Groups from Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, VA, have been coming to Camden for service retreats since Palm Sunday weekend 2009. They were the first group to come. Principal, Tim Hamer, has accompanied three of the five groups. (Check out two You Tube videos about DSW, Ireton.) It is very important for our city that generous people come from the outside to join in helping here. But it is also very important that all who come here return to their usual place with new gifts and new vision of how to offer Christian service there.
Students share the following reflections that we print here to give an impression of the meaning of their Salesian service retreat experience. They addressed the question: “What will I take away from being in Camden?”
Coming to Camden opened my eyes a lot to the suffering that happens in America and the evilness and danger of drugs. The other week as I was planning another fundraiser for Haiti, my sister said, “Why don’t you focus on the problems in America for once?” and she sparked a hot debate. Back then I had only seen America through the eyes of a sheltered, middleclass, suburban lifestyle. I did not believe “the bad” here was that bad. Now I have seen the countless homeless people in Camden all waiting. Waiting an hour for a free Thanksgiving turkey, waiting in the cold for a sandwich, waiting on street corners for just about anything. These people, like the Haitians, deserve my help and attention, love and prayers. They deserve someone to fight to give them an opportunity to stop waiting.
Next, Camden opened my eyes to how bad drugs are. So much of the evil here is caused by drugs. Buying and selling drugs is a vicious circle here—an easy way out for your problems or a quick income to feed your family. But it leads to a life of crime, addiction, and even homelessness. It has made me decide to never ever do drugs because I don’t want to be part of the circle.
Coming to Camden really was a life changing experience for me. It showed me how easy we have it back home. We expect three meals a day, when many people in Camden will be lucky to receive one meal. I loved bonding with my classmates here and really feel that times of trouble bring people together. Meeting Barbie and Kenny was definitely a highlight of this weekend. They are great people who were able to turn their lives around and get back on their feet. When I remember what Kenny told me about taking a little love and giving it to someone else. He told us that the best thing that you can give to a homeless person isn’t money, but really love and respect, and to essentially be treated like another human being, which is what they are. I really wish I could come back to Camden. This experience has really inspired me to start food, clothing, and toy drives at Bishop Ireton. I want to help the people of Camden to the best of my ability, and I’ve got to start somewhere.
Camden, New Jersey. The thought of me coming here made my parents nervous, but they knew there was no stopping me. As I arrived, I was apprehensive, to say the least. The need here exceeds even my worst expectations. Yet as we cleaned the streets and played with the children, something beautiful came out of such a dark situation. This trip not only opened my eyes, but has inspired me to thank God every day for the many blessings that I have. Camden has hope. As I look around the room, I see in my friends’ faces that they see hope here too. Camden has hope. The innocence of the children we ate lunch with and joined at recess proves it. Camden has hope. You can see it in the little acts that people do to improve the city. Camden has hope. You can see it and learn from it through the stories of Barbie and Ken. Camden has hope.
The worst times bring out the best in people. There is so much negativity in Camden; the city often looks dark, desolate, and lonely. However, if you look close enough you can always see that small speck of light. There are so many good people here and it is hard to realize it unless you get really close. The DSW volunteers and everyone who helps minister to the people of Camden are awesome. They are hardworking and dedicated, fun and enjoyable. I have been in Camden twice now, and both times were really amazing. I have learnt so much from being here, and I plan on coming back again.
I have learnt so much from these trips— 1.Don’t judge a book by its cover. 2. Even if you don’t have anything, you can always find someway to help someone. 3. How a lot of problems that we face at home are nothing compared to some faced by people here. I could go on for days about all of the things I learned while in Camden, and that’s why I love it so much. It is so easy to learn these lessons while ministering to others.
What will I take away from this experience? —To show people love no matter who they are or no matter what their situation is. Even if they are homeless, they are no different then I am; they are just going through some struggles in their life. So even if you can’t give them anything, show them some love, make conversation with them. Show that you care and you know they are no different than you.
