In Camden, a lesson in the power of friendship

"I would have dropped out" without Jamil Miller (right), said Kevin Ruiz (left). Miller returns the compliment: "To be honest, I think I would have gone down the wrong path." The two have been friends since fourth grade.
"I would have dropped out" without Jamil Miller (right), said Kevin Ruiz (left). Miller returns the compliment: "To be honest, I think I would have gone down the wrong path." The two have been friends since fourth grade. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 21, 2012

Jamil Miller's mother won't be there to see him when the aspiring cardiologist graduates from Camden's Dr. Charles E. Brimm Medical Arts High School second in his class on Wednesday.

Instead, Miller will mail a DVD of the ceremony to the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in Clinton, N.J. That's where his mother is serving a seven-year sentence for robbery.

His father won't be present, either. He died in a car crash when Miller was 5.

But Kevin Ruiz, his best friend since fourth grade, will be there, graduating with him.

Ruiz, who says he intends to become mayor of Camden and has had more than his share of hard times, will listen with pride as Miller - "my boy" - gives his graduation address.

Also on hand will be Camden district Deputy Superintendent Reuben Mills and health teacher Karen Borrelli, mentors who over the years have given many hours of their personal time to get the two 18-year-olds from Cramer Hill to this day, a milestone many of their peers never reach.

The friends have been accepted to college, Miller to Rowan University and Ruiz to Rutgers-Camden. And even in their moment of triumph, there is a shadow: Neither is sure how he will cover all his college costs.

But as anyone who knows them will tell you, Miller and Ruiz would not have gotten this far without each other.

"I would have dropped out," Ruiz said.

"To be honest, I think I would have gone down the wrong path," said Miller.

Like the celebrated friends in the book The Pact, about three young men who made it out of Newark, N.J., Miller and Ruiz vowed years ago to help each other reach their dreams.

Their brotherhood has sustained them through family strife, financial woes, academic challenges, girlfriend troubles, and the sheer struggle of trying to grow up whole and strong amid the lures, snares, and dangers of a place like Camden.

"They are two very fine young men," said Mills, who has mentored them and other black and Latino males in the city's schools.

Borrelli looks after them like family, providing guidance and support, sometimes even financially. The boys' shared strength amazes her, she says.

"They've learned to be empowered, to only depend on certain people and on each other," Borrelli said. "They understand each other's strengths and weaknesses, and they utilize them."

It all started for the two then-chubby kids at Camden's H.C. Sharp Elementary.

"There was this new guy, Kevin Ruiz," Miller recalled. "Everybody was curious about the new guy."

Ruiz had just arrived from Jersey City. His mother, who had moved her family from their native Dominican Republic, wanted to leave behind what he describes as "a violent divorce."

Miller can't remember how they got talking, but they clicked fast.

"We were always very competitive," he said.

Dodgeball and relay races at first. Later, academic pursuits. What they were really doing, they say now, was challenging each other to do his best.

They couldn't have been more different. Miller was bookish, contemplative. Ruiz was a talker and a doer. Yet their bond grew, a respite from parts of their lives that weren't so right.

"We didn't have to say much. We always knew I had his back and he had my back," Ruiz said.

And they made each other laugh. One time Ruiz led Miller and a few other kids into the wilds of Pennsauken to go fishing. They walked for miles. Somebody lost a shoe in the mud.

"It was just crazy, but we had so much fun," Miller said. "Nobody caught nothing but a stick."

In sixth grade, at Veterans Memorial Family School, the boys met a woman who would have a huge impact on their lives, Aaryenne White. She would be their science teacher until they graduated from Veterans.

White could see Ruiz was as bright as his studious friend, but he was so angry.

"Teachers were afraid of him," White said.

Seizing on his interest in science, she promised Ruiz opportunities - science fairs, robotics - if he would behave. And she kept her word. When it came time for high school, White recommended the boys to the science-oriented Brimm, one of the city's three magnet high schools.

Despite making headlines several years ago in an test-score-rigging scandal, Brimm is a standout in the exceedingly low-performing district. Its graduation rate is 92 percent. At the city's general secondary schools, Camden High and Woodrow Wilson, the rates are about 45 percent and 55 percent, respectively. Brimm offered Miller and Ruiz a shot at success, and they intended to take it.

Freshman year, the pair was assigned to read The Pact, the story of boys who vowed to help each other transcend their ghetto roots. They went to the same college and eventually became doctors.

Miller and Ruiz, who at the time both wanted to be doctors, decided that would be their story, too. They would be "a pact of two," Miller says.

And something else happened: They ended up in a health class with Borrelli.

In one segment, Borrelli taught how animal cruelty relates to domestic violence. It struck a chord. Later that year, Miller and Ruiz and some fellow students came up with an ambitious idea for a project in Brimm's health fair: a food bank for poor pet owners.

