Growing success from Atlantic City roots
An entrepreneur falls in love with public relations, and uses her skills to highlight the spirit of Atlantic City and the businesses who are reigniting it.
A young man pushes past the stereotypes of his surroundings, and works to clear a path for other kids.
An immigrant finds a new language and new strength in her adopted home, and now fights for others as a civil rights investigator.
These are among the true Stories of Atlantic City — ones that reach beyond the shadows of struggling casinos and blighted neighborhoods to reveal a community invested in the place it calls home.
They are just a few of the stories featured in a collaborative reporting project (www.storiesofac.com) that offers a more authentic narrative of those nurtured within these 48 blocks.
Residents who shatter the perceptions using strength, perseverance and success.
Marketing a love for her hometown
“Tons of people of value are doing amazing things in Atlantic City,” the young woman says, standing in front of Stockton University’s new campus here. “And I get to be on the ground floor.”
Amber Hamlet has watched her city change over the years. Now, she rattles off some of the work being done, from the Atlantic City Executive Council to the university now taking up prominent space just down the street from the home where she grew up.
Her parents still live there, on the 3500 block of Ventnor Avenue right next to the long-shuttered police station where her grandfather once worked.
Growing up, she fell in love with Atlantic City. In college, she began a love affair with public relations.
With Hamlett Consulting, the young businesswoman joined the two and is determined to sell her city, and those businesses that are helping it.
As a member of the Executive Council she met the Hard Rock’s Joe Jingoli, whose enthusiasm to better Atlantic City meshes with her own. Through him, she found mentor Liz Thomas, of Thomas/Boyd Communications.
Thomas says she has guided many in her three decades in marketing, but Hamlett’s is the first small business she’s helped get off the ground.
“Her ability and desire to be an entrepreneur just struck me, and I said, ‘What can I do to help?’” Thomas recalls.
She saw the 26-year-old woman as just the right mixture of determination and approachability.
Hamlett’s talent for dealing with all types of people was cultivated on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
One of her first jobs was working a T-shirt press.
“It was one of my favorite jobs ever because I got to see all kinds of different characters,” she says.
She learned a strong work ethic from her parents, who often took jobs in the schools their six children attended just to be around them.
Her parents also taught her not to let anything stop her.
When the freedom of college led to an issue with drinking, she got help, got sober and got right back to work.
Three days after leaving treatment in Florida, she was back at Rowan University, thanks to her mother who had signed her up for classes and made sure she had her books.
In her junior year, Hamlett got pregnant. But, if anything, being a young single mother focused her more.
She worked through the summer and transferred to Stockton.
Six days after her 21st birthday, she gave birth to her son. Then she needed heart surgery. Five days later, she was enrolled in five online classes.
Four months ago, she took a chance by leaving her salaried job with benefits to focus on her company full-time.
In what seems to be a sign she made the right choice, in the last week, she landed her first international client: Ørsted, the Denmark-based wind and energy company that’s opening a headquarters in her hometown.
“I have a really different perspective and commitment to Atlantic City,” Hamlett says. “There’s so much work still to be done and I’m so glad to be part of it.”
Forging a path for the youth
Ahmad Grate knows what it’s like to grow up without certain things.
When he saw a young kid being made fun of for not having the latest clothes, he decided to do something.
“He was such a sweet kid and he didn’t bother anybody and kids still chose to mess with him,” the 20-year-old says. “I worked at the Nike store and I thought, ‘Why not?’”
Like that, the boy had new clothes and the latest sneakers.
“Everyone deserves to smile and everyone needs to know that someone’s there for them.”
He understands the stigma of being judged by what you don’t have or where you live.
Growing up in Atlantic City’s Stanley Holmes Village, Grate was seen as a kid from the hood.
But he wasn’t one to follow the crowd, determined to set his own path.
At home, he had the influence of strong women.
“My mom along with help from my aunt and grandma did everything she could to make sure we always had what we needed to make it to the next day.”
At the Police Athletic League, he found male role models like Mike Bailey.
“Coach Mike has always been the closest thing to a father I’ve ever had and I’m eternally grateful for having him in my life,” he says.
Bailey feels the same: “He’s like my son.”
“I am extremely proud of that young man,” Bailey says. “He is an example that it doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters where you want to go.”
When his two older brothers were both shot around Christmas 2010, it was the scariest moment the then-preteen had experienced, Grate recalls.
“That’s when I realized I’ve got to pursue something better for myself,” he says. “My childhood wasn’t at all terrible but it’s not a childhood I would want others to go through. My dream is to help kids find a better life.”
Now he is studying criminal justice with a minor in child psychology at Rowan University. He would like to be a public defender or childhood services agent.
“I think people believe that just because you live in Stanley Holmes that you’ll become a product of that environment and that’s not the case,” Grate says. “Unfortunately, for some they fall in with the streets, and that’s exactly what they become. But for many others, they become something in life. They make something of themselves. You can make it out.”
A new place to grow and learn
Atlantic City expanded Susan Huaccamayta’s world.
She was 13 when she arrived here from Peru with her three brothers on Sept. 9, 1999. They joined their father in a two-bedroom apartment they shared with another family above Dover Market.
“Adjusting was hard, I did not know the language and did not know anyone but I forced myself to make friends,” she says. “Everyone one in Peru looked like me. Here there was so much diversity.”
But she was excited by the different traditions and cultures, and even the Spanish slang that varied by country.
For the first couple of years, she would navigate her new home and learn a new language without her mother.
“It was extremely challenging but we knew we all had to make sacrifices in order to get a better life that my father had worked so hard to give us,” she says.
Her mother would join the family a few years later, when they would move to subsidized housing in the city’s Back Maryland section.
She grew up quickly, caring for her younger siblings and serving as translator for her parents.
Huaccamayta, now 32, continues that work on a larger scale.
Seven years ago, she became a bilingual civil rights investigator for the state Division on Civil Rights.
Before that, everything she had done was a job, she says.
“Although I was not sure where this path would lead me, it has been extremely gratifying because I genuinely love what I do,” she says.
She mainly investigates violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination and Family Leave Act.
“She is very committed to working with our community,” says Bert Lopez, who heads the Hispanic Association of Atlantic County. “It’s just a pleasure to have her on the board.”
A year ago, she also became a real estate agent.
Watching people in her city losing their jobs and then their homes had an impact.
When buying her own home four years ago, she learned a lot. Now, she sees this as another way to serve her community.
“Seeing how attainable was for me, made me realize I could also help others,” she says. “I’m a strong believer that real estate represents upward mobility. It is an investment on your future and something you can actually leave for your kids so they can have a better start in life.”
This story was produced as part of Stories of Atlantic City, a collaborative project focused on telling restorative, untold stories about the city and its people. The project was produced in partnership with Free Press, the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, ivoh (Images of Voices and Hope), Stockton University, Authentic City Partners and ThisIsAC co-founder Evan Sanchez, Grace & Glory Yoga and The Leadership Studio co-founder Alexandra Nunzi, Press of Atlantic City, Route 40, SJNtv and BreakingAC. Stories of Atlantic City is funded with a grant from the NJ Community News and Information Fund at the Community Foundation of New Jersey, a partnership of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. To read other stories produced as part of the project, visit www.storiesofac.com.