Every Kid Who Walks in the Door: Theology Alum Dedicates Life to Helping Kids in Camden
Years after leaving DeSales, Tim Gallagher ’10 still lives by the motto, “Be who you are, and be that well.”
The walls of Guadalupe Family Services in Camden, New Jersey are lined with portraits of success—faces of former at-risk students who have beaten the odds by becoming college graduates and who went onto careers in law, finance, and nursing. For Tim Gallagher ’10, the pictures are personal.
“The kids here are doing an incredible amount of work to overcome extreme adversity and to triumph,” Gallagher says. “I think that we’re making an impact on the lives of every teenager who walks through our doors and I know that it’s making a difference in this city.”
The theology major got his first taste of life in Camden on an alternative spring break trip during his senior year at DeSales. He fell in love with what was happening in the city, and through DeSales Service Works—a ministry of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales—he spent a year volunteering at Guadalupe Family Services (GFS).
A week after graduating, he began working full time at GFS as a community outreach worker. Today he’s a licensed social worker providing counseling and working with trauma victims. He also does social work at a nearby school—teaching life skills, drug and alcohol prevention, and anger management—and he partners with police on gang intervention.
“In a city where trauma often predicts what’s going to happen to you, we allow a safe place where kids can just let all their guards down and just be themselves. I think the most incredible thing that we do is just allow a kid to be a kid.”
In 2012—one of the deadliest years in Camden's history—he and the staff at GFS started a new youth development program for at-risk students called CASA (Camden Adolescents Striving for Achievement).
CASA provides a safe space for students five days a week and offers everything from mentoring and tutoring to lifeguard certification and nutrition classes.
“Anything you can think of, we do here,” Gallagher says. “We’ve tried to fill that gap from 3:00 to 6:00, which we know is the most dangerous and most detrimental time for students in the afternoon.”
Gallagher gives the students credit for all the progress they’ve made and he likes to say that he just shows up. But he’s clearly made an impact in countless lives, forging both unbreakable bonds and familial ties, with some students even calling him dad.
“I just show up and I’m supportive and positive and caring and loving. Every kid who walks in the door, I give a hug to. Because that’s the environment that I want and that’s where they thrive. The real work being done is by these kids. I just happen to be facilitating that by allowing them a space to come to and by offering some support.”
That’s not to say his job isn’t without its challenges. There have been a number of shootings within blocks of GFS over the past few years, including a shootout in broad daylight. Gallagher also witnessed a deadly stabbing outside his home and later learned that it was over a dollar.
He knows the bad stories ultimately come with the territory of working in an inner city. But he prefers to focus on the good and on the resilience he sees each and every day. Like the girl who swore in eighth grade that she’d become a lawyer, who’s now attending Rutgers Law School on a full scholarship.
He also likes to brag about the boy who came from a family of drug dealers and vowed to be different. That boy ended up working for a police department and is now looking to get his master’s degree in social work.
Another little boy spent years being shuffled from place to place after being abandoned by his mother at the age of five. He never developed an attachment with adults until he met Gallagher.
“I remember asking him in fifth grade who loved him and he couldn’t tell me,” Gallagher says. “And I said, ‘if you don’t know the answer to that question, you can always say that I love you.’ And that for me was really powerful. That kid is one who has me in his phone as dad and he asked me to be his confirmation sponsor. I’m an integral part of his life now and that for me is a huge blessing.”
Gallagher and the GFS staff’s hard work and dedication don’t go unnoticed. The New Jersey State Assembly and Camden County Police have recognized them, and in 2016 the group traveled to Washington, D.C. to receive the FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award.
Gallagher says his success comes from simply being himself. Years after leaving DeSales, he still likes to live by the powerful motto that each and every Bulldog learns, “Be who you are, and be that well.”
“For me, that means coming as I am. Being authentically me every day with the kids that I work with. It has been the passion and privilege of my life to work here in Camden. I love social work. It fills me and it fills my soul.”