The internet was not working last night….

I have failed to blog during this trip for a combination of not finding the time and just emerging into this experience. On our last night, I am feeling so many emotions. But the one that is the most prominent is that of gratitude. I am truly blessed to have such a passionate and loving team. On site and in our daily reflections, I have witnessed a spark in each and every one of them. They are inspiring, courageous, funny and beautiful( even Taylor). They have been leaders here at the Boys and Girls Club and I trust the world in their hands. I also want to thank Exec and especially Amber for coordinating arranging such am experience. If it was for your logistical support and responsibilities, we would be displaced.
ASB is essential in creating socially aware and active citizens.
Thank you. ASB

Habitat for Humanity

Friday was our last day of service at the Romero Center and a few of the other girls and I went to a Habitat for Humanity site in Camden. The site that we worked on was three row houses that are being built on a street corner. Habitat for Humanity has been working in Camden for over ten years and has restored many abandoned houses and built many others. We worked with a carpenter who was very passionate for what he was doing. He has been working for Habitat for six years and he has learned how to work well with volunteers, especially inexperienced ones like us. The houses that we were working on have been under construction since August so there were not full roves on the houses. Since it snowed the night before, we had to shovel the snow out of the second floor of the house before the roof could be worked on. Some of the dry wall had gotten wet from the snow so it had to be removed from its wooden frame. We were sitting at the top of a roofless house tarring dry wall apart and I couldn’t help but enjoy the view. Even such a dangerous and impoverished place as Camden just looked like another beautiful city from above. We have done a wide variety of different types of service throughout the week, many of which involved just spending time with people and learning their stories. Though I enjoyed and learned from each of the different types of service, the Habitat for Humanity day was very hands on and really made me feel like I was accomplishing something and it was a great way to end the week!

“Charity is good…but justice is better.”

It’s hard to believe that today was our last day of service in Camden. It has truly been an eye-opening experience; the people that we have met, the relationships we have formed, and the knowledge we have gained will hopefully carry through with us for the rest of our lives. I don’t think that I am alone in saying that I was a bit uneasy upon my arrival to Camden, after hearing all of the negative comments that people had to say about the city. How many of these people who were so quick to judge a place and its residents had actually taken the time to get to know “those people” that live in Camden? I have heard from many residents of Camden throughout the week that people are very quick to turn a blind eye to Camden and the issues that this area faces. The Romero Center has been really great in providing our ASB team with educational speakers/activities to help open our eyes and get us thinking about what the underlying causes of these issues are. As a nation, we are guilty of allowing  inequalities to be perpetuated; we need to do more than just ‘charity.’ Father Bob McDermott, the pastor here at St. Joseph’s in Camden, said something the other night that really stuck with me: “Charity is good, and something that we should all do…but justice is better.” A  just nation is something that I wholeheartedly believe we should be (and are) working towards. This trip is one step forward in an effort towards a more just nation; we have become more educated and aware of issues that citizens of our country face on a daily basis and what we can do to improve these situations. Personally, I have become more aware of an issue that I never really thought much about as an ‘issue’ so to speak: loneliness. I have learned that the mere action of being present and a listening ear can really make all of the difference. At Wiley House, a day care center for the elderly and people with disabilities, I approached an older man who was sitting alone at a table and talked to him for a little while. He lived alone at his home, and came to the center just to be around other people and to have something to do. At the end of our conversation, he told me how thankful that I took the time to talk to him. He was so appreciative of what seemed like such a simple act. The elderly are all too often ignored by our society, and often by their families, as well. The loneliness that they must face is a hardship that I can not even imagine. Honestly, I could go on and on about this trip, but our team is getting ready to listen to a speaker in a few minutes so I will restrain myself. ASB Camden has truly been an awesome experience and I can’t wait to get back to Lafayette and tell everyone about it!


