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Camden 2017: What an Amazing Experience

At our final evening reflection on Saturday night, we were asked to share how we witnessed God this weekend in Camden. It was so affirming to hear students speak about their weekend and the impact it had upon them – not just Notre Dame students, but also the students from St. John the Baptist on Long Island and Loyala from NYC who were with us this weekend. It was pretty obvious to me that the goals and objectives of this inner-city service and social justice experience were met.

Reflecting back on the day (Saturday), ND was assigned to the Neighborhood Center in south Camden. This organization does everything from provide free meals to run a teen center to offe afternoon young child programming and activities. And they’ve been doing it since 1913 in one form or another. They even have an amazing urban garden which provides the food cooked during the warm weather months.

At Neighborhood Center we met the program coordinator Vedra. Vedra shared her story with us – she grew up in Camden, went to college and inti the business world, toured the US and the world with Cirque de Soleil as a singer. A detail she left out, but was uncovered by the diploma hanging in her office, was that she graduated from Harvard. Camden to Harvard and ultimately back to Camden to serve those in her community. Wow. Powerful stuff.

At The Center, we were tasked with cleaning out the panty. You see, the pantry had too many unwanted guests, and not the ones that walk on two legs. I have to say what an amazing job our crew did considering several of the guests were scurrying for cover and some of their departed relatives were left behind. We ended up removing a significant amount of unuseable food and filling a dumpster. I’ve done a good amount of service work in my day and I can confidently say that this project was one of the messier and probably most difficult one to do. A huge shout out to the ND crew for their amazing work, without complaint, to help make the facility better for the program and the people it serves.

On our first night, one of the Romero Center staff mentioned that if Jesus was physically among us today, where would he be? Quite possibly, he would be with His people and serving those who need it most – maybe right there in Camden. Wit that idea in mind, back to that reflection question from earlier. Where have I witnessed God this weekend? Quite simply, in all the people I’ve met. From the staff at the Romero Center, to the staff and clients at our work site on Friday, to Vedra at Neighborhood on Saturday, to the entire group of students and chaperones in Camden this weekend. I am proud of all these students for traveling far out of their comfort zone time and again and for learning valuable lessons about justice, hunger, poverty, compassion, concern, conviction … and most of all, the importance of serving all.

Big thanks to the staff at the Romero Center, Patrick, Richard and Theresa, and to our amazing ND crew here this weekend: Areli Anderson, Margaux Atkins, Brianni Davallier, Grace Gallagher, Karen Garza, Jalyssa Howell, Delanie O’Keefe, Nicole Posada and, of course, my amazing service partner and wife, Joanna. Thanks for the memories and the valuable lessons, Camden, in life, service and justice. I know we are all looking forward to carrying on the Camden-spirit back home …

“You’re Going Where???”

It was 2007 when we last visited. So much has happened on our end in the ten years since the last time we stepped foot in Camden but so many of the images in the city remain the same. Camden is still a dangerous city. Camden still suffers a high unemployment rate and a low high school graduation rate. Camden still has a mean income rate of under $22,000 per year. Camden has lost over 50,000 jobs since the days when Campbells Soup and RCA Victor called Camden home. Camden still has drug corners and way too many boarded up buildings. Camden’s 77,000 residents (a pretty small city by today’s standards — it’s only 10 square miles) still face many struggles each and every day. But as we were reminded shortly after our arrival at the Romero Center, these 77,000 folks from Camden – and everyone we are going to meet during our short 3 day visit – are all God’s children and it’s great to be with them even for just a short period of time.

