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These kids are building boats in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation

These kids are building boats in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation

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CAMDEN, N.J. (CIRCA) —Yasiria Lugo spent her summer building handmade canoes, kayaks and paddles in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation. For her, the do-it-yourself projects weren’t simply summer pastimes, they were a point of pride.

Yasiria Lugo, a high school junior, helped secure a strip of cedar wood to the frame of a wooden canoe with glue and staples.

“You would never think kids in Camden are doing this,” said Lugo, “Like ‘what? A kid in Camden is building a boat?” Like, ‘yeah, we are...they’re really awesome, too.’”

This summer the high school junior worked as a river guide for Urban BoatWorks, a program that teaches kids about boat building and environmental stewardship in Camden, New Jersey. The port city ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the country with nearly 1,600 violent crimes committed in 2016, according to Neighborhood Scout, an online database that tracks neighborhood analytics.

While accustomed to the violence and illicit activities of the city, Lugo said one of the most eye-opening parts of the job, was the fact that there was a river here at all.

A typical sight in Camden, N.J.: dilapidated and abandoned housing is visible from almost every block.

“I didn’t know about the Cooper River,” said Lugo. “I didn’t know we had a beautiful river literally right next to me. Did not know that at all, and it got me to see a different perspective on Camden.”

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Urban BoatWorks program director Tom Calisterio said challenging students’ perspectives about their hometown is one of the goals of the program.

“It’s funny because most of our kids have never been in a canoe or a kayak,” said Calisterio. “So, at the end of the school year, when we bring out the canoes that we built, a lot of the kids are scared to go in the boat. But then after about 10 to 15 minutes, they’re like ’oh man, this is great!’”

Tom Calisterio (right), Urban BoatWorks program director, teaches students how to use basic mathematics to determine which areas to cut on their custom wooden paddles.

Urban BoatWorks is one of the integrated school programs under UrbanPromise, an umbrella organization aimed at nurturing Camden youth through education, ministry and community involvement. The organization offers a myriad of enrichment opportunities ranging from an alternative high school, to summer camps, to after school programs. Students enrolled in Urban BoatWorks take classes geared toward boat building in addition to participating in extracurricular activities like the RiverGuides program Lugo is part of.

Calisterio has been with the boat building program since 2009 as a volunteer and turned full-time last year. Prior to committing fully, he worked as a respiratory therapist at Pennsylvania Hospital for more than 20 years.

“It gives me more satisfaction to be doing this than working in the hospital,” said Calisterio.

The Urban BoatWorks workshop is housed in the Camden Shipyard & Maritime Museum, which showcases history of industrial boat building in the port city.
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Over the past nine years he’s helped the program construct nearly 50 boats, including canoes, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and dragon boats.

In the boat building workshop Lugo and her friends looked puzzled holding their protractors and t-squares. Calisterio explained to them how they could use basic mathematics in conjunction with their new tools to make exact measurements on their custom paddles before cutting them on the bandsaw.

“We incorporate a little of the science, technology, English and math through the little things we make,” said Calisterio.

Throughout the school year, students like Yasiria worked alongside mentors and educators to build their seafaring vessels. Come summertime, though, they set sail on local waterways such as the Cooper and Delaware rivers.

From the river, students and tourists can see industrial facilities, abandoned buildings and lush green nature in a single stretch.

From the river, Lugo said Camden felt like a whole new place even though she's lived there her whole life.

“I was kind of like in shock, like ‘wow, I never knew this,’” said Lugo.

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Lugo and her fellow river guides led a group of New Jersey residents on a tour of the Cooper River. The evidence of industry and urban fallout faded from view as Lugo and the other guides explained everything from river ecology to the history of Campbell Soup Company to their patrons. Bobbing up and down in her canoe, Lugo said there’s more to Camden than meets the eye.

“There’s going to be some parts that are not 100% good,” said Lugo. “At the same time, you have the good inside of the bad—you have to just look a little bit closer to it.”

According to Neighborhood Scout, though, the chances of being a victim of violent crime in 2016 remained high, compared to national averages (about 21 victims per 1,000 residents versus four per 1,000).

Despite the high rate of crime and violence, Lugo remained positive.

“Most people think it’s a bad and violent city,” said Lugo, “it’s really not. I’m proud to be from Camden.”

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