Soley Berrios Finds Support, Success With Help From ‘Village’

By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media

CAMDEN — As director of community impact with the St. Joseph Carpenter Society and involved with numerous community activities, Soley Berrios has dedicated herself to make a difference for the residents in the Camden area.

She credits her “village” of family and supporters in the community for her career, overcoming the stigma some place on Camden and her enlightenment about the world around her and what needs to be done.

“‘It takes a village’ is an old African proverb used to describe what it takes to raise a child from a rambunctious adolescent to a productive adult member of society,” Berrios recently told Front Runner New Jersey/La Prensa. “Most would say Camden doesn’t have enough villagers to raise our children but I’m here as a living testament to the resilience of our village otherwise known as Camden. 

Highlighting the great culture and leadership in South Jersey’s Latinx community.

“Despite the statistics and counter-productive narratives I never felt the weight of that stigma thanks to the strong support of my community.”

Berrios, who was born in Puerto Rico to non-English speaking parents, was honored by her alma mater Rowan University in 2020 with its 30 Under 40 recognition for her work and volunteerism “with several organizations whose collective mission is to help turn her beloved hometown around.”

“As a first-generation student that came up through both the Camden Public School System and the Camden Charter Network, with non-English speaking parents, it should have been impossible for me to learn how to navigate school bureaucracy and educational programs that were extremely crucial to my academic success, but my village came together,” Berrios said.

Photo courtesy of Soley Berrios

“Had it not been for my parents, my grandparents, my church, my teachers and local mentors, I would not be in the position I’m in today to give back to my community and help reshape the young minds that need guidance as I once did.”

At the St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, Berrios works closely with East Camden residents, where she was raised when her family moved to the city, and try to serve as a connector by hearing their concerns and directing them to resources or the proper city agencies to help in any way possible.

Soley Berriors honored by Camden Mayor Victor Carstarphen with Woman of Purpose Award earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Soley Berrios Facebook

“I am able to facilitate monthly meetings for both East Camden and Cramer Hill residents and stakeholders bringing new presenters and resources to each call. I currently oversee all community programming here and try to make intentional experiences for East Camden residents to feel empowered and heard.

“To say working at SJCS is full circle for me is an understatement. One thing I vividly remember from my childhood was moving from home to home until my parents became homeowners through the SJCS first-time homeowner program. I am an East Camden kid through and through that benefited from local programs like UrbanPromise. To give back to the very community I grew up in does not only feel right but purposeful.”

Berrios said her current job allows her to follow her passion for the community along with public health, community engagement and youth development.

“Here I get to do all those things in some capacity,” Berrios said. “I have the opportunity to educate our community about the dangers of lead in homes and connect them to our lead remediation grant.

Photo courtesy of Soley Berrios

“I get to work in many ways with partners to improve the quality of life for Camden residents by prioritizing resident voices and ideas in new development plans that include public art, improving the public realm, and connecting residents to affordable housing. And, I get the chance to partner with and support amazing East Camden youth development nonprofits like UrbanPromise, VietLead, LUCY Outreach, and the YMCA.”

Berrios’s past work highlights her enthusiasm for her community. She served as director of partnerships and engagement for nonprofit Camden Enrollment, a college success coach for Hopeworks, and a community organizer for Urban Promise.

Berrios, though, said she doesn’t see herself as a role model, but someone who tries to serve and inspire others.

“The Merriam-Webster definition defines a role model as a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others,” Berrios said. “I don’t think my goal has ever been to be imitated but to serve and inspire others. The quote ‘be who you needed when you were younger’ has always resonated with me. That is what I take seriously.

“Throughout my years working in the youth development sector, I always aimed to show the young people I worked with that you can be yourself authentically, take up space and still go far. One thing young people can see from a mile away is if you are being genuine or not. I always try to be transparent about my failures and what I’ve learned throughout my years growing up in the city.

“What I needed growing up and was so blessed to have were mentors — mentors who exposed me to things I didn’t think I could do or was capable of, mentors that showed me how to be proud of who I was and where I came from and the skillset that alone gave me.”

Berrios said she still has mentors today, some who have helped her in different aspects of her life and some who taught her with just intentional fellowship. She said African American women has been some of her most powerful mentors.

“I owe so much to black women who did not gatekeep keys and resources but openly schooled me on how to move and navigate spaces that didn’t look like me, didn’t look like us,” Berrios said. “I sought out mentorship from Latinas in our city and wasn’t always welcomed, unfortunately – told I must figure it out on my own because that’s what they went through.

“It’s sad to think that providing someone with a word of encouragement or advice on how to get through a scenario or circumstance could be seen as something someone has to earn instead of a gift passed down from generation to generation that only benefits our community as a whole.

“Seeking out mentorship isn’t always easy. I hope that I am able to always be a welcoming face for young Latinas. While there is community and familiarity with some of the experiences we may go through as young women growing up in Camden, there is something very personal and connecting about being from Camden and growing up Latina,” she added.

