His Mission Is Saving The Youth Of Camden

Posted: November 12, 1991

Around midnight, Gordon Sunkett stepped out of his white Dodge compact into a sea of youthful rage.

Fifty kids, still smarting about an earlier confrontation with police, swarmed in the darkness outside Riverview Towers.

Some of them tried to pick a fight, and Sunkett charged at the loudest, a torrent of fast talk smothering the youth's attempts to incite his friends.

Then there was a flash of recognition. "That's Sunk!" one of the youths shouted. "I'll vouch for him. I used to box for him."

A tense situation quickly dissolved, as often happens when "Sunk," about 5-foot-11 and well over 200 pounds, wades in. The youths continued to grumble about their run-in with the police, but, for a moment, they were apologetic and respectful.

Respect for Gordon Sunkett, 33, has been growing in Camden. He is recognized on drug corners by leaders of several drug posses. He is familiar in Council chambers and boardrooms, where he is seen increasingly by politicians as an advocate for Camden's troubled young people.

Two weeks ago he climbed into the lenses of the media by clambering up a six-foot platform and refusing to come down unless Camden officials agreed to his plans on how to thwart violence in schools.

And even one of the targets of his platform protest, which he abandoned after two and a half days when he got a promise of help, has plenty of respect for him.

"He's, in my opinion, sincere and committed to improving the quality of life for youth in the city of Camden," said Camden Police Chief Bob Pugh.

"Sometimes going through channels is not the best way to attract attention to your cause. He's taken a definite stand on violence, putting himself on the line. A chicken can give egg after egg without commitment, but the pig's got to give up the ham. Sunkett is giving up the ham."

Councilwoman Gwendolyn Faison, who has felt the heat of Sunkett's appeals, said Sunkett had helped to clear teens off a drug corner in her neighborhood.

"I'm not going to knock the police," Faison said. "They have been helpful. But there's only so much they can do. They'd come riding through and the kids would leave and come right back." Then she asked Sunkett for help.

"He talked to the kids, and do you know the corner has been quiet the last two nights? I don't say they won't be back. But he has a rapport with the kids. He has taken the time to communicate with them."

Despite the admiration, helping Sunkett is a problem for the city's overburdened budget, said Mayor Aaron A. Thompson. But "these are hard-core guys he's dealing with," Thompson said. "He's trying to stop the killing, and we're certainly going to work with him."

During Camden's "Mischief Night" last month, Sunkett and a former correctional officer cruised the streets trying to keep the situation from getting worse.

Sunkett, with the aid of retired correctional officer Ali Sloan-El, has founded and bankrolled an organization called Stop the Violence-Save Our Kids. He accepts donations, but most of the money, he says, comes from investments he has made over the years and from rent on houses he owns in Camden.

"My personal goal," Sunkett said, "is that I want parents to see me and join in with me to do what I do. Reach out to the kids, walk the blocks. You see some kids doing something bad, get out of your car. Act like it's your kids out there. Because it could be. I see these kids when the parents don't. My purpose is to help and be consistent with it. . . . If I can win them over and not have them prejudge me, then that's half the battle right there."

Over the summer, Sunkett held a basketball summit in Camden. He says he used his own money for the games.

In September, Sunkett held a Save Our Kids festival in South Camden for hundreds of local youths - a rarity in a city with few activities for 31,000 people under 18.

When he rides the streets of Camden, Sunkett does arm himself - with righteousness. He patrols the streets as if each teen were his own child.

"I better not catch you on the street when I come back through here," Sunkett warned one baby-faced 14-year-old out after curfew. He chased away others he spotted banging on the window of a Camden business.

When he pulled up to a drug corner, at Sixth and Line, a dozen members of the Sixth Street posse walked up offering drugs for sale until they recognized Sunkett. They quickly changed the conversation to job-hunting and whether Sunkett was going to have another basketball tournament. One youth asked whether Sunkett could help him get into school once he served his scheduled jail time.

Later, Sunkett spotted a group of out-of-town teens cruising the streets after making a drug buy. Sunkett tailed them into Collingswood. Usually, he says, he blinks his lights, pulls the youths over and tries to warn them not to come back to Camden to buy drugs.

Sunkett says he does not have a permanent job. Though he prefers to keep his finances private, questions have been raised by members of the community. Sunkett acknowledged at a recent school board meeting that some people have accused him of doing what he does for personal gain - one demand he made to the school board while on the platform was that the board hire him as a consultant.

"That hurts me," he said a day after the meeting. "It's hard to get over that people believe that about me."

Sunkett says he does what he does because he loves Camden and its youth.

He was once one of them. A 1976 graduate of Camden High School, where he was a standout football player, he later majored in business administration and marketing at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he also starred in football. After graduating in 1981, he became a defensive lineman in the U.S. Football League.

He said he was depressed after the league folded and decided to join the Marine Corps. He returned to Camden two years ago after he was discharged.

"I want to make a difference here in Camden," Sunkett said as he drove past the graffiti-scrawled walls of East Camden, along streets that were now mostly deserted. "I hope when the man upstairs calls me - when people talk about Gordon Sunkett - the first thing that comes out is that he loved kids and that he helped those less fortunate than himself."

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