As a leader on the trip, I have learned to take a step back and allow others to experience new, and sometimes uncomfortable, situations as part of the learning process. I have come to realize that I can’t change how people act and think, but that I can only hope that later down the road they will understand to be more sensitive and aware of how their words and demeanor affect the greater community. I see time and time again how much heart and soul is embodied within Camden. Despite the lingering affects of poverty, drugs, and crime, we have to take a step back and ask who is affected by these unfortunate circumstances and who is benefiting from them. One day after school, an eighth grader from Camden asks a student from one of the colleges “What’s so great about Camden? Why are you even here?” and the college student struggled to give the right answer. The truth is, there are no right answers to that question. No matter how much we convince ourselves that we were there for the kids, to help them, to do good, we were really there to help ourselves, to learn things about ourselves that we couldn’t see before. The goal of the trip was to have these children of Camden show us college students a reality that is shielded from our more privileged lifestyle.
The alternative spring break trip in Camden, NJ continued to open my eyes to the issues of poverty that the media does not let us see. I had the opportunity to ride a bus with one of the UrbanPromise facilitators to see the north side of Camden. It had so many broken down and boarded-up homes. The sight made me realize that we need to have a war on poverty rather than a war on terrorism.
Poverty affects not only the lives of individuals, but also how a community is viewed and treated. While several factors were likely involved, there is little doubt that poverty played a role in the establishment of prisons and sewage treatment plants in Camden. The city is a convenient location for infrastructures not welcomed elsewhere because its impoverished residents have few means of fighting back. The industrial plants are near residential areas and release noxious odors into the neighborhood. These buildings further lower the quality of life in Camden and slow its recovery.
Serving a community often considered the most poverty-stricken city within the United States opened my eyes not only to the daily struggles faced by residents of Camden, but also to the social injustice created as a byproduct of politics. Breathing the putrid air at a playground near the sewage facility, which was considered "acceptable" on that particular day, was only a tiny glimpse into the environment forced upon people living in the vicinity. The definition of poverty for me has been redefined to include socioeconomic disadvantages that prevent a particular group from having a voice in the placement and development of undesirable facilities, such as wastewater systems and prisons. In addition, interacting with kids K-8, street leaders, and interns at an UrbanPromise after-school program was perhaps the most rewarding and valuable experience from the trip. I had the opportunity to see what Camden was like through their eyes, and, from these exchanges, learn more about community dynamics as well as myself as an individual.
Most mornings, we were raking, and this could be frustrating when many of us were hoping to directly help out with the schools and the children. At the same time, encouraging and inspiring each other, we were able to accomplish much and helped each other to see the importance of even the smallest jobs. In the afternoons, we were finally able to interact with the kids, helping out with the after-school Olympics activities going on that week, yet even this did not seem enough, and the week ended as we were just beginning to connect with the children. It seemed as if we had come together to do a lot of work, but there was still so much left to be done. This last thought served as a reminder that, because we are able to do so much when we come together, we also have the responsibility to do much and to continue to do much, wherever we go. Our service should not stop with ASB.
Our group stayed at a church about 15 minutes away from Camden in Haddonfield. The stark contrast between the two towns really made me aware of the inequality of the opportunities the kids in the two cities were receiving. One night, the church was kind enough to invite us to dinner with their youth group. The kids were being taught table manners and etiquette integrated with a Bible lesson. On our last day working with the Camden kids, we were in South Camden where one of the leaders of UrbanPromise, Boston, explained how often an awful stench is present due to the proximity of a waste treatment center and a trash incinerator plant. He said that what others do not want in their neighborhoods they send to Camden. This was difficult to hear, especially because the Camden kids were all such vibrant characters full of potential. They deserve to live in a safe environment with opportunities just as much as the kids from Haddonfield. Going on the ASB trip to New Jersey made me more grateful than ever for the blessings in my life. I would definitely like to continue working in communities with kids.
I always thought that people who were live in poor conditions aren't really affected by their surroundings. If Camden is anything to go by, this assumption was wrong on my part. After being around and talking with and learning about the Camden children, I have learned that the community of people living in poverty-ridden Camden is aware of the state of their city. These kids know they are poor and they are upset by it and it significantly affects how they view the world.
One of the programs that Urban Promise does is a "Special Olympics" after school tournament like program of games designed to allow the kids to have some fun. Usually, most of the kids don't have transportation to these events and so the Urban Promise staff picks up these kids where they live. One of the days I was there, I and four other students went along with a staff member to go get some kids from North Camden. Anyways, one of the kids we picked up that day was a thin 13 year-old girl with brown hair. When she came on the bus, she seemed friendly so I asked her if she wanted to sit with me. She cheerfully but politely answered, "Yes" and sat down. We started conversing, and I casually commented, "The sky is beautiful today". "Not around here" she replied with a tone that was filled with a mixture of profound sorrow, regret and bitterness. I turned to her and my expression must have conveyed my shock because she quietly put her head down. I realized her comment was more about her no-frills way of life that it was about the aesthetic value of her surroundings. She knew that she had grown up in a city that put no value on the quality of life its residents had. She knew she lived about a mile away from the County and State prisons, and the county waste management facility that made Camden smell like concentrated sewage. And all of this was because the people of her town had no political voice. She understood it all and yet she was still able to smile at me, even generously offer me a piece of her snack. I was filled with compassion for this beautiful young girl and angry that society had put her in this situation. I aimed to help her for the short time I was there- just be her friend. Be like an older sister. Someday, maybe, the sky will be beautiful to her and Camden too.
Before going on my ASB trip, I had never had such a clear juxtaposition of poverty and wealth, and it truly made me see the fine line between the two. This opened my eyes to the real problem, however: many of the children in cities like Camden weren't just underprivileged; they had privileges taken from them. It's one thing to say that a person can't accomplish a goal because they don't have the abilities or resources; it's an entirely different situation, though, when a child in the inner city has, for instance, the mental fortitude to successfully finish school, but is constantly told that he or she cannot. This is exactly why I loved working at UrbanPromise: while institutions like after- school programs served to essentially keep kids out of trouble, UrbanPromise worked harder at making children believe that they can accomplish what they want, regardless of what politicians or leaders of education systems say. It is because of this that the UrbanPromise Academy (UP's high school) has a graduation rate of about 95%, while the regular public schools have a dropout rate of 66%.
It was overwhelming for me to know that “we,” as one of the wealthiest countries in the world, still have cities with these major problems. It angers me to also know that it seems as if nothing is being done to resolve the issues in these cities. I feel that it is wonderful to help countries outside of the US, but feel that it is also important to take care of our own problems first, which can clearly be seen if you visit the neighborhoods and educational systems of Camden.
On my last day in Camden, the afterschool program of Urban Promise was having an Olympics for the children. The last games occurred in South Camden’s park, where every kid in the city knows is not the place to be because of the industrial waste plants overlooking the city. However, during the games, it was amazing to see all the children dismiss the idea of the waste smells coming from the smoking chimneys in the horizon as they had fun with one another. It seemed the problems of Camden were at the back of everyone’s minds during those moments.
We arrived in Camden very much lost, and as we drove aimlessly in our vans, we essentially got our first up close tour of Camden. As I drove, I had to slow down at the sight of drug dealers in broad daylight, mothers my age or younger, and generally impoverished neighborhoods. The police station was old and worn down; it was the smallest building on its street. As we passed an occasional brand new sports car, we were reminded that New Jersey is home to some of the wealthiest communities in the country. Yet, Camden, in its privation, seemed sadly neglected.