Sunday, July 8, 2018

'Within this city…there is this beautiful river.' South Jersey canoe program aims to expand horizons

Canoe on Cooper River - Photo by Maggie Loesch
Philadelphia's skyline is visible over trees from the Cooper River in Camden, NJ, on the afternoon of Friday, June 29, 2018. Students enrolled in the UrbanTrekkers program through Urban Promise Academy in Camden, NJ, led the canoe trip on the river. These teens are employed as RiverGuides for the summer and are trained in the ecology and history of the river, as well as canoe safety. (Maggie Loesch photo)

Will Feuer reports for

Destiny Wilson spent the other day drifting down the languid Cooper River away from Camden, toward the Delaware, in a canoe that she built with her own hands. Excitedly, she identified a double-crested cormorant, then a bald eagle and a few blue herons as they dozed in the shade or soared above.

It’s difficult to imagine that growing up in East Camden, Wilson, 18, once knew the Cooper River only in passing, her imagination stifled for years by Camden’s concrete confines. These days she’s something of an expert on the water, but her aspirations don’t end at the Delaware.

“I always wanted to go places when I was a kid, but I just never put in the work to get there,” she said. Today Wilson talks seriously about traveling beyond the city of her birth to far-flung places like Greece and Switzerland. First her sights are set on college. If all goes according to plan, she said she’ll be her family’s first college graduate. She wants to study environmental science.

Wilson is one of five Camden high school students who are spending the summer as “river guides” for the nonprofit RiverGuides program sponsored by UrbanPromise Ministries, a nonprofit that works with the city’s young people.

Founded three years ago through a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the RiverGuides program pays students like Wilson to guide folks through the river. Camden residents paddle free of charge. Others must pay a small fee. Throughout the trip, the young guides narrate the local history of landmarks on the river and present ecological findings from their own research

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