Hope in North Camden

On Wednesday morning, four of my team members and myself piled into our van and headed on our way to North Camden, an area considered to be the worst part in what is considered the most dangerous city in America. We arrived at Hope Works, where we learned about one of the greatest and truly life-changing organizations I have ever come across in my life.  Here we were introduced to Mike, a year-long volunteer, who told us all about the place we were going to spend the day at. Hope Works offers programs to teach teenagers and young adults computer skills such as web-design and Photoshop. It also tutors the students in preparation for SATs and GEDs. The program typically lasts for 2-3 months, and after completion of the program students are able to work for Hope Works, receive the help they need to further their education with a college degree, and are even given a place to stay. The residence for the college students working with Hope Works is known as “The Crib”, and it’s a gorgeous facility complete with study areas, a common room, and kitchen for community meals.

After learning so much about how this organization really empowers the disadvantaged youths of Camden, we were told about our first job. We were sent to canvas different neighborhoods in the area, putting flyers about Hope Works in every mailbox with help from our delightful guide and graduate from Hope Works, Jamal. He was exceptionally happy and energetic, frequently singing along to the Lady Gaga playing on his iPod.  As we walked through the streets I noticed that there was a larger concentration of abandoned houses in the North Camden in comparison to the rest of Camden I had seen, as sometimes there were 3 or 4 houses consecutively unoccupied and boarded up. It was amazing how receptive the people were to the flyers and information we were handing out, and how people even pulled over their cars on the side of the road and asked for a flyer. Other people told us of people they would spread the word to, and then there were others who simply thanked us.  It was a different experience to be on the other side of the canvassing process, and felt good to know that people were appreciative to learn about something in their community that could really help them.

On our arrival back to Hope Works, Mike gave us a tour of the Crib and where he lived with other volunteers. We sat around the dining room table there and enjoyed mugs of hot chocolate and funny conversation getting to know one another. After our lunch break we were given the opportunity to tutor kids in grammar, math and vocabulary skills. It was inspiring to see their desire and motivation to learn, even if they did not particularly like the subject matter. It made me realize the excellence and level of my own education, especially while I was tutoring a boy my age in grammar skills that I had learned in 3rd grade.

Visiting Hope Works truly did bring me hope about the future of Camden. Knowing there are such genuine, kind, and motivated people willing to develop strong and useful institutions and implement these organizations in the places most desperately seeking them gives some comfort in thinking that change is and will continue happening here.

Sweet Disposition

Crossing over the Benjamin Franklin Bridge while listening to our group’s theme song, “Sweet Disposition”, I felt myself beginning to look at the Camden trip as a whole instead of daily increments. I realized how not only was our trip remarkable regarding the volunteer aspect, but also phenomenal in the friendships I’m making and can take home with me. At the start of the trip, I found myself anxious and scared with being out of my comfort zone. I also found that my uneasiness made me less willing to have an open mind. Within the first half of the trip, I tried to gather what I was learning, develop the life lessons I was obtaining from those who have little to nothing or nothing at all. I found myself holding back from the new people I was encountering. Because of my awkwardness, I reached a mental block and found myself unable to collect my thoughts.

It was through talking to my group members and truly reflecting on service that my uneasiness dissipated. I find myself waking up with an open mind, ready for anything. Each service option has something different to offer and something different to contribute. I realized that I needed to throw myself into the experience without any limitations. And so I did. I feel now, (as it is a day before our trip comes to an end), that the lessons I learned don’t require soul searching; finding them only requires listening or what is here called “ministry of presence.” I understand now that making a difference doesn’t mean playing Superman. It simply calls for giving someone the time of day.

I’ve been involved in service opportunities throughout most of my education and I feel like it took something like ASB to make me grasp the reality of situations. For example, I’m in Camden. I’m in what is critically acclaimed to be the most dangerous and poorest the country. It’s scary, but it’s real and there’s no escaping the reality. Today, I played with a little baby boy, Wamir, in the homeless shelter, New Visions. And to me, he wasn’t homeless. He wasn’t poor. He was like every other one year old sharing the same right to things that most of us take for granted: an education, clothes, a home. He is the future just as much as anyone else.

So, to my teammates, I thank you for helping me break out of my shell and thank you for the experience. Together, we truly have made a difference.

