Project Guardian tries to nudge Camden kids away from a life of crime

Former drug dealer and federal inmate Mark Lee talks to more than 20 at-risk youth and other community members during a Project Guardian event in Camden. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Former drug dealer and federal inmate Mark Lee talks to more than 20 at-risk youth and other community members during a Project Guardian event in Camden. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

When he began speaking at the Salvation Army’s Kroc Center in Camden late Thursday morning, Police Chief Scott Thomson nodded to the elephant in the room.

“Oftentimes, we haven’t had the best relationship,” he told the two dozen or so teens seated in the center’s chapel, referring to the strained ties between the city’s police force and its young people.

But the purpose of this meeting was to change that, in hopes of offering children surrounded by crime and violence a chance to lead more productive lives.

Project Guardian aims to introduce at-risk youth to law enforcement officers, social workers, and clergy members before the kids find themselves in a bad situation — not after.

“Oftentimes, our interaction intersects either at a moment of enforcement or a moment of crisis,” said Thomson. “And we don’t want that to be the lens through which they define us or we define them.”

Children headed toward a life of crime or who may become victims are referred to Project Guardian by a parent, teacher, or member of law enforcement.

Those kids then attend a daylong event with state and federal law enforcement officers, social services employees, religious leaders, and even ex-convicts aimed at deterring them from criminal activity.

That can be an uphill battle, said Thomson, who noted that Camden has among the highest shares of the population under age 18 and the highest rate of single-parent households.

“It is far tougher here to be a young child … or a young adult … than it really is anywhere else in the country,” he said.

‘Where they’re going to send you, they don’t love you’

At the event Thursday, kids munched on soft pretzels as they listened to speakers ranging from a member of the U.S. attorney’s office to convicted felon Mark Lee.

“Hopefully you never meet none of these guys like I met them,” said Lee, pointing to the law enforcement officials in the room.

After selling drugs on the streets of North Camden for years, Lee was eventually caught and served a 10-year sentence in federal prison.

“If you don’t have the inclination to love yourself, I pray for you,” he told the kids, some nodding in agreement and others with their heads hung low. “Because where they’re going to send you, they don’t love you.”

Lee, who said his crimes destroyed his life and the lives of the people who loved him, now walks free and works for the city’s department of public works.

“I do anything from potholes [to] boarding up houses,” he said. “I have a chance to rebuild and heal the city that I broke.”

During the event, the kids also solved fictional crimes in small groups to bolster their communication skills. They created wreaths to hang on the doors of the local Ronald McDonald House, where families of children being treated at nearby hospitals live temporarily.

Project Guardian, which meets four times a year, can draw children who have criminal backgrounds, who have ties to gangs, or who have been stopped for minor offenses, said Sgt. Janell Simpson, who oversees the department’s Special Victims Unit.

“If they’re committing crimes to sell drugs, it’s unfortunate. But I do understand the situation that they’re in,” said Simpson, who grew up and still lives in Camden.

“I wouldn’t say that all of them want to do it, but all of them want money,” she said. “And they don’t really have many opportunities to do anything else.”

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