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Camden 2018: “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.” – Mother Teresa

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 …

Appalachia 2017 – Days 7 & 8

Hard to believe that another Appalachia trip has come to a conclusion … as we are now heading along the roads of Virginia before we travel the length of I81 in Virginia – from exit 14 and exit 323 (and then some). Big thanks to our 29 students and 13 chaperones for another outstanding week. Let’s take a look back at our final hours in KY:

After a final trip for some to Fish Pond Lake, the crews returned to their five work sites to continue their projects and attempted to put the finishing touches on their assignments. Kenny’s crew returned to their house in Whitesburg and completed painting the exterior of the house. They also made good progress inside with trim work around the windows they installed earlier in the week. 

The second crew returned to the work site and finished painting the exterior of the house. This was a rental property where the previous tenants didn’t leave the house in the best of conditions. Having already painted the interior and scraping a horrible green paint off the foundation of the house, this crew got a significant amount of work completed this week.

The third crew, working with Johnny, made great progress on their deck construction. I drove out to see their progress yesterday and it’s safe to say they were out in the boonies. I hadn’t ever traveled out to the area where they were working. Greeted by three very friendly dogs (including an adorable puppy), I found the crew working hard in Friday’s heat and humidity. They definitely got some great work done this week for the 80 year old homeowner.

The fourth crew, working with Harrison, made solid progress towards completing their deck and ramp construction for a handicap resident. By the time they left on Friday, the majority of the deck and ramp was in place and the next crew will put the finishing touches on the project. The pictures below are from Thursday:

The fifth and final group, working with Fuzz, worked on another rental property in Millstone on Thursday and Friday. Besides demo-ing a shed in the back yard (that they literally pushed over) and loading the wood into the truck to be taken to the dump, a crew also worked installing insulation and water vapor protection in a crawl space under the house. Both projects were tough ones but great progress was again made.

The Friday evening dinner is always a refrigerator review – but with lots of variety, the menu did not disappoint. Everyone had clean-up tasks following dinner (vans, bunks, etc.). Fr. Cip celebrated mass and then our final group reflection was held – where everyone shared some final thoughts on their Appalachia experience. Using the Fun. song “We are Young”, everyone was encouraged to “set the world on fire”. 

Saturday morning brought a 6am wake up, a quick breakfast and the final packing of the vans. As we do each year, we took our group picture outside the volunteer quarters. We were even running ahead of schedule and got on the road twenty minutes early. We have six hours of driving ahead of us today before we reach our hotel in Chambersburg, PA. We will celebrate mass together this evening, the seniors will do a final group reflection, and then we will head to dinner. We plan to hit the road in the morning around 7am and should be back to ND (traffic permitting) around noon.

A huge thanks again to a great group of kids and a real special group of chaperones for making the 26th annual ND trip to Appalachia a great success. Already looking forward to 2018 … (after some rest this summer first). 

Until next year…

Appalachia 2017 – Day 6

As the calendar changed from Wednesday to Thursday, the Notre Dame crews were renewed and ready to hit the worksites again. After our day off yesterday, the students and chaperones were ready to pick up where they left off on Tuesday and get as much done before our final day tomorrow. With the sun shining, it was the warmest day of the week thus far, but that didn’t stop the groups from getting great work accomplished. 

Albeit a bit smaller than earlier in the week, a group hit Fish Pond Lake bright and early for a walk or run. Returning to camp, everyone received their assignments which were pretty similar to Tuesday. 

The group which had been working here on the HOMES property drove about 20 minutes to a home which needed some TLC. Working in the crawl space under the house installing insulation and outside demo-ing an old shed, the group worked hard amd will return tomorrow to pick up where they left off. 

For me, it was an interesting drop off for this group (as I shuttled them to and from the site) since their house was two doors down from a house we helped build on one our first trips to Neon way back in 2003. It’s good to see the house still standing. Here’s a picture of the house today:

The second group continued their exterior painting project and worked until they ran out of paint. They are making awesome progress and did a fantastic job with their interior painting. 

The third group continued their deck and ramp building project. The ramp will allow a resident’s grandson who is in a wheelchair to have easier access to the house. 

The four group continued their rehab project – painting the exterior of the house and working on trim work around the windows. Power tools were used – always adding extra fun to the work day. 

The final group continued their porch building project – making further progress towards completion. 