Putting a Face to HIV/AIDS at Francis House

Today is Wednesday, January 19th, 2011, but my post is going to be focused on my service experience from yesterday. I’m actually going to be typing something out of my journal, a journal I have kept for the entirety of this trip. Thus, the first person point of view to follow is a result of that.

On Tuesday, January 18th, 2011, the police force of the city of Camden was cut in half. Firemen and other city workers also faced job loss, and this shocks me. We are staying in the most dangerous city in America, a 9-square mile city with 200 known active drug corners, abandoned lots used as open-air drug markets in some of the worst parts of the city. It’s really upsetting to know that so many of the people here live below the poverty line, that money, and the desire for money, is the source of much evil in the city of Camden.

Tuesday wasn’t like our previous days at the Romero Center. While we had had some type of reflection every morning, Tuesday morning’s reflection was very focused. Our service, our experiences, and our reflections focused a lot on the concepts of compassion and solidarity – truly sharing in and understanding another person’s beliefs, lifestyles, whatever. With that in mind, I began to prepare myself for a day of service.

Annie, Sarah, Ariel, Liz, Lauren and I all went to Francis House today, a ministry of St. Anthony of Padua’s church in Camden. The organization, which has been around for over fourteen years, is run by a woman named Sue. From what John told us, Sue established Francis House in memory of her brother, who died from AIDS. The organization is a place for people infected with and/or affected by HIV/AIDS to gather, a safe place for them to relax, share a home-cooked meal, share in the understanding of a disease that many Americans, many people around the world, hold stereotypes about and are quite uncomfortable with. But over the years, with their family trees, picture-filled walls, trips to Disney and memory quilts, these individuals have become bound by so much more than the disease that unites them; they have become a family.

When the other groups and even the staff at the Romero Center told us about Francis House, they only had the best things to say. One suggestion came to us from Franciscan volunteers that we met at the start of Unity Week. These volunteers, here for an entire year, suggested that we not group together. They encouraged us to be proactive, and put ourselves out there. And right away, that’s what we tried to do, spreading out. Yet when everyone else came in, they clumped into a corner. Eventually, people started to open up and tell us some stories. Sue was working on a piece for a quilt at the time. Each piece was in memory of one of their friends, their family members, who had lost his or her battle with the disease. One of the quilts had been hung on the wall, and I thought that was a truly beautiful way to honor the memory of someone you love. Other than that quilt, there were tons of things filling the walls at Francis House. Tons and tons of pictures brought a true sense of family to the place. They even had a large tree painted on the wall, the leaves each holding the picture of someone special who had entered the center.

At one point during the day, Sue asked Liz and me to help her with something. Just to tell you a little bit about Sue, she is a wonderful person. She is the type of friend that anyone would be lucky to have, not afraid to speak what is on her mind and what she believes in. I feel as though that’s something rare to find in a city like Camden. But anyway, she asked Liz and I to help put together a Tree of Life. The tree had been donated to Francis House by the AIDS Foundation, which had been closed down due to lack of funding. The tree had gold leaves, engraved in memory of people who had lost their lives to HIV/AIDS. Even though we were simply screwing leaves onto a plastic tree, I felt as though the time we spent at Francis House was very meaningful. And although I did not get into deep conversations about the disease with anyone at the shelter, I heard people talking about some of there experiences. All in all, it was just really nice to get to put a face to this disease, and to know that these people are just like we are, that we are all the same in the end.

I’m really glad this blog is available for us to share our experiences from the week. This has really been an interesting week so far, I’m glad that I could be a part of something like it.

Until the next time, peace.

New Perspective

Today six of us went to Francis House which is a safe haven for those suffered or affected by HIV or aids.  It snowed last night and was raining this morning, so when we got there Sue (the woman running the house) said no one was there yet and we should just wait and talk. We didn’t have to wait long before a few men and women entered the building and began talking to each other and us.

We started with small talk, but soon enough a man infected with HIV began talking to Ariel, Annie, and me about his views on life and death; he told us stories about his multiple outer body experiences that made all of us think about religion, faith, and family. While we were talking, Janet and Liz were assembling a remembrance tree that was donated to the center. The tree had golden leaves dedicated to people who had died from infection and Sue plans on hanging the tree in the house once it is completed. We ate a delicious pasta lunch with everyone, helped unload donations from a truck, and make valentines for the rest of our stay at Francis House.

