Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships

Students in Camden Inspire Their Community and Share Lessons with HHS Staff

In July, the HHS Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships had the privilege of meeting with a group of young people who have done more for their community in five months than others might do in a lifetime.  The Student Leaders' Von Nieda Park Task Force of St. Anthony of Padua Church and School in Camden, New Jersey is a group of highly motivated, energized middle school students who were unhappy about what they saw in their community and decided to take action.

The students shared their passion for making change in their community with staff from the HHS Partnership Center and the Administration for Children and Families.

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Genesis Santana tells a story about “Our Friend Ron,” a former janitor at St. Anthony of Padua Church and School. (by Heather Wilson/PICO National Network)

The students’ most recent project was the beautification of Von Nieda Park in Camden, which borders their school and had been given the nickname, "The Most Depressing Park in the Nation."

In only five months, the students removed graffiti, repaired and painted benches, removed illegally dumped trash and construction debris, installed new swings and basketball nets, constructed two community notice boards, and removed hazardous objects.

The students were assisted by Father Jud Weiksnar, a Franciscan priest and pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church and School, which is a member of Camden Churches Organized for People.  Father Jud has been a quiet yet steady force supporting the students as they assess community needs, address public officials, and organize volunteers.

In addition to describing their efforts and showing pictures of the refurbished park, the students also shared their motivations and philosophies surrounding their work. In particular, the students distinguished between community service and community organizing.  They made the case for community organizing as a long-term investment in their community.  The students were terrific speakers and presenters, and reminded their audience that people of any age can affect change in their community.

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The Student Leaders' Von Nieda Park Task Force, chaperones, and friends from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (by Heather Wilson/PICO National Network)

The students have been recognized at the city, county and state levels, and were one of only 18 groups nationwide to receive a Youth Service Challenge award for the environment, part of the Jefferson Awards for Public Service.  We are excited to see what good works come next for the youth of Camden!

Alexia Kelley is Director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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