The evening featured a stir fry dinner, mass, and the third annual Appalachia talent show. 

Tomorrow the groups head out for their final work day and look to complete as much work as possible before our final reflection and packing up of the vans. 

Until tomorrow …

Appalachia 2017 – Day 5 

Wednesday is traditionally our “off” day. After the chaperones cooked bacon, eggs and pancakes for breakfast, we loaded up the vans and drove about 90 minutes to Breaks Interstate Park – which straddles the Kentucky/Virginia border. With another brilliant weather day, we had ideal conditions for a day by the pool, or hiking the trails, or horseback riding. After working hard for two days – and two more days coming – everyone took advantage of this day off.  

Before I share some more info on our evening, here are a few more pictures from the worksites on Tuesday …

From our visit to Breaks Interstate Park:

After returning to Neon, people grabbed a quick shower before pizza – and our annual trip to the Pentecostal church in Mayking for their Wednesday evening prayer service. Johnny, one of the crew leaders for HOMES and the church’s pastor, extends an invitation to us annually to join his congregation in song and prayer (and for ice cream following). We always appreciate the warmth and hospitality – as Johnny greets us at the door and members of the congregation work around the room shaking everyone’s hand. Without a doubt, the service is a different than the Catholic mass which we are all accustomed to, but joining our voices together (shout out to Liv Keden who sang Ave Maria for the group) and praying together to Jesus is always a special evening. This year was no different – visiting Johnny and his church family gave us the opportunity to more fully appreciate the culture and life of this local community.

Thursday will bring everyone back out to the work sites to continue their efforts on each project. More stories and more photos tomorrow. Until then…

Appalachia 2017 – Day 4 in Photos

Being at the state park today (Wednesday), I have a much better cell signal which is allowing me to upload pictures from yesterday. More pictures and a blog posting again this evening …

Appalachia 2017 – Day 4

The sun continued to shine today. Matter-a-fact, the weather was very un-Kentucky-like. Sunny. 75 degrees. Light breeze. No humidity. Perfect day to continue the great work everyone started at five different work sites yesterday.

As is now the case each morning, a group (albeit smaller than yesterday) traveled to Fish Pond Lake for a sunrise walk or run. Mother Nature didn’t disappoint – with a mist over the water and the sun rising over the mountains, it was a great start to the day.


Our group was divided up into five again today, with a few students shifting work sites due to shifting projects. The first group, again with Kenny in Whitesburg, worked on removing old roofing shingles and cleaning up a yard from a roof replacement. With dozens of steps between the materials to be junked and the dump truck, the crew used a pulley system to raise the buckets of garbage up to street level.


The crew which stayed back at HOMES literally worked removing a hillside – to create stairs and a pathway for future volunteers to reach their sleeping quarters. This group also found a kitten out and about today – a pet many, I’m sure, wanted to smuggle home to CT. (I tried to explain the logicial obstacles including a 10 hour van ride and a hotel stay so the cat remains a Kentucky resident!)

The group working with Johnny continued their deck project as did Harrison’s group. Both groups made good progress and will resume their efforts on Thursday.

The large crew working with John continued their rehab assignment and made excellent progress. As one of the chaperones noted, the work was tough today (they were scrapping paint off the old foundation), but not one student complained. Their efforts were fantastic and the progress that has been made in just two days was excellent.

For dinner this evening, we had our traditional BBQ – burgers, dogs, baked beans, corn bread, and fries. An intense game of ultimate frisbee followed (I think it was 17 vs. 17) … and then a shower or two was enjoyed.

Tomorrow is our “off day”. With the volunteers and HOMES crew leaders working 10 hour days on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, Wednesday is a day off for all. We will be heading to Breaks Interstate Park for some downtime tomorrow. I will share some pictures – I’m sure there will be some paddle boating, hiking and poolside photo opportunities. Continue to send the prayers for a productive and safe week our way. They are much appreciated.

P.S. – apologies for the lack of pictures in this post. The internet connection is being pretty funky – and it’s 11:15 at night – I’m exhausted. So – I’ll will work to get you pictures tomorrow or check out my Twitter (@ndfprincipal) for pictures from the day.