At night we started our Welfare diet. Our group was split up into 3 groups (two groups of 4 and one group of 3) and we were given $0.68 per person per meal to live on for tomorrow. To make things more complicated and realistic, one group of four had to live without utilities because they could not pay their bills. The other group of four had to live on Welfare for only three people because the forth was considered an undocumented person. My family is without utilities and when we all went to the grocery store, the only things we could afford were a load of bread, the smallest jar of peanut butter available, four bananas, 1 pound of grapes, and a box of cereal for the entire day.

Being in Camden, NJ has completely opened my eyes to a world I never knew. While I cannot say I fully understand the difficulty of being a mother and raising a family on welfare, I can say that I don’t know how it can be done. I was stumped and disappointed while food shopping tonight. Today made me think a lot about family, faith, and the many hardships I have been blessed never to come across.

Ruminations from the Bed

This is Rachel LeWitt, coming at you from the Romero Center, main campus, in Camden, NJ. Today was our second day volunteering, and our first opportunity to go to New Visions, a day shelter in downtown Camden whose doors are open to all and whose kitchens serve about 100 people a day. We had been introduced to New Visions through the executive director, Kevin Moran, who spoke to us on the first night about the shelter and what things Camden can expect to see form him and the work he does: a new night shelter called Joseph’s Cafe will open next week! Six of our 11 girls accompanied me to the shelter, and we began by unpacking boxes of juice, various pastas, and pork and juice…. go figure! After the brief stint in the food pantry, we went upstairs and were met with a roomful of voices, laughter and eager faces. We chatted with a few people before coming upon Mister Eddie Isiah Marshall. This man was incredible; intelligent, eloquent and engaging, he held Lexi, Janet and my attention for the better part of three hours. After I had said the word “what” too many times for his liking, he asked me, “What is the definition of what?” I was speechless. For about 5 seconds, and then frantically attempted to come up with something to say. Mister Eddie was a college graduate, who also received his Master’s degree in Psychology (his Bachelor’s was Sociology). Meeting him was definitely the highlight of my visit thus far. I have rarely come upon a person as sharp and intense as he is, and I am looking forward to seeing him again tomorrow when I return to New Visions. After we ate a somewhat hasty lunch in Kevin’s office, we served food to the population that had stayed since breakfast and the various stragglers who made their way in for a hot meal around noon. It was a wonderful experience being able to serve food to so many people who needed it, although some of the people were dishonest about having received food, which we as a group admitted later was a little disheartening. We chatted again with Eddie, and said our goodbyes, with promises of returning soon.

After we got back to the Romero Center, we had a brief interlude with several different types of snacks and hot beverages, with entertainment provided by the Disney coloring books that were brought courtesy of Team Builder Liz Rentschler. Following that, we went on a tour of Camden, led by a member of the wonderful Romero Center staff, Sharrin (sp?) seeing both areas which surprised members of the group with their charm and areas that saddened members of the group with their sorrowful facades. It was striking to see the differences between the security of the tourist-y Camden waterfront, for instance, and the vacant lots and abandoned, dilapidated houses of North Camden, just an underpass away from the tourist areas. The tour added to a growing sense of understanding of some of the issues that face the people of Camden on a daily basis.

We dined again, this time on yummy tacos, minus the actual shells. Conversation topics such as vegetarianism (always a favorite of mine) and speculations as to what we were doing after dinner kept us occupied. After the meal, we went to Saint Anthony of Padua for a service that kicked off their Unity Week. (Tomorrow, 180 members of Camden’s police force will be laid off, in addition to other municipal workers. This is half the police force in an already incredible dangerous city). The members of other local churches came to St. Anthony’s to pray for a “revitalization” of Camden. Some members of the group found the service inspiring, while others found the nature of the evening to be a little too religious. Since we were informed that it would have more of a town hall/meeting type feel, this is understandable. All in all, it was an interesting cultural experience- half the service was in Spanish!, one that I’d never been privy to before. We even prayed over an abandoned building! After the service we enjoyed a special “oneg” or “fellowship” with food and (perhaps Mexican) hot chocolate. Team Leader Ariel, Sarah, Lexi, Steph and I enjoyed a somewhat raucous conversation that somehow steered toward pranks and hand nubs.

