Hopeworks: Helping Teens Recode Their Future

When people think about technology’s place at the forefront of society, they might not always think about how it connects to young people from marginalized backgrounds. That’s where Camden, New Jersey’s Hopeworks comes in.


Hopeworks is a nonprofit that specializes in connecting disadvantaged youth with training and skills to obtain and sustain jobs in the tech sector. With a client list featuring New Jersey American Water, Comcast and Campbell’s Soup, Hopeworks helps young people learn how to code and provides them with the guidance to navigate the pressures of teenage adversity.


About 3,000 young people work or train with Hopeworks, or its partners, annually, with nearly 90% of the young people ending up in permanent high-wage employment. 


A group of Hopeworks students. Photo by Heather McBride.


Dan Rhoton, executive director of Hopeworks, has a background in working with disadvantaged youth, which helped prepare him for his current role. “I started as a teacher and then a vice-principal at a [disciplinary] school, one of the best jobs you could have,” Rhoton said. “Everybody in my class had ambition. They might have done some bad stuff to respond to that, but they have energy, you just have to put it in the right direction. So that’s how I got started. From there I really enjoyed working with young people who had hard things happen to them and helping them deal with that. That’s expertise that I actually brought over.” 


For Rhoton, success for the young people that Hopeworks helps means connecting their ambition and drive to tangible professional skills. “They got the smarts,” Rhoton said. “What we give them is the technical training, social and emotional skills so they can succeed professionally. After that, they actually don’t just train with us but they work for us in our businesses for a six-month internship so that they actually have a portfolio to get the job. If we’ve done our jobs right, we help young people that have been really good at surviving move from surviving to thriving.” 


By providing mentors and tutors, Hopeworks labors extensively to help young people from marginalized backgrounds realize what happened to them is not their fault, and gives them tools to help build a brighter future. Fine tuning survival habits that young people may have acquired is a unique wrinkle of Hopeworks plans to help young people become successful.


Rhoton cites Hopeworks’ social and emotional support systems as two of the most important aspects of its program. “It’s exceptionally complicated to survive in some of the circumstances our young people find themselves in,” Rhoton said. “The thing I always say is, if you’ve been able to survive this far, you got what it takes. It’s just a matter of translating those skills in a professional environment. A young person that’s been homeless or trafficked or gotten through the justice system, they’re tough enough and they’re smart enough. It’s just a matter of surviving. To begin to thrive we just want them to redirect those skills.”


Students in session at Hopeworks. Photo by Heather McBride.


In addition to finding professional opportunities for the young people Hopeworks engages, the nonprofit also has free coding events, like its Hack-a-thon, that are open up to young people throughout the Camden community, including ones that may not be involved with Hopeworks. 


For Rhoton, Hopeworks’ future success can be measured in how many of its alumni can help create more opportunities for other young people from similar backgrounds. “We’ll know we’re successful, if in five years, Hopeworks’ young people aren’t only getting but keeping jobs. [I’d like to see] the young people that finish this year take their experience in the industry and start their own companies, hopefully in Camden, and employing new Hopeworks youth. If we see that happen, then we’d know we won.”


This article was written in partnership with The HIVE at Spring Point. The Hive is a collection of organizations, individual practitioners, and youth who focus on strengths-based youth development that empowers young people to make positive change in their lives and their world.