And they made it happen. They got sponsors, advertised, collected loads of pet food. On fair day, people formed long lines to pick up the food they gave away.

"We really blew it up," Ruiz says, proudly.

Thus, Brimm's Chow Hound House was born. Borrelli helped them secure a lawyer who got them nonprofit status. Ruiz is Chow Hound's president, and Miller is its vice president. Former school board member Jose Delgado and activist Dwaine Williams are advisers. The project has held several giveaways. It has even worked with Camden and the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school to provide free pet vaccination.

Over time, Borrelli's support has extended beyond school. Both teenagers have jobs at Foot Locker at Cherry Hill Mall. On nights they don't work together and travel alone on public transportation, she does not sleep until she gets a text message telling her they are home safely.

But the support of Borrelli and Mills has not always protected the teenagers.

Miller was close to his mother, Jamilah, who waitressed and urged him to work hard at school. Her boyfriend, Andre Wyatt, who was employed at a Cherry Hill hotel, also had become important to him.

"He always pushed me to do better," Miller said.

One day in summer 2009, when Miller was 15, his mother and Wyatt headed out on what they said was an errand.

Within hours, the family received a call. The couple had been arrested for robbing a store.

Miller felt guilty. If he had insisted on going, too, maybe he could have stopped them, he thought. Or if he had a job, maybe they would not have resorted to crime.

"I felt like I wasn't doing my part," Miller said.

When he finally brought himself to tell Ruiz, "he was just understanding," Miller said. "I could communicate with him knowing that I had family problems and he had family problems. . . . I could ease the pain that way. I wouldn't have to just go home and cry."

Miller and his mother are in frequent contact, and Borrelli said she regrets deeply not being present for her son's crucial years. Before she went to prison, Borrelli said, Jamilah Miller asked her to look out for her boy, who lives with his maternal grandmother.

She "entrusted me with his academic and emotional well-being," Borrelli said.

Ruiz's personal life has not been placid, either. In the past, he has chosen to live with a godparent rather than with his mother and siblings. Over the winter, when he was back living at home, there were tensions. He was working nearly full-time to help support his family, plus going to school, serving as a student representative to the Camden school board, and working on Chow Hound.

"I kind of broke down," said Ruiz, who stopped going to classes for most of February. But Miller would not let up.

"I would go over his house," Miller said. "I would call him every single day. 'Are you coming to school?' "

Borrelli pushed, too. They enlisted Mills, who finally got through to Ruiz. His grade-point average of nearly 2.8 shows the signs of his absence, but he is graduating, along with 44 others at Brimm. Miller's average of almost 4.2 is second only to Brimm's valedictorian, Adeima Ibanga, who has a 4.3.

This should be a jubilant time for the teenagers, but clouds remain.

Ruiz intends to major in political science and pursue a law degree at Rutgers-Camden. Miller plans to go to Rowan for chemistry.

Ruiz and his mentors feel he needs to live away from home to succeed in college. But the aid he has received so far will not cover room and board, Ruiz said.

Miller faces even more uncertainty. Because his mother is incarcerated, he did not have needed financial information for his aid application, which appears to have resulted in confusion and processing delays, according to Miller and his mentors. Miller said he still does not know what his aid package will be.

High-achieving but low-income students such as Miller have been known to get free rides at prestigious colleges, and his dream school has long been the University of Pennsylvania.

For decades there has been a scholarship for male Camden public graduates to attend Penn, but few apparently knew of it. The Board of Education recently said the district would actively seek candidates in the future.

Miller said he heard about the scholarship too late to apply to the school.

Since he learned about the pair's aid problems, Mills said, he has been working to find solutions, including landing them modest scholarships from his fraternity, and interceding on Miller's behalf at Rowan. Mills intends to give the boys and another youth for whom he acts as mentor scholarships he'll fund himself.

"Certainly, we could have done more," Mills said, speaking for the district. In the future, he said, he wants to see more training for guidance staff.

Mills said he had not known about the Penn scholarship. Miller could apply to the school and for the scholarship next year, he said. Miller will get to college, he vowed.

Even if aid comes through, Miller and Ruiz are likely to be working from a deficit. For one, neither has a reliable laptop, said Borrelli, who plans to help with living expenses.

Despite the remaining questions, the two are excited about the future. Starting this weekend, they will spend several weeks on their campuses in college-preparatory programs for low-income students. Borrelli has been on them to give her lists of what they need to bring.

"I don't want the phone call I know is going to come in the last two hours: 'Borrelli, I need this, this and this,' " she said, trying to sound stern.

It's going to be strange not being together, Miller and Ruiz say. They chose their schools because of their different career goals.

But their pact is very much alive. Ruiz and his mother are among those Miller intends to thank in his graduation address. When college begins, the freshmen won't be in each other's company as often, but they said they won't be too far away.

"The key to being a good friend," Ruiz said, "is being there when you're needed."


Contact staff writer Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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