Urban Promise leader becomes a 'New Jersey Hero'

Mary Pat Christie (left) with Jodina Hicks at Urban Promise offices in Camden. With them were (back, from left) Estefany Rodriguez, 16; Manuel Gonzalez, 10; and Ashley Gascot, 16. Hicks is executive director of the agency.
Mary Pat Christie (left) with Jodina Hicks at Urban Promise offices in Camden. With them were (back, from left) Estefany Rodriguez, 16; Manuel Gonzalez, 10; and Ashley Gascot, 16. Hicks is executive director of the agency. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 14, 2014

After Mary Pat Christie presented the award, once cameras stopped flashing and the crowd dispersed, Jodina Hicks - the latest "New Jersey Hero" - finally got to see the person who she says saved her life.

Carter, age 4, ran up to his mother with flowers and a wide smile.

"He was a big part of giving me something to really get up for," Hicks said Wednesday. My job "absolutely was, too, but on a very personal level, he was really what I needed, and me for him, too."

Hicks, executive director of Urban Promise, an award-winning youth services powerhouse in Camden with two private schools, after-school programs, and leadership, job-training, scholarship, and mentoring initiatives, became the 26th recipient of the New Jersey Heroes award and the first from Camden County.

"It's exponential, the people that you're helping here," Christie said on a tour of the facility Wednesday. New Jersey Heroes is an initiative the governor's wife started that showcases positive ways people and organizations affect their communities.

At 43, Hicks has spent more than half of her life trying to make things better for the underdog - from Camden's youth to the formerly incarcerated. In the last four years, she's done it while quietly rebuilding her own life following a personal tragedy.

Hicks, born in Pittsburgh, attended Eastern College in St. Davids and then spent 12 years working at Urban Promise while earning her law degree from Rutgers-Camden.

She left Urban Promise in 2000 to work in prisoner reentry programs. There she met her "best friend and love," David Lewis, a longtime advocate for former inmates and the founder of "Free at Last," a national reentry program.

But in her 10 years away from Camden, Hicks said, she never encountered the familial community or dedication to a mission she'd had at Urban Promise.

So Hicks reached out to Urban Promise founder Bruce Main, who invited her back - this time as executive director. Lewis, 54, started filling out retirement papers, and the engaged couple made plans to move to the city in June 2010, following years of dating long distance - she in Chicago and he in California.

A week before the move, Lewis was fatally shot outside a mall in Palo Alto by a paranoid schizophrenic, a client he had helped get clean nearly a decade before, Hicks said.

Lewis left behind three children, three grandchildren, and Hicks.

"It was a huge loss. He really was a wonderful man and my best friend. My coming back here was a dream come true, and he was totally supportive of it," she said.

So Hicks returned to Camden alone. She threw herself into work at the organization, which serves about 640 children daily, most from Camden and Pennsauken.

Urban Promise is the leading employer of teens in the city, with a cadre of street leaders who mentor younger children and also take advantage of Urban Promise tutoring programs themselves.

"You can't really start with people already set in their ways, but starting with kids, that's how you get to see change," said Ashley Gascot, 16, a junior at Urban Promise Academy and a street team leader.

A year and a half after Lewis' death, Hicks met Carter through her organization. Then 2, Carter was living temporarily with his great-grandmother after being removed from his parents' home due to neglect. Hicks was his foster parent for a year and then adopted him.

"The amazing story line in my life is losing David and then having this amazing son," she said. "My hopes for a family were over, and here comes this little boy, and I fell in love with him."

Hicks had raised a 12-year-old girl when she was in her 20s during her first stint at Urban Promise. That young woman is now vice principal of the nonprofit.

One of the things Hicks likes most about the organization is its direct approach to the city's challenges.

"I got pulled into this amazing vision, which is that we are the plan. There's no state nor federal nor other plan waiting to make conditions for children in Camden better," Hicks said. "It's our lives and our calling to do that."

As a New Jersey hero, Hicks received $7,500 to go toward the organization. She can apply for additional grants, along with the 25 other recipients since 2009.

Urban Promise receives about $3 million in grants and contributions each year toward its numerous programs.

The program, founded in Camden in 1988, has expanded, with locations in Wilmington, Trenton, and Miami, as well as Canada, Honduras, and Malawi.

Hundreds of volunteers come in each year.

On Wednesday groups, from Canada and Tennessee helped facilitate a junior Olympics for after-school students.

As Hicks accepted her award in the school's chapel, she thanked the smiling young faces seated before her and the many teachers, administrators, and volunteers.

"There's an African saying, 'I am because we are,' " she said. "Truly, looking out at the audience, thank you. Were it not for you, I wouldn't have had the courage to keep going."


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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