This is a reflection piece I wrote about my internship in Camden. It is a work in progress, so if you have any feedback, it would be much appreciated. Enjoy.
The act of throwing one’s trash on the ground is one of disrespect for the land beneath them. “Trash” is any object that its possessor deems useless after its purpose has been expended. Empty bottles, cans, broken televisions, and used syringes occupy the streets, alleyways, and abandoned houses of Camden, New Jersey because its citizens do not view it as a city they can be proud to call their home.
With every bright mural inspiring its passer-bys, every community garden started, every boarded-up house painted with bright colors to distract from a caved-in roof, the city of Camden becomes a place that its residents can be proud of. My project through DeSales Service Works involved turning this “trash” – these items of no value – into something beautiful and more valuable, flowerpots that will bring new life. Similarly, out of the wreck of the city’s downfall marked by houses falling apart, boarded up storefronts, and dreams only of survival and escape, the city will be revitalized into the place Walt Whitman dreamt of, “a city invincible.”
It is not only the city’s trash that has the ability to be UPcycled (that is, to take something useless and turn it into something that holds more value than it did in the first place); it is also the city itself. The rest of the state, as well as the rest of the country, view Camden as useless territory. Because of this, New Jersey has dumped multiple jails and sewage plants in the city because nowhere else is worthless enough. The city is seen as good for three things – drugs in North Camden, prostitution in South, and murder all around.
The city wasn’t always like this. Backtrack a couple decades and you’ll find a booming city, successful through its manufacturing industries. Then, it was the place to be. But ever since American companies moved overseas with unethical, selfish goals of cheap, easy labor, Camden lost its economic worth and was dropped on the curb, just like an empty aluminum soda can. Now the people there are stuck, struggling to survive. And although the value of the city has depleted, the value of humanity will always exist. Therefore, for the city to prosper again, the value of the people must be recognized as a reason to revitalize.
The problem is, most individuals outside of Camden are unable to understand this worth because they haven’t – or don’t want to – to experience it. Blessed by the opportunity to participate in multiple service projects there, I have been able to get a closer look into the lives of Camden’s residents. I have been able to see that this city has so much more to offer than what meets the eye, than what its surrounding suburbs have judged it by.
Most people in Camden live with great faith and hope, desiring change in their city, but without a clue of how to achieve that dream. They sit on their front porches, even though they know danger on the streets is more than common, to foster community – having conversation, or at least sharing a smile, with all those who pass. When the community is struck by the grief of murder, memorials will spring up around the city the following day, as friends and family gather to place empty bottles, notes, and pictures at the site of the tragedy. Condolences are shared, and friends join hands in prayer for the deceased, for the children who now must cope with the loss of their parent, and for the parents who must cope with the loss of their beloved child.
A line from one of my favorite songs is, “at anyone’s expense except their own, would they laugh if they knew who paid?”(Ten Thousand Words by The Avett Brothers). A curious child in Cherry Hill, the suburb next door to Camden, flushes the toilet for the first time and asks his mother where it all goes, to which his mother replies that it goes down the drain, underground. A curious child in Camden goes outside on a humid summer day and asks his mother why it smells the way it does, to which his mother replies, “because lots of people flushed the toilet.” Most of the decisions we make for our benefit, somehow find their way to trickle down and affect those who don’t have the means to fight back. Camden will have the ability to be revitalized when we stop taking advantage of it. When we realize that we can still find worth in a place that won’t benefit us financially. When we realize that Camden’s situation is not a result of the people there, but rather the people there are fighting survive in a city whose economic downfall they had no control over. When we realize that we can help in both little and big ways.
But how can we help a city that is so visibly helpless? Outside the city, we must combat ignorance through education and mindset change. In the city, we must have conversations that remind people of the worth they innately possess, and we must foster a sense of nationalism to boost morale because they should be proud Camdenites. Economically, businesses need to recognize that they can play a role in building this city up again, maybe by placing an attraction in Camden to bring tourists into the city. This not only will flow money into the city, but also will provide jobs for the many unemployed, moving people away from the drug industry and “dating” business, and into jobs that will positively affect the community.
This all starts with you, with how you perceive the guy sitting next to you on the bus, or the homeless woman on the street…with how you perceive all the blessings in your life, and the blessing of life. It’s about mindset change within yourself and inspiring that change within the minds of those around you. Ask the hard questions and search for their answers—not only in books, but also in the experiences others have entrusted to you. It’s about doing things that matter for those who people think don’t matter, and ignoring those who tell you that it’s pointless and that you should be working for your own benefit. We should be working not for the improvement of our own lives, but rather for the improvement of the lives of the marginalized. As their lives improve, the lives of everyone else will transform as well, as we start to live of love. It’s a ripple effect that can start with anyone. It can start with me. It can start with you.
i will be going back for the third time. here is a paper i wrote about my service there so far.
you may be wondering why the hell i’m going to CAMDEN, of all places. well…
DeSales Service Works is located in Camden, NJ, which is often ranked as the most dangerous and impoverished city in the country. There is no denying the great need that is here- there are frequent problems with crime, poor education, chronic homelessness, and the selling and using of narcotics. Camden is also a place of wonderful hope and faith. The combination of Camden’s needs and faith is what makes this city such an interesting and dynamic place to live and serve. During your time here, you will be immersed in the culture and experience of serving. Camden is over 40% Hispanic, mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Whether its attending Spanish Mass or serving the homeless, you’ll get to see the thriving side of Camden by living in our North Camden neighborhood.