Another fantastic reflection by Reflectionator Annie Groves began by asking everyone anonymously to say something with which she was uncomfortable. Answers ranged from happy to serious, but it led to a honest and thoughtful discussion of what we were doing here in Camden, what service means to the individual and to society as a whole, judgments and questions, what we’ve learned so far and what we’re most afraid of when it comes to the unknown.

A marvelous day filled with learning, service and interesting conversation. Can’t wait for the next one!

Camden vs Moorestown

So today we went to the Inglis House, which is a non-traditional nursing home as Sarah the activities coordinator explained it. The residents have various, crippling diseases that make them live their lives in wheelchairs.  The house provides dorm-style rooms for them, equipped with TVs, desks, beds, and walls decorated with cards and photos from their families. The average age range of a resident at the Inglis House is 45-55. Volunteers are taken to the TR (therapy recreation) room to play scrabble, watch movies, paint, or play shuffleboard with the residents. It was an experience I have never witnessed before with people I’ve never encountered before, but I enjoyed it greatly.

The most intriguing part of our first day for me, however, was when we came back from our work sites and watched an old 20/20 video from about 2005. The first part showed children and teenagers walking around Moorestown, New Jersey, where I went to high school and where I still spend afternoons walking around Main Street. I got excited when they showed one of my favorite pizza places and the street right in front of my school. Then, suddenly, they cut to children and teenagers walking around the streets of Camden, New Jersey, only 10 minutes away. In 2004 Moorestown was voted the best place to live in America and Camden was voted the most dangerous place to live. What a shock to see kids dodging drug corners and needles in the bushes with graffiti covering the walls while I was happily attending my sophomore year in high school. The rest of the episode discussed the contrast between children in Camden and in Moorestown. They interviewed kids and teens who both had the same goals and hopes in life, but the Camden children have to work 10 times harder to achieve these things due to their surroundings. They have to overcome the influences of drugs, alcohol, starvation, homelessness, and so much more. After the episode was over, Pastor John asked us to talk about our initial reactions. I told him I was from the Moorestown area and he asked me if I felt guilty after seeing the show, explaining that wasn’t the point. I said no, but that I felt weird and sad and a little uncomfortable with the fact that so close to my home and my friends and my family are people struggling to support themselves on a day-to-day basis. I realized how much I take for granted every day and am so thankful for all that I have. I talked with my mom for a while tonight about why Camden is now so poverty-stricken and how we can help or how they can help themselves, but we didn’t come to any realistic conclusions.

Volunteers of America

Today, Annie and I drove to the VOA (Volunteers of America) in Camden along with three students from Niagra University. VOA is comprised of a few buildings. One building acts as a drop by area for families to do laundry, receive meals and have a warm place to spend time. Another building features many small rooms which homeless single moms can stay in for months at a time to have shelter.

When we first arrived at the site, they told us they weren’t expecting us and that they didn’t know what they had for us to do. We immediately offered to clean or shovel or do anything to help them out. They laughed and said that they could call over some families with children and that we could spend time with the kids in one of the playrooms.

About eight kids were dropped off by different families and spent time with us in the small room stuffed with games, books and stuffed animals. The youngest of the children were 16 month old twin girls with the oldest child being 6. The children were lively and engaged with us the entire time we were there. We mostly played board games and read books with the kids, which turned out to be very rewarding because the kids learned things that they hadn’t known beforehand like how to play a new game or how to spell a new word. I was happy to provide one on one interaction with these children that probably don’t get much attention and nurturing because of their stressful lifestyles of having so little. It was also great to have the moms thank us for spending time with their kids because they had needed the time to get things done like laundry.

-Sarah Swienckowski- Eckhart