After a welcome and dinner, our first evening at Romero was spent watching a document called Pyne Poynt which highlighted both the struggles and successes of Camden through the eyes of the North Camden Little League. It’s available on Amazon Prime and I would highly recommend! It helped to set the tone for our experience and put things in perspective. One of the lines in the movie that resonated with me was when a twenty something life-long resident of Camden said, “Growing up, I thought going to jail was just part of becoming a man”. I can’t even imagine … but that’s reality for far too many here. After a discussion and reflection, it was off to bed…

This morning (Friday) began at 7:15 with a discussion about poverty – and some crazy statistics like: 46 million Americans live below the poverty line ($22,000 or there about) in America. This translates to 1 in 6 children. Families living at or below the poverty line on average have $3 per person per day for food – so a family of four needs to put three meals on the table for just over $10. Healthy eating isn’t an option. Our lesson in this reality came when we broke up into groups of 4 and set off for the local grocery store to spend $12 – and that would be the food we ate today. And that was it. Whatever $12 would buy. 

My “family” was given a scenario, though, where one family member didn’t have a green card (a very real scenario), so they couldn’t receive any government assistance – meaning my family had $9 to spend instead. (Joanna’s group had a “health” issue for a family member and they couldn’t buy anything with more than 5% sodium – not an easy task on a tiny budget.) So off to the store we went to find 3 meals for under $9 (or multiple inexpensive options with low sodium). We decided upon our menu for the day: two bananas for breakfast, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and pasta with sauce (and toast) for dinner. We spent a little under $8. Let me tell you – what a powerful exercise to accomplish several goals: understanding the impact and extent of poverty, living in solidarity with the millions who go without on a daily basis, and reaffirming an appreciation for how lucky we are. In the end, many essential food groups were missing and we were all definitely more tired than usual from our poor eating – but this is reality for far too many.

Hitting the volunteer sites today took our group to two locations, both across the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia. My group, which included Areli, Karen, Brianni and Grace, visited Mercy Neighborhood House, an amazing facility started by three nuns back in the nineties to assist Philly’s underserved. With a day care program for over 200 children and an adult day care program for 40, their services and facility were impressive! We were fortunate to work with the adult group today and had the opportunity for a ministry of presence. Arriving while the residents were eating breakfast, we were able to sit down and chat for a while. I had my most interesting conversation with Dolores, a great-great grandmother of two, a great-grandmother to 34 (not a typo) and a grandmother to a dozen. She loved to share stories about everything from Trump to her working days to her daughter. It was such a rewarding experience to see the clients and the staff in action – all God’s children.

Joanna’s group visited Inglis House which serves adults with disabilities. The students included Delaney, Jalyssa, Margaux and Nicole. The group sang songs, completed arts and crafts and had the most important opportunity to sit, talk and get to know some of the residents. As Jalyssa mentioned tonight, “Everyone was in a wheelchair, but they were all so grateful for life.” Yet another chance to interact with God’s children.

Even though so much has changed on our end in the past decade, Camden remains the special place it was when we last visited. It is still a city that needs the attention it deserves to give its people the equality and justice they deserve. Camden is full of opportunity. It’s good to be back.

A Pretty Special Story

I am often asked “why should we, as a potential family, select Notre Dame?” “What makes Notre Dame different from other schools?” In an attempt to answer that, let me share this story with you:

Earlier in the week I was approached by two juniors. The young ladies were inquiring as to the balance owed for an upcoming class trip to Boston for one of their classmates. Their friend, about whom they were inquiring, had just lost her mother. They wanted to help cover the balance of the trip so their friend had one less thing to worry about during this understandably very difficult time.

Fast forward a few days – the same students checked in again and after having time to go through some paperwork, I provided them with their answer. Within three hours they were back in the office turning over singles, fives and tens. See, they took up a collection among their friends and teachers and quickly hit their goal. But they said they were going to keep going so the student “had some spending money too”.

Well – there’s your answer to the question asked by prospective families. Our students looking out for each other. The Notre Dame Family. It’s why I do what I do everyday. They make it all worth it. Bravo, ladies. Bravo.

