Neighborhood Center of Camden, New Jersey, above, serves children, youth and seniors in an economically distressed community.
‘The commandment in Matthew to love your neighbor as yourself informs everything we do.’ - Michael Landis, Executive Director Neighborhood Center Of Camden, New Jersey.
Empty lots and homes in various stages of disrepair dot the landscape of Camden, New Jersey. Poverty is an issue in Camden, where 38.6 percent of the city’s 76,903 residents lived below the poverty line from 2008 to 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Helping women, children and families in this community has been the mission of the Neighborhood Center of Camden, New Jersey, a United Methodist Women national mission institution for 101 years.
“We want to make it easier to be a parent here in Camden,” said Michael Landis, executive director of the center. “Many parents in the city, usually single mothers, are stressed; often they have two jobs. But they know that their children are being loved and fed here. It’s a two-generation approach out of poverty. The children can be here from early morning to late at night so the mother can work and further her education. And we hope that on the way they will find Christ.”
The center’s programs include day care, after-school activities and summer camps for children and fellowship for seniors. It also has a community kitchen that offers lunch and after school meals, a food pantry and a flash grocery store providing food for the holidays.
Reaching out to children
Neighborhood Center’s “Summer Adventure” program enrolls about 85 children from kindergarten to 8th grade with experienced teachers overseeing them. Some of the fun happens on the Pinelands Methodist Camp grounds where the campers travel once a week to hike, learn archery and to swim in the lake. Nature studies about insects, plant identification and using a compass are all part of the program.
“With the wide range of experiences, they can see what they’re interested in. It’s an introduction to nature that they don’t have in their urban world,” said Dorothy Scott, director of children’s programming for the center and a Camden native who remembers the benefits of similar summer and school-year enrichment programs she participated in as a child. “Our challenge is to balance fun and academic enrichment. We try to blend the two. We want all of the students to maintain or reach their grade level. We don’t want them to lose what they gained during the school year.”
The center’s Team Leadership Academy is an after-school drop-in program for teens during the school year. Usually there are about 12 students in the program. Although they are teenagers, participants are picked up from their homes and dropped off at the end of the evening because it is not considered safe to walk around Camden after dark. It’s a city with a very high crime rate, and often the streetlights are not functioning.
“At the academy teens are taught self-sufficiency and life skills and what they need to do to get ready for college,” Ms. Scott said. “They receive help in locating college scholarship and references if they are applying for a job.”
Team Leadership Academy participants work as paid camp counselors for the center’s day camp during the summer.
Neighborhood Center offers similar programming for 5- to 13-year-olds during the school year. In addition to a getting a hearty snack of chicken with rice or spaghetti and meatballs, the children can use the center’s computer room to complete their homework. Camden public school teachers post class lessons and assignments online, so center staff can work in concert with the school curriculum to help the students.
Children stay at the center until six o’clock when their parents arrive to take them home.
Neighborhood Center is open for a lunchtime meal every day of the year. Mr. Landis says the number of people fed varies depending on the time of the month. In the beginning of the month, it is mainly homeless people, averaging about 100 a day, who come to eat. Toward the end of the month, when many low-income families have run out of food stamps funds, up to 250 people, including families, often come in for the lunch meal.
Neighborhood Center’s food programs are headed by Lou Wilson, a trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America, known as the other CIA, one of the top culinary schools in the United States. Mr. Wilson’s coming to the program has become a center legend.
“After four different cooks did not work out for the lunch program, Mr. Wilson turned up one day, saying, ‘I feel called to work here,’” Mr. Landis said. Years earlier, Mr. Wilson had volunteered at the center. His essay about this experience landed him a scholarship to the world famous culinary school.
Currently cooking lunch is just one aspect of Mr. Wilson’s work. He also does presentations and offers cooking lessons to the teens and seniors. During the powerful snowstorms of the 2012-2013 winter, Mr. Wilson sometimes slept overnight at the center to ensure he could prepare the lunch for the next day.
The Food Bank of South Jersey and companies, including Whole Foods and other supermarkets, donate vegetables, proteins, breads and desserts to the food programs. Flame Farms, an outfit from a local farmers market, brings food it doesn’t sell to the center rather than trucking it back home.
Before the holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, the Neighborhood Center gym is converted into a grocery store where food is given out to families. The store is intended to feel like a true shopping experience so people can take what they want and not just be handed a bag of food. Holiday dinners are also served there. Mr. Landis reported that the number of people coming for this food at Thanksgiving increased from 250 in 2012 to 350 in 2013.
Federal budget cuts
Government budget cuts impact the clients and work of Neighborhood Center. For one thing, Neighborhood Center receives some of its funding from government programs. But the center is also affected by government budget cuts that have forced other nonprofits in the area to close, leaving Neighborhood Center to serve more people with less funding.
Neighborhood Center’s nutrition programs are an example. Mr. Landis says the overall number of people using the center for a nutritious lunch has gone up since November 2013, when increases in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, that were enacted at the height of the Great Recession expired. Since that time, requests for emergency supplies from the center’s food pantry have increased dramatically as well, Mr. Landis says.
People can get the emergency food from the center once a month, although families and individuals are never turned away if they are hungry. Each week about 50 families—often headed by women—use the service. Many of these women work low to minimum wage jobs and after paying rent, utilities and fixed expenses have little left over to purchase nutritious food.
Volunteers are a critical part of what makes the Neighborhood Center of Camden work. At the beginning of the school year, local United Methodist Women and other groups in the Greater New Jersey Conference fill backpacks with supplies for children at the center and in the area.
And it was the youth group from New Jersey’s Haddonfield United Methodist Church that donated equipment and set up the center’s community computer room. A retired dentist from the church, John Martin, built the center’s science lab.
The center has amassed quite a library through community donations of children’s books. Two librarians from Rutgers University’s Camden campus have made it their work to categorize the books and to renovate the library so it is a welcoming space.
Volunteers from the Center for Student Missions (CSM) assist with the center’s summer camp programs, while a martial arts specialist from Brazil gives free Capoeira lessons during the school year. A sewing teacher taught the children to make quilt squares, Mother’s Day wallets and pin cushions. An art teacher comes once a week and another teacher reads and plays with small children.
All are a part of what Mr. Landis described as his—and the center’s— mission: “The commandment in Matthew to love your neighbor as yourself informs everything we do. It’s the Wesleyan ideal of faith and service at work. That’s what we’re about.”
Beryl Goldberg is a freelance writer and photographer based in New York City.