Standing With the Poor
Camden, N.J., sits on the Delaware River opposite Philadelphia, Pa., a port city, and is home to both blue- and white-collar workers and a transient population that serves the shipping industry. More than a century ago, Methodist deaconesses founded the Deaconess Home and Community Center to serve the city’s impoverished, which in 1913 included an enormous immigrant population. It offered the newcomers programs in reading and language, Bible study, cooking, sewing, woodworking, nutrition, sports, music, drama and mother’s clubs.
The city transformed over the years and so did the center’s ministries. From 1913-1930, the center served children in mostly segregated neighborhoods of Polish and Italian immigrants. From 1940 through 1960s the area saw a time of “white flight” and increasing poverty and flight of businesses as banks refused loans to growing minority neighborhoods.
Now the community is 60-70 percent African American, with some Hispanic and Asian residents. Forty-four percent of the population lives below the poverty line. In recent decades, the city knocked down abandoned homes, leaving many open lots and increasing green spaces.
Today the immigrant population has a slightly different face, but United Methodist Women continues to be in ministry with the poor in Camden, addressing the community’s health and wellness, spiritual needs and educational needs through the organization now called the Neighborhood Center.
The Neighborhood Center strategically occupies a full city block in an ever-changing and diverse community, offering social services and a food ministry, the Community Kitchen.
Tracy Dredden was on drugs and alcohol when a friend first told her about the Community Kitchen, and she came to eat there. After being connected with a local church and Safe Surrender, a program that helps Camden’s poor to get job training, she found employment and moved across town.
But Ms. Dredden continues to come to eat in the center’s “Community Kitchen” as she reclaims her life. She loves the “Daily Bread” devotional that the center staff hand out and reads it every day. “It’s a blessing! I have an ‘all is well’ attitude for gratitude, knowing I’m in God’s favor today,” she said.
For 13 years, since he started working in a cocoa bean mill near the Camden docks, Lamont Wilson has been coming to the Neighborhood Center. “A bunch of us would come up to eat. It is a blessing, and I appreciate every meal. The center makes a big contribution to the community and helps a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have a place to eat.”
Michael Landis became executive director of the Neighborhood Center in November of 2011 after the center’s board of directors asked him leave his corporate career and step down from the board to lead the center. Mr. Landis had volunteered at the center for the past 20 years and served on its board for three non-consecutive terms.
The center also hired Joanna King as assistant director in July 2011 to lead the children and family educational ministry. Ms. King was formerly a teacher and holds a master’s degree with a background in special education and urban studies.
Mr. Landis, Ms. King and all of the center’s staff are exploring ways to more effectively serve children, families, seniors and other adults living in poverty. In 2012 the center will be celebrating its 99th year of continuous ministry and the board of directors, after a period of discernment and prayer, decided to expand the center’s ministry with the Camden community to include teen programming, a store, a faith-based library, community farming, enhancing educational opportunities and faith formation for children and parents.
The center is also renovating its campus including the refurbishment of the main building, the addition of dining facilities, multipurpose rooms, prayer garden and a new day care center. Additionally, it is working in partnership with the community and the city to revitalize the neighborhood with affordable ?housing, safe parks and athletic fields.
Ms. King and other staff and volunteers went out into the neighborhood, knocking on doors and talking with the center’s neighbors to assess community needs.
“We asked people about their needs: medical care, adult education, legal advice and how these are accessible or not, and how important these are to local residents,” Ms. King said. “Going door to door was overwhelming. Many people were happy to have someone listen to what is important to them. Some folks were just glad we asked.”
The community needs assessment led to three new students for the center’s day care. The day care now serves 24 children from infants to pre-kindergarten. Most come to the center by word-of-mouth and through referrals from family members. The center has added a new teacher and is looking to hire a second.
About 85 children also participate in an after-school program, which has grown to three times the number served last year. The center coordinated with the local school district and now sends a bus to the schools to pick up students.
Health and nutrition
Many also participate in the summer enrichment program, which maxed out at 99 students this past summer. Children especially loved helping with a new raised-bed garden built last summer by Campbell’s Soup volunteers. The children plant, harvest and eat fresh vegetables from the garden, a part of the center’s focus on serving tastier and healthier food for its clients.
The tastier and healthier food came about with the hiring of Dan Ertz, the center’s director of wellness and nutrition, a new program launched July 2011. ?Mr. Ertz is a former police officer and a trained chef. “Nothing does a chef better than to feed appreciative people!” Mr. Ertz said.
One client who is enjoying the improved nutrition is Paul Williams. About 15 years ago, Mr. Williams was laid off from work, and his wife started coming to the center’s Community Kitchen to eat, but he would not come with her at first out of embarrassment. “But everyone in Camden is poor,” he said. “Poverty is middle income for Camden.” Now that he is retired and single, eating at the center is more a necessity and saves him more than $200 per month in food costs. “Besides,” he said, “I enjoy it and enjoy the healthier food.”
“Everybody deserves a decent meal — whether they come in a Cadillac or on crutches, it doesn’t matter. Everyone gets fed,” Mr. Ertz said.
Besides being an excellent chef, Mr. Ertz partners with his wife, Joanna Vogel, to plant the garden, while also serving as handyman, and helping with the September 11 block party and community cleanup.
In September, when Hurricane Irene blew in, center staff decided to open up and offer shelter throughout the storm. Fearing for the city’s homeless, the staff coordinated with a pastor whose ministry serves persons living in tents near the Admiral Wilson Boulevard, and she brought people over in her van. The center’s year-round ministry became round-the-clock until the storm was over.
Kharis Ndukwe, affectionately known as “Miss Karrie,” is a neighbor who lives close to the center. One day she saw the soup kitchen attendant laboring, stood up and started volunteering. She helped with the Community Kitchen, cleaning, moving, fixing things and more.
With years of experience and insider’s knowledge of the community and the center’s clientele, she was hired this past summer to be part of the center’s staff. Both staff and clients are heard to say, “Miss Karrie runs the place!”
The center’s board of directors members are also active volunteers in all facets of the Neighborhood Center’s ministry, including Mary Martz, president of the board for the past two years. This interaction makes the center a member of the community.
In October 2011 about 50 community members — including Camden’s Mayor Dana Redd and Dr. Robert Costello, district superintendent of the Gateway South District, and the center’s board of directors, staff and volunteers — came together to envision a future for the center. The discussion centered around three topics: spiritual needs, health and wellness, and education and development.
Based on the finding from the Community Needs Assessment surveys, the visioning explored ideas like taking a trailer to make a grocery store for the neighborhood; expanding community gardens to be worked by the children, seniors and food ministry participants; developing the property with low-income housing; and creating a laundry for people to wash clothing.
The center, they concluded, has much work yet to do.
Suzy Keenan is director of communications for the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. She is a member of United Methodist Women at West Chester United Methodist Church, West Chester, Pa.