The familiar song grew louder. Students dressed as antelope, wildebeests, and lions slowly filled the stage. The opening scene enraptured the audience, transporting them to an African savannah for a beautiful rendition of The Lion King. Excitement lingered in the air throughout the performance, culminating into a thunderous applause at the end. For Woodrow Wilson High School, this was more than a good play. It was special.

It was special because it was the high school’s first stage performance in 45 years

It was special because it was a symbol of breaking down barriers and exceeding expectations.

Woodrow Wilson High School is located in Camden, the poorest city in New Jersey. Camden also consistently ranks in the top five most dangerous cities in America, often listed as #1. Many consider the city hopeless—too far gone to truly improve. The abject poverty, addiction, violence, and incarceration rates paint a bleak picture. It’s no wonder that high school students in Camden feel as if their fate is already written. When society assumes your failure and raises no bar for success, aspirations to succeed feel even more unattainable. Hopelessness tends to be infectious.

But a young social studies teacher believed his students were capable, so he raised the bar. Andy Boettcher has always had a passion for theater. As a high schooler, he played leading roles in Les Misérables and West Side Story. The passion never waned; he continues to be involved in local theater productions and runs a theater camp in the summer. As a devoted foster parent and teacher at an underfunded Camden school, he also has a passion to love and support children walking through adversity. It was the collision of these two passions that motivated his labor to create a theater program from scratch.

Without funding or theater equipment, there were many challenges to overcome besides teaching scripts and choreography. Confident it was a worthwhile endeavor, Andy rallied others to help. He crowdsourced on social media to raise money for wireless microphones and a lighting system. He organized the donations of fog machines and costume material. His reused animal masks that his wife had fashioned for a previous theater camp. And when funding still fell short, he and several teachers opened their wallets to cover the rest.

Andy’s tenacity, generosity, and determination to rally others’ support gave an apprehensive group of students reason to believe that they were worth it. Theater wasn’t just reserved for the rich and the privileged. Theater wasn’t for the schools “on the right side of the tracks”. Theater was for them. Their social studies teacher went above and beyond to raise the bar because he knew they could reach it.

And they did.

They didn’t just reach it, they went higher.

They stepped up to own it. They helped each other memorize lines and practice choreography. They encouraged one another and worked hard to ensure that everyone would succeed in their roles. Andy affectionately shared, “Bullies were turned into leaders. Shy kids turned into superstars.”

They proved the skeptics wrong. They proved that they had talent, commitment, and determination. They proved that living in Camden might increase hardship, but it also creates a resolve and resilience that others never need to learn. They proved that their demographics don’t define them, that they can rise above the expectations made about them. The future of Camden is not written for the students at Woodrow Wilson High School, because they will be the ones shaping it.

They may still be surrounded by poverty, drugs, and violence, but rather than being defeated by this bleak picture, they decided to make their own mark—a bright mark. And their mark will permeate and inspire others.

Amy Dimarcangelo

Amy is a wife, mom of three, and taco enthusiast from New Jersey. She co-leads mercy ministry outreach at her church and works part-time teaching children diagnosed with autism. You can find more of her writing on her blog or follow her on Facebook.