The Rest of the Story

Berrios shared many other views in our interview. Here are the rest of her comments to Front Runner La Prensa.

FRNJ: Tell me about growing up and family. Just anything you would like to share. I understand you were born and Puerto Rico. When did your family come to the mainland?

Soley Berriors: I was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, and was living with my parents in El Caserio Manual A. Perez until we moved to Camden, NJ at the age of four. El Caserio Manual A. Perez is a notorious public housing complex that struggles with many of the same issues that impact most low-income communities in metro areas. My parents moved to Camden, NJ with no understanding at the time that they’d be moving from one struggling neighborhood to another – just over 1,583 miles away. My maternal grandparents and my mother’s younger brother moved with us, and all struggled to find their way and work. Building a new home in a city where they knew no one and spoke no English, they found themselves working random odd jobs until they landed factory jobs and my uncle found work as a barber. A year after moving to the city my younger sister was born – my mother was a stay-at-home mom until I was 15.  

My grandparents were very religious and found community through a local church where they quickly became co-pastors. My mom who had already grown up in that atmosphere did not rush to attend despite the newfound Spanish-Speaking community they had access to through the church. It wasn’t until the pastor won my dad over by beating him in a basketball game that they began to attend and soon became the youth pastors.

My father had two children before meeting my mother and they would visit every summer. My older brother lived with us for a while and attended East Camden Middle School and Woodrow Wilson High School during his time here. Growing up in a strict Christian household with 4 sets of eyes on us it was close to impossible to get into trouble, especially with a devoted stay-at-home mom who my classmates often called a military mom due to her strict daily routines. She would walk us to school, pick us up, and dinner was already ready once we got home, after dinner, we had to do our homework, then we’d jump in the shower and get ready for church. We had evening services to attend every Tuesday and Thursday. On Sundays, we went during the morning for bible school and then back for evening service. Oftentimes, while growing up I hated this routine and wished I could spend more time with friends but today at 30 years old I could not be more grateful for my upbringing.

Despite growing up in Camden, NJ I remember my childhood as a safe and joyous one in which I never lacked any experiences. I recant much of my family’s early struggles coming here from stories that are often told to me but, I don’t remember many, if any, of the early struggles. I loved going to school and had teachers and mentors that poured into me. (Attending Cramer Elementary, Forest Hill, East Camden Middle, and Camden Academy Charter High School). I loved my church community and owe a lot of my public speaking skills to my time there. I loved working at a young age and worked multiple jobs as a teenager working at UrbanPromise, as a school front desk assistant, and at mall jobs. Through my time at UrbanPromise I had exposure to a ton of experiential learning and was exposed to many different cultures outside of those in my community having to engage with their international interns and fellows. And despite the debt my parents accumulated trying to give my siblings and me memories and experiences, I loved my summers with my family.

I grew up in Camden blissfully and did not know the stigma that being from this city would carry with me. It wasn’t until I went to college and was ignorantly asked if I had received my scholarship because I had made it to 18 without being shot that I began to understand that others would see me as an outlier, the exception, lucky. I think this city is fully capable of producing active citizens and promising youth IF we surround ourselves in community.  

FRNJ: What community groups are you involved in and why are you so passionate about serving the community?

Soley Berrios: In all the community groups I lead in my current role at SJCS I also feel a part of as an East Camden resident while I facilitate the East Camden Advisory group, I give sincere feedback as a resident

I also have the honor of serving on the board of LUCY Outreach, a youth development nonprofit based in East Camden that serves youth ages 7-25. I’ve always been passionate about youth development and mentorship because it was something that truly impacted me growing up in this city. Had it not been for organizations similar to LUCY that offer Camden city youth the opportunity to have exposure to new places and things my idle mind could have been consumed with the wrong things.

FRNJ: Who inspired or continues to inspire you? Why?

Soley Berrios: My mother has always been an inspiring figure in my life. My toughest critic and my loudest fan. Before getting pregnant with me at the age of 19, my mother had a full ride to the University of Puerto Rico majoring in Business and English. I always wondered about the amazing professional she could have been had I not come into the picture – while I am super blessed to be here today that thought has always stuck with me. She remained studious even outside of her studies, and constantly challenged some of our church leaders because she was so well-read. Whenever I had a question on a homework assignment or needed help with a project it was astonishing how the language barrier never stopped her from seeking out the right answer or making sure my project was above average. A multitasker, and skilled chef, who went above and beyond for her family in even the simplest of tasks – it’s no wonder I inherited her perfectionist ways and take it as a personal insult when someone does something half-hearted.

This is why I try my best to do all things wholeheartedly, with intention and genuineness.

FRNJ: Anything else you’d like to add?

Soley Berrios: Community is our greatest resource. 

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