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 such far-flung places as 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.
Founded three years ago through a grant from the William Penn Foundation, the RiverGuides program pays students such as 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
"Some people think because the Cooper River's in Camden, it's dirty," said Hannah Morales, 22, who has supervised the program the last two years. "We make residents see that within this city, which can be a bit rough around the edges, there is this beautiful river."
All RiverGuides expeditions are led by Wilson and this summer's four other guides, joined also by two paid supervisors like Morales and usually one volunteer. The typical paddle is for the benefit of Camden residents who have never been on the river before, Morales said.
The canoes, most hand-built by students in the UrbanPromise Boatworks shop, hit the water near the Kaighn Avenue Dam. They traverse toward the Delaware River, winding among such landmarks as the Campbell's Soup headquarters, Gateway Park, and the Federal Street Bridge. After roughly three hours, the trip ends at Pyne Poynt Park in North Camden where a shuttle returns participants to the launching point.
The guides not only know the history of the Federal Street Bridge back to the American Revolutionary War, but they also gladly identify an amalgam of birds that have come to call the Cooper home. And as part of their job, guides conduct water-quality assessments on the river twice a week, testing for pH level, dissolved oxygen, turbidity level and nitrates. All tests come back within the standard range, the river guides said, and then explained the purpose behind each test.
Wilson, in particular, took the lessons she learned with RiverGuides to heart. Now she's returned for her second summer as a guide.
"This is actually my job," she said. "I can't believe I get paid for this!"
Wilson said the RiverGuides program changed her life, and made her appreciate her city in new ways.
"[My view of] Camden has changed a lot now that I've gotten to be on the water and see it from a different point of view," she said. "I just love everything here so much."
Most who sign up for the tours have never been on a boat, Morales said, like most of the seven kids who came from Trenton last week to join the Camden guides. Those who hadn't been on the water before were a bit shaky at first.
"Oh, Jesus, how am I getting in that thing?" asked Arianna Alexander, 15, just before the paddle. But as the group pressed toward the Delaware River, everyone became visibly more relaxed and comfortable with one another. Some raced, others collected litter, searched for birds. Still more lingered behind to chat.
"It was a good experience," Alexander said to the group after the paddle. "I'm glad I didn't drown."
The kids from Trenton and Camden were joined last Friday by Maria Blatcher of Moorestown, who volunteered to help organize the trip.
"The contrast of the wealth in a community like Moorestown to the poverty in a city like Camden is striking," Blatcher said. "And it's just inspiring to watch these kids try something new and see their city from a new perspective for the first time."
Camden's poverty seems almost impossible to escape, even out on the Cooper River. As the canoes glide peacefully under bridges, it doesn't take long to notice the glaring evidence of Camden's reality, the makeshift living conditions of the city's poorest beneath bridges.
Blatcher said she was inspired to volunteer her time and effort when she saw a 20/20 program on child poverty in Camden more than a decade ago. As it turned out, one of the river guides, Ivan Stevens, now 17, was featured in that 2007 episode. At the time, he and his mother and younger brother were homeless.
Today, Stevens aspires to be a journalist, he said, and keeps a journal on him almost all the time.
Stevens said that his mother died suddenly of a brain aneurysm last month and that the UrbanPromise community and the RiverGuides have given him a second family. "They were always there for me," he said. "They gave me a shoulder to lean on."