Notre Dame Students Serve in Camden

CAMDEN—The night groups arrive in Camden, they watch a recent documentary, Pyne Point, which tells the story of Camden through the eyes of the North Camden Little League. This was the second time I had seen this film, but watching it again on Thursday evening, I was as captivated as last year, as I feel it tells the story of Camden’s many struggles so well, but also highlights much promise for the future. After all, that’s why Notre Dame has returned to Camden this March – to help those who are struggling and bring some love, hope and promise for the days after we depart.

Back to the documentary for a bit … the film begins by laying out the stark realities of life in Camden – a city which looks across the Delaware River to Philadelphia, a thriving city – actually America’s fifth largest. Camden, on the other hand, has been ranked the most dangerous city in America and has seen over 50,000 jobs be lost since the days when Campbell’s Soup and RCA Victor called the city home. During the same time, its population has decreased by over 40%, once witnessed half of its police force laid off during tough budget times and today has an annual family income of about $22,000 per year. Needless to say, the statistics do not fill a Chamber of Commerce brochure.

Most of all, what stuck me watching the documentary were the quotes from the people of Camden – especially the young men:

“It always take a deep breath, because I don’t know if it will be my last.”
“Growing up, I always thought going to jail was a part of becoming a man.”
“Half of my friends are either locked up or dead.”
Wow. Can you imagine thinking that it was inevitable that you would end up in jail as you got older … because that is what you were accustomed to seeing while you grew up? I can’t even begin to imagine. But what I can imagine is the city of Camden Joanna and I have now visited four times … and the great group of eleven kids who joined us for this trip in the hopes of not only gaining perspective within our own lives, but also to learn more about the principles of Catholic Social Teachings and to hopefully impact the life of at least one person here in Camden while on this trip.

As I just noted, the seven principles of Catholic Social teaching are integrated into each of our activities at the Romero Center – a group affiliated with St. Joseph’s Parish here in Camden – who has been hosting high school, church and college groups since the 1990s. One of our first lessons dealt with the “Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable”. Our students were informed how many families living at or below the poverty line (which in reality is over 40 million Americans, or 1 in 6 people in our nation), survive on approximately $1 per meal per day.

With this information at hand, everyone was divided up into “families” of four or five (students from Calvert Hall in Baltimore also participated) and we set off to the local grocery store for some food shopping with $3 per person available. Each family had to buy their food for all three meals of the day on this extremely limited budget. Oh yeah – there was a catch. Each family was given an obstacle – realistic challenges a family might face: one member has high blood pressure so they could only buy low sodium foods (not cheap!); one member of the family is undocumented so you can’t spend their $3 (as they would not be eligible for government assistance); one member of the family is allergic to nuts (there goes the peanut butter!) … or you could be my “family”: homeless. We were unable to buy anything that would need to be refrigerated or cooked for the day. If you think about it – that greatly limits what you can buy and plan to eat. Healthy eating was already out the door on such a limited budget … but now the options were even fewer. Needless to say, I ate five peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (one for breakfast, one for lunch and three for dinner), 2 bananas, an apple sauce, a few potato chips and drank water. It really is an excellent activity to help bring the realities of life for way too many in our country into perspective.

Another component of the trip to Camden is service. On Friday morning, our group was divided up into two … Joanna and six kids headed to Abigail House in Camden and I, along with five students, headed a town over to the Urban Promise Thrift Store. The group who visited Abigail House completed their service via a ministry of presence. The elderly and disabled residents of Abigail House look forward to the volunteers to just hang out with them … have conversation, play cards or chess or checkers … it’s a wonderful experience of being present to some of God’s children who need it the most.

My crew took a 15 minutes drive to volunteer at the Urban Promise Thrift Store. This organization, founded almost 30 years ago, accepts donations from the community – everything from kitchenware to clothing – and sells these items in their store at 100% profit – with all the funds being returned to programs and the people of Camden. The staff we had the opportunity to work with were wonderful – and most of the store is staffed by volunteers looking to help in some small way. At the store, we completed a variety of tasks from tagging clothes to put on the racks, to pulling old inventory, to dusting shelves to hanging framed art which had just been donated – all small tasks but ones that help the greater goal of ultimately serving the people of Camden.

As we departed our volunteer sites, old man winter was raging. The snow was blowing horizontally in 30 mph winds … but luckily the roads were still easily drivable. In an added bonus for the day, a group of us were assigned to a second volunteer site – Cathedral Kitchen. This turned out to be my first trip to Cathedral Kitchen on a Camden weekend – but I had always heard great things about the experience and the organization. During my visit, I learned that Cathedral Kitchen was started in 1976 by four college students who listened to Mother Teresa say, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you” during a visit to New York City. These four students heeded her advice and started making peanut butter sandwiches out of the local church and distributing them to the needy in the community. Fast forward 40 plus years … the group serves dinner to several hundred needy folks each evening – including families, provides a dental clinic, culinary training, and much more. While we were just there for a few hours helping with just one dinner … seeing and hearing about the tremendous good the organization does each day for those so in need was the true reward. It was also very grounding – seeing the families come in with their small children … a reminder of how lucky so many of us truly are.

As is usual, we gathered for evening prayer and reflection (and Monopoly “Romero Center-style” — a great lesson in the halves and have-nots in our society) … and the kids hung out together. (They have quickly made friends with the group from Calvert Hall.)

On Saturday, we will be heading out to volunteer sites once again and also taking a tour of the city of Camden … we will have our final reflection this evening and join the greater community for Mass before we depart of Sunday morning.

Camden truly is a special city … one that has so many bright lights shining among the challenges and obstacles still before it. It is our hope that we help at least one of those lights shine brighter during our few short days in this beautiful city – and continue to live the mission of both the Romero Center and our trip itself in the days, weeks and months ahead. Sometimes that can be the true challenge …

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