Camden is a city rich in history. It is the home and resting place of poet Walt Whitman. The docks and shipyards along the Delaware River built many of the ships used to fight and win WWII. Many entertainers in the 30’s and 40’s, such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, used to perform in this city on Sundays when the laws forbade performing in the casinos of nearby Atlantic City. Being the home of Campbell’s Soup and RCA, Camden also has other claims to fame. The first television, phonograph, ball point pen, can of condensed soup and drive-in movie theatre were all created in Camden, NJ.
Unfortunately, Camden began to experience a significant economic decline after WWII. New York Shipbuilding, RCA and Campbell’s Soup all moved their manufacturing out of the city. Within a 30 year period, more then half the jobs in Camden disappeared. That led to significant population loss and declines in income, city services and the housing market. Race riots in the early seventies dramatically accelerated the process of ‘white flight’.
Camden has a population of around 80,000. It is only a small city. However, it has the problems that plague a metropolitan area ten times its size. Things to know:
·Camden is the poorest city of its size in our nation. It is the fifth poorest of all cities. The median family income is $23,421, well below the state average of $65,370.
·Approximately 60% of city residents are supported in some way by government assistance programs.
·About 40% of the population is under the age of 20. It is a city of children.
·33% of families live below the poverty line. 45% of families headed by a single mom (more then 4200 families) live below the poverty level.
·Two out of 5 homes (about 6,000 in total) in the city are vacant. Many are burned down or boarded up. (Many organizations are now making an effort to address this issue).
·Of an incoming high school freshman class, statistics suggest that 70% will drop out before graduating. Only 4% will go on to a four-year college or university and less than 1% will graduate.
·The violent crime rate in 2001 was 21.4 victims per 1000 residents compared with only 3.9 victims for the state.
·The teen birth rate was 61.9 per 1,000 girls in 2000. Compare this to the county rate of 22.5, and the state rate of 15. Camden’s infant mortality rate is more then twice the national average.
·According to the 2000 Census, 53% of the population identified themselves as African-American, 39% as Latino, 2.5% as Asian, and 17% as White.
Tomorrow, I have a paper due regarding the community service I have completed throughout my high school years. In my paper, I reflected on one experience in particular—my work in Camden, NJ. If you would like to read it over and give me feedback, that would be absolutely amazing. (:
I went on a service trip over the summer to Camden, NJ. My experience there was incredible. If you don’t know anything about the situation there, google it. Just one exerpt from Wiki reads, “Based on statistics reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Camden was the third-most dangerous city in the U.S. during 2002, and has been ranked the nation’s most dangerous city in 2004, 2005 and 2009, based on crime statistics in the six categories of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and auto theft.
The newspaper at my school asked me to write about my favorite experience there. They’ll probably only use parts of it but still… this is my first draft. Any editing advice would be much appreciated (:
Visiting New Visions was by far my favorite part of this summer’s trip to Camden, NJ. New Visions is a homeless day shelter—a living room for those who don’t have one. Here, the homeless can “hang out,” socialize, rest, acquire donated clothes, receive a meal, shower, and even use the address for job applications. Visiting a place like this can feel somewhat awkward at first. I walked into the living room nervous and unsure of what to expect, and left with a changed perspective on…everything. The best decision I made at there was sitting down with someone alone. Though this was quite daunting at first, I ended up having some of the best one-on-one conversations of my life. Because of this, I met David. He’s this super skinny, tall black man who always wears those dress-up vests you commonly see under a suit. He has two (when I met him he was wearing a brown one) and these vests are his signature style. He personalized them with a Support Our Troops pin—he’s a Vietnam veteran of the Air Force. And now he’s homeless. In Junior Year history we learn about Vietnam and the high rate of homelessness facing the veterans. I met this statistic face to face and he was so much more than a number, one of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met. He was open, honest, blunt, loving, and very articulate as he shared about his childhood in Philadelphia, his two daughters who are happy, healthy and far away from Camden, his time at war, and the many struggles he’s faced since then. He was also intrigued by my own life. In about an hour, we had both learned, it seemed, an unmeasurable amount from one another. But when the time came to leave, my heart throbbed when I remembered where this man who had made such an impact on me would sleep that night: a tent under a bridge on the side of a highway in, what is known as, tent city. Before I left that day, David gave me a parting gift—one of his two prized Support Our Troops pins. Come ask me to see it, it’s on my school backpack. This pin serves as a constant reminder of the struggles I witnessed in Camden, but also of the hope and love instilled in the people there. Despite their circumstances, their faith and courage is evident to anyone who steps out of their comfort zone and puts him or herself out there. The experience of getting to know these people is more than worth it. It will change your perspective on life and allow you to feel connected to all people, regardless of superficial boundaries, such as one’s socio-economic status. So, take the next service opportunity to go to Camden andstep out of your comfort zone, away from everything you know.Immerse yourself in this new experience and let it change you and help you grow. Engage in conversation and, instead of listening with your ears, listen with your heart. You won’t regret it—that’s a guarantee.
open your eyes and observe everything. open your ears and listen to everyone. at night, listen to the silence. open your heart and leave it open. open your mind and think. then open your mouth and say what you will. - EJM.