People

COVID-19 forced this tech training program to send people home. Some didn’t have one.

For Hopeworks in Camden, surviving the COVID-19 crisis wasn't as easy as just going remote.

Inside Hopeworks' training facility before COVID-19 hit.

Inside Hopeworks' training facility before COVID-19 hit.

Photo: Courtesy of Hopeworks

Even before COVID-19 hit Camden, New Jersey, Dan Rhoton knew Hopeworks, the tech training program he runs for at-risk youth in the city, was in trouble.

"If something afflicts society at-large in any way, it will impact our young people and their families in a dramatic way," Rhoton said.

As a nonprofit, Hopeworks' obligations and ambitions may differ from those of an average Silicon Valley firm. But the story of how it managed to keep its business up and running over the last three months is a case study in survival and how to support a team through the toughest of working conditions. It's also a lesson in building a truly diverse tech pipeline, despite the odds, in a place that previously had none.

Since 2000, Hopeworks has been paying Camden residents in the city to learn basic web development skills. Once they graduate, Hopeworks hires them as interns for its two companies, which work on web development and mapping projects for paying clients such as Comcast and American Water. During that time, Hopeworks offers the students trauma counseling and, because a large percentage of them start off homeless, some a place to live.

But when states started shutting down in mid-March, Rhoton couldn't just tell Hopeworks' dozens of students and interns to work from home, like the rest of the tech industry. Some had no homes to go to, let alone stable internet connections and computers. And he couldn't in good conscience lay them off, either.

"The income our young people earn from us is the only income in their household when times are good," Rhoton said. "We knew young people had to keep their jobs. Closing just wasn't an option."

Rhoton's team immediately got to work refurbishing old laptops, eventually getting 88 of them to students and members of the team who didn't have devices at home. Then, they worked with Comcast to get people connected to the internet at home through the company's low-cost Internet Essentials program.

But technology was only half the challenge. Rhoton said many of the young people in the program are victims of domestic violence and human trafficking. Staying home exacerbated those issues, so Rhoton began booking blocks of hotel rooms to house them. And Hopeworks never fully closed its 7,000-square-foot headquarters in Camden to ensure students always had somewhere to go.

Meanwhile, at the "Crib," the house where 10 Hopeworks students and interns live full time, staff made regular drop-offs of food and other essentials like toilet paper. And when one of the Crib's residents, a Hopeworks trainee who now works at nearby Cooper Hospital, contracted the virus, Rhoton's team provided supplies like masks and hand sanitizer to keep the rest of the household safe. "Not a single other member of the Crib got it," Rhoton is proud to say.

Azaris Melendez, a 22-year-old trainee who now works for Hopeworks' web development shop, said having a community to fall back on in such an isolating time helped keep him on track. In normal times, Hopeworks meets every day for a group huddle, where each member of the community sets their intention for the day and a "safety plan" for how they will get through it. Now, those huddles happen over Google Hangouts and have taken on new importance for the team.

"I get a lot of people who have been telling me that being in isolation has been a trap. I just try to be there for a lot of my peers," Melendez said, noting that these meetings are "almost as important as having a job for me."

The organization had to get creative about finding new sources of revenue, knowing that its web development and mapping businesses were bound to lose customers. So Hopeworks launched what it called a Camden Capacity Fund, where donors could contribute funds so that Hopeworks could build websites free-of-charge for local Camden businesses that now had to conduct all of their operations online.

"We're trying to leverage a way where we keep our young people working, so that as there's an economic recovery, small businesses come back stronger, too," Rhoton said.

Meanwhile, some of Hopeworks' biggest customers have helped keep business running. For American Water in Tennessee, the team is continuing work on a map that provides water service information to customers. "Like everybody, they had a change period of getting turned over to a virtual working environment, but they're delivering this project well ahead of schedule," said Megan Catalina, Tennessee American Water's geographic information system supervisor.

This year, Hopeworks expects to pay a little over $600,000 in wages to its students and interns. Rhoton knows that as the COVID-19 crisis persists that may be tough to maintain — but he does see how at least some good could come from this difficult time.

For one thing, the pandemic has pushed companies to embrace the idea of remote work, which could be advantageous for a Camden company located outside the traditional tech hubs of San Francisco and New York, and even nearby Philadelphia. That, coupled with the tech industry's recent commitment to racial equality in their workforce and in the world could drive new clients to organizations like Hopeworks, whose entire mission is to build a more inclusive tech pipeline.

"This is an opportunity to help companies maybe rethink things," Rhoton said. "Right now, at least when I have these conversations with folks, I am getting calls back that I didn't before."

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