Six people, one car, one destination: Camden, New Jersey.
Upon reading our destination, some may be reminded of the very real, dire facts about the city, dubbed the most poor city in the US. It is true that this broken-hearted and abandoned city suffers from desperate poverty, crime, and depressingly high rates of illiteracy, hunger and homelessness. However, from the moment we arrived at our home base of the Romero Center, our understanding of the city changed as we began to put faces and stories to such facts and started to glimpse the hope and dedication of people and groups in the community working to reverse such unfortunate trends and rebuild their city.
The mission of the Romero Center is to offer young adults the opportunity to learn about and build relationships with people and organizations working to build a stronger and healthier Camden. Our group from Good Shepherd Parish included Wayland Residents Monika Bernotas, Elizabeth McAuley, and Isabel Pongratz, Weston resident Izzi Lambrecht, Natick resident Brian Dillaway, and youth minister Mary Lou Bozza. We joined with two other groups for our week of service: St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute of Buffalo, New York and Archbishop Spalding High School from Maryland.
Each day began with the introduction of a social justice theme from Catholic Social Teaching. Our group was then sent on our way to a new service site each day. On our first day, we visited New Visions, a day shelter for the homeless of Camden. We helped prepare meals and spent time getting to know some of the clients of the center. Our theme for the first day was the Dignity of the Human Person.
The following day we visited a day-camp for children at the thriving St. Bartholomew’s parish, where we had a great time helping with the camp. We enjoyed playing board games and playground games, dancing and running around with the kids; however, we were struck by some of the problems the children were faced with everyday. That evening we had a chance to meet some teenagers from the LUCY program (Lifting Up Camden’s Youth), located on the same campus as the Romero Center. It was a great opportunity to discover the things we had in common as teenagers, despite our different backgrounds. Our theme that day was the Preferential Option for the Poor.
The theme for the third day was Charity and Justice. Our service site was the Food Bank of Southern New Jersey. The newly expanded warehouse, complete with huge refrigerated and frozen areas, helps to provide food for hundreds of service agencies in Southern New Jersey and hundreds of thousands of people each year. While we were very happy to be of help, we were left with the question of why so much hunger exists.
Our fourth day of service was with developmentally challenged adults and elderly residents of a place called Generations Plus. While playing games and helping to serve food, we heard stories about Camden in its glory days, before industry left the city. That evening, we helped to serve over 300 dinners at the Cathedral Soup Kitchen. We were saddened to learn that such a large crowd was actually “slow” for the soup kitchen.
Each night we spent time with the other two groups sharing our experiences and reflecting on the realities of injustice and suffering we had encountered. All in all, our week of service was eye-opening, rewarding, and a lot of fun.
As we departed Camden, we were left inspired and motivated to do our part to help build a better community and a more just and equal world and we look forward to hopefully returning next summer.
For more information, contact Mary Lou at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out the website of the Romero Center: www.romero-center.org.