Until tomorrow…

Appalachia 2017 – Day 3

Our first work day in Appalachia began early with a 5:15 alarm for all those interested in walking or running at Fish Pond Lake. When I was telling the kids about the lake, I apparently did a good job selling it – as we had a group of 30 make this short 15 minute drive this morning. I think that’s a record crowd (although I’m willing to wager it will get smaller as the week wears on). We were treated to a crisp morning (it was in the low 50s — a bit chilly, to be honest) and a beautiful sunrise. There was mist over the lake and only the sound of birds chirping in the woods. It really was spectacular. Two of our chaperones (Pauly and Mezz) even tried their luck at fishing, but apparently the fish were still sleeping at that early hour as they didn’t even get a bite. Besides one student taking a wrong turn while running (don’t worry – she was found!), the visit went smoothly and we were back in the vans by 6:45.

Returning back to camp we found out that out group would be divided up into five groups – one staying here at HOMES and four driving to their work site anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes away. Here’s a run down on the worksites:

The first group traveled to Whitesburg with Kenny to work on roofing and windows. Kenny worked with HOMES many, many years ago (when he was 19 or 20) and when we first started coming to Neon back around 2000. It was great to see Kenny back in a HOMES shirt and working with our kids. The group of six worked on shingling a roof and painting windows for a local resident.

The second group worked with Johnny – a long time HOMES employee – finishing a new porch for a local resident. The group will continue their work on Tuesday – working on the banisters and a roof over the porch.

The third group worked with Harrison – who I mentioned last night. This group, too, worked on a porch while also building a ramp for a local family who has a grandson in a wheelchair. They tore down the old porch, dug holes for posts and will continue their work tomorrow.

The fourth group worked on a HOMES-owned property. When HOMES builds a residence, they have retain the right to regain possession of the property should the homeowner default on the mortgage or walk away from the house. This is the case here – and the group painted the interior of the home today – before a new resident moves in. They will continue painting tomorrow – this time outside.


The final group stayed back at HOMES and worked on a long-term project of building a set of stairs to help volunteers more easily reach their sleeping quarters.

As you can see, the work was varied, but as we heard during our reflection this evening, all students and chaperones had a great day one experience and looked forward to returning tomorrow to pick up where they left off today. Everyone was reminded to continue to take in the sights and sounds of Appalachia – and to speak with all those who they meet. Ask questions. Everyone has a story and a perspective. And part of the Appalachia experience is to expand your own perspective – what better way than by talking with local residents.

The forecast for tomorrow continues with the nice weather … and the great work of our group will no doubt continue. More people to meet … and more experiences to be had.

Until Tuesday evening …


Appalachia 2017 – Day 2

Waking up in Harrisonburg, VA, our group had a leisurely start to our day, with breakfast at the hotel and an 8:45 departure scheduled. The sun was shining and the humidity was low – it was a great day to finish our five hour drive down I81 and through the “byways” of Virginia and Kentucky. Per usual, light traffic allowed us an easy drive and with a few bathroom stops and a lunch break factored in, we pulled into HOMES a few minutes before 4:00. We were greeted by a familiar face.

Harrison, our volunteer coordinator and one of the HOMES carpenters, has been working here for the past 22 years. With ND having been to Neon for 15 of the past 17 years, we have worked on many job sites with Harrison and consider him a friend. As always, he greeted us with a warm smile, a few hugs, and helped us to get settled in. The van was unpacked, the kitchen stocked, and bunks claimed. Harrison then shared a few stories (the bear eating in the dumpster last August was the newest in his repitore) and held the safety orientation with the group. 

Quickly following, dinner prep began and a first of what will be many trips to the Food Lion was made for food for both tonight and tomorrow. A special shout out to the parents who treated us to their sauce and meatballs! Everything was delicious and we have leftovers -so it will be enjoyed again. 

Another special thanks to the chaperones and students who prepared cupcakes for dessert to celebrate Joanna and my 12th wedding anniversary. It’s hard to believe that it’s been twelve years … quite often we “celebrate” on this trip, which might not be the most romantic, but is an important part of our past and our present. And with our boys along with us – not to mention a great group of students and adults – it’s always enjoyable. 

To round out our evening, Fr. Cipriani celebrated mass and there were several games of frisbee, basketball and cards. We will find out our projects for the week in the morning. Prior to that, a group of about 30 are signed up to visit Fish Pond Lake for an early morning run or walk. My alarm is set for 5:15 am – with a 5:30 departure to the lake – so I think it’s time to wrap up…

Until tomorrow…