests."

DiCaprio was inspired to create Positive Alternative Youth Outreach (PAYO) shortly after he arrived at SOM in 2009.

"There is a high drop-out rate among high school students in Camden despite the fact that schools have progressed very far in terms of what they can offer their students," he said. "Far too many kids end up in gangs or involved in drugs because there's not enough support structure at home or socially. PAYO's goal is to help the children of Camden by diverting them away from negative influences while providing a positive outlet for their leisure time."

As an undergraduate student at Rutgers, DiCaprio was a member of a hip-hop dance troupe and was involved in opening a building that was designed to provide free dance lessons to students in Newark, NJ. That building became a refuge from the streets where area children could learn dance and develop their artistic skills.

That experience, along with DiCaprio's love of dance and enthusiasm for helping others, led him to create PAYO. He originally brought PAYO to individual schools, but the program has now found a home at the Boys and Girls Club of East Camden. That has helped the program, which now boasts nearly 30 SOM students among its ranks, to stratify and expand its offerings.

"My expertise is in dance and music, and other SOM students have brought their passions to the program," he said. "Along with programs in art, music and cooking, SOM students help with tutoring and a 'job ready' program that helps older kids learn the skills they need to land a job."

With the help of Project REACH (Revitalizing Education and Advancing Camden's Health), another SOM student-run program, PAYO recently secured a grant that has been used to purchase a number of musical instruments for use at the Boys and Girls Club.

DiCaprio hopes to stage a talent show in 2012 that will highlight the talents of the Camden students who are enrolled in the program.

Three years after it began, DiCaprio believes that PAYO continues to flourish because of the passion for service and the arts that the SOM student volunteers bring to the program.

"We all have something to offer to these children, whether it is a skill or just the donation of time to serve as a role model or mentor."