When I go back to DC, I will take this experience and share it with others because they should know what Camden is like. Just being here and seeing what the city looks like changes you. You see needles and broken glass and trash everywhere. I saw policemen everywhere we walked and on every street. We saw people at the shelter trying to get as much food as they can, so they can eat the next day. Even the kids at school would take what they didn’t eat at lunch so they had something to eat that night. It’s just sad when you see kids and teens your age, or your little sister’s age, who can just be happy with what they have—even though it’s nothing compared to what we have back home. When I go back home, I will definitely volunteer more at the shelter and appreciate that I can speak English and have a meal every night.
HOPE Before leaving for Camden, I was unaware of what exactly I would be getting myself involved in. Once getting there, I quickly realized the task at hand. The need for help, love and support of the city and its people was obvious. Camden definitely helped me put my life in perspective. By doing random service acts on this trip I could feel the appreciation of the people.
The experience that impacted me the most was meeting Barbie and Ken. I spent almost all of my Friday with Barbie. She opened up to me and shared her story of being homeless and of how she found a home. Her husband Ken was just as inspirational. We worked with him cleaning up the neighborhood, and he also shared some of his life experiences. The things they have experienced are things unimaginable.
One of the projects we did with Ken was repair a fence that people would go thought to do drugs. After repairing the fence, we realized something was missing. We made a sign saying “HOPE” with a quote going around the perimeter that read: “Just because you make a mistake doesn’t mean you are a mistake.” Ken told us the sign had to be deep and meaningful and to depict the extremes of life and death. Our project may not end drug addictions, but we could cause someone to think about their decisions.
I will take away from this experience many things. When one part of our world is suffering, we should all step in and help. We are all from the same family. We may all look different, but we are all the same; no one is better than another. Camden taught me not to judge by appearance. Someone may look tough and mean on the outside, but that does not mean that they are like that on the inside. This trip especially taught me never to take things for granted. The people of Camden don’t have much, and yet you see so many happy people. This trip also taught me to appreciate everything I have in my life. We don’t realize how lucky we are to have a bed to sleep in every night or food in our fridges. This trip also taught me to love others and to show them love and compassion. Just a little bit of love and compassion to someone can make their day a lot better. I learned so much from this experience, and I will never forget the people I met, the things I saw, the streets I cleaned. It was all so humbling.
Everyone was telling me how dangerous and scary Camden is and never to be left alone. Others who had been on his trip before told me it was going to be a lot of fun. That comforted me. But, I realized what everyone had been telling me was true. Camden is a dangerous city, but it is not only dangerous: it is hopeful. When walking through the streets yesterday, people would talk to you and be friendly. The children at the school ran around, and the smiles on their faces just made you feel warm inside. They looked so happy to see us, and it looked as if nothing was wrong. I was part of a group who organized food cans and other boxes of food. And we realized that there was so much food, but it is never going to be enough. That makes me sad.
When I signed up for this trip, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it was a bad section of town with lots of drug use and violence, but what I was surprised to find are the little pieces of hope that are here that would be missed at only a glance. For example when we were handing out Hopeworks flyers, I looked down into the sidewalk to see “faith” carved into the sidewalk. Another example was after seeing a whole block of houses falling into pieces; there was a rose garden. Little things like that make you realize there’s more to Camden than just drugs and murder. There is so much I have learned from this experience. For a start, how lucky I am and how minor my problems at home are. I grew up going to a nice school, with parents who love me, and always having a roof over my head and food on the table. That’s more than a lot of children here can say. Also I realized that people, whether living on the streets, or in an abandoned house— they’re just like me. They have dreams and ambitions and goals for their life. Sometimes I think, whether we realize it or not, we overlook the fact that people here are real people like us. Over the past few days what has struck me the most is, “Nothing is small in the service of God.” as St. Francis de Sales phrased it. Though our few days here won’t completely change Camden, we made a difference.
Compassion—new found compassion for a new group of people.
Admiration—for the people who try and work so hard either to help support their families or help others in Camden.
Maturation—I’ve grown a little more mature on this trip as I’ve seen ways of life that seem extreme to me.
Determination—to go home and try to do something that will either help others understand or help Camden.
Exposition—to new environments that others, including me, see as extreme, dirty, dangerous, other worldly.
On this trip I have been exposed to things I’ve never seen clearly before. We take so many things for granted, and I will do my best to not take any of my blessings for granted.