Construction is Underway …

If you’ve driven down Park Avenue recently, you probably noticed that construction on the new turf field is underway. So exciting to see forward progress … the goal is to have the field ready for play in September (at some point). Here are some pictures from Monday afternoon before the thunderstorms rolled through: 

The Spirit Continues …

I always like to hear about the successes of our graduates. I like to think that a Notre Dame education gives a person the skills and tools needed for a successful future in both college and in life. But, honestly, the stories I enjoy the most are those about a graduate completing a service experience after their days at ND. Whether that be a week long domestic or international service trip in college or a post-graduate year of service, I love to hear the stories of our former students continuing to help those in need – both near and far.

I strongly believe that service is a very important component of the high school experience, and I hope that students realize the true value in serving others while still a teenager. (It’s not just a requirement each year.) I often tell my own personal story that I didn’t have the opportunity to learn this important life lesson until I was well through college. I look at our students as being very fortunate to have that experience at a younger age. Well, I’ll get off my soap box now, but the reason for sharing these thoughts was to highlight the group of 19, including 13 graduates (the other six are former student trip chaperones) who returned to Neon, Kentucky this past week for a special alumni Appalachia trip. We organized this trip in honor of the program’s 25th anniversary, which was celebrated a few weeks ago.

For three of us (myself, Joanna and Paul Marzik), we were just here 10 days ago with the annual student trip, but for the rest of the group, they returned to Kentucky after a few years away to continue to spread the ND spirit of service and to help make a difference here in Letcher County, Kentucky.

Our small group was divided up into four this week, each with a very different task. (Two groups returned to the same work sites our students served last week.) The worksites included: building a porch and roof on a framing site, installing floors for an elderly resident, installing insulation in a crawl space under the HOMES volunteer quarters, and completing quite the large landscaping project for HOMES. Personally, I was on the crawl space worksite and it gave me an appreciation for working in an office at school. We were on our hands and knees crawling around the “basement” all week and at times had to do an “army crawl” since the space was so tight. Needless-to-say, we finished our task, had a lot of fun in doing so, and have a new appreciation for the opportunity to walk upright!

Here are some pictures from the week:

Here’s a roster of our group:

Class of 2010: Paul Marzik, Eleni Stefanatos

Class of 2011: Joe Solomene

Class of 2012: Geissy Bitencourt, Victoria Schnaufer, Jacqueline Rzasa

Class of 2013: Steve Cavallo, Annie Dunn, Lauren Jones, Aly Furguiele, Jen Mezzapelle

Class of 2015: Michelle DeLeon, Becky Stefanatos

Chaperone Alumni: Joanna Cipriano, Janet Cordova, Dorrine Sopko, Fr. Peter Cipriani, Jessica Medoff and myself.

After a long week in the heat and many hours at the worksites, I can say that it was another successful ND service trip to Appalachia. It is so wonderful to see our graduates come back to¬†continue to give of themselves. These kids (and so many more who weren’t able to be here this week) definitely learned that valuable life lesson of serving others.

The ND Appalachia Tradition lives on …

Here Comes The Turf

I’m sure some might not believe me at this point. But, in what has been five years in the making, I received word late last week that construction on the new turf field – to replace the grass Park Ave. field – will begin on Monday, July 11! This field is the result of the sale of some land to Sacred Heart in 2011 and will be used by both schools’ athletic programs. The Sacred Heart construction team is optimistic that the construction of this field will move quickly and be ready for fall teams to use. But whether it’s done in four, eight or twelve weeks, the field will serve as the new home to the ND soccer, lacrosse and softball teams. I certainly appreciate the efforts of our educational partner, Sacred Heart University, the hard work of many people behind the scenes to get us to this point, and I know we all look forward to seeing our teams in action on the turf.

In addition to the turf, we will be announcing very exciting athletic field improvement plans to our campus (and the associated fundraising campaign) in the very near future. In the meantime, take a last look. The field won’t look like this for much longer: 

I’ll be sure to keep you updated on the progress…

Appalachia 2016 – More Pictures!

So Father Luke sent me a whole mess of pictures this morning. I thought I would share some of them here. He was on the framing site, as you can see, but some other fun shots from the camp are included. Enjoy.