Blog: 15 March 2010

Monday, March 15

View more pictures CAMDEN — Jacob Hill had a choice of spending spring break doing community service in one of New Jersey's poorest urban cities or vacationing with his college classmates in Panama. The 18-year-old West Virginia man passed up a chance to party in Panama City, which has a vibrant nightlife. "I figured this would be a better use of my time," said Hill, a freshman athletic training major at Alderson-Broaddus College in West Virginia. "It's a lot of fun. You can do good work in a community that needs it," said the Clarksburg, W.Va., resident. He is among more than 300 college students who will spend a week participating in a spring break program in Camden overseen by UrbanPromise Ministries, a nonprofit Christian-based organization in the city. The first group arrived in late February and the last group will leave in mid-May. Students interviewed said they were able to afford the trip by holding fundraisers, tapping their own savingsor getting financial assistance from their parents. Calvary Baptist Church College Group, based in Kentucky, had the most student participants with 35. Also represented were large schools such as The College of William & Mary in Virginia and Pepperdine University in California and smaller institutions such as Bowdoin College and Bates College, both in Maine, and Dordt College in Iowa. The College of New Jersey in Ewing, the only New Jersey school to participate, sent 11 students. Each work group spends their morning in community service projects, mostly, but not entirely, on the UrbanPromise main campus at 3700 Rudderow Avenue. "We rely on these students who do the everyday maintenance that you would expect would be needed," said Jim Cummings, director of the WorkGroup Program for UrbanPromise. "Even if you paid these students at minimum wage, you could easily figure that it comes to thousands of dollars to the ministry to offset the cost of maintenance, allowing us to work with the kids," he said. UrbanPromise operates two schools for K-12 students, after-school and fine arts programs, summer camp and offers training for older teens who can serve as counselors, coaches and mentors for younger children. There are seven buildings -- from new construction to aging facilities -- on the main campus and all are in need of maintenance, especially following an unusually harsh winter, Cummings said.


The college work groups will help with refurbishing one of its after-school programs, doing mostly demolition work: tearing down ceilings and ripping up old tiles. UrbanPromise has cut back on full use of the site -- even limiting enrollment -- while renovations continue. Once temperatures rise, work groups will do landscaping work, prepare a butterfly garden, wash and clean UrbanPromise's vehicle fleet, clean out gutters and paint trim on buildings. In the afternoon, all groups assist with UrbanPromise's after-school program, helping children with homework and supervising recreational activities. They officiated and judged the annual Spring Olympics, which puts children from different parts of the city on the same team and pits them against each other in friendly competition. Drew Domitrovits, 20, of Haymarket, Va., who made the five-hour drive to Camden from The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said the Olympics helped unify children from different parts of the city. Domitrovits, a junior majoring in international relations, said he volunteered so he could experience an unfamiliar place. "The environment I live in all the time is completely different than it is here. It's really good to get insight of what it's like living in other places," he said. The trip is proving to be educational for Domitrovits, who is finding that there are a multitude of potential solutions for urban problems. For example, many problems can be traced back to a lack of access to quality education in public schools, he said. In order to make a difference, Domitrovits believes there needs to be a shift in individual attitudes and the overall culture and community programs must provide positive role models. Cummings said he has deep respect for students who sacrificed their spring break in the service of others. He recalled using college spring break to indulge himself. "I'm inspired to meet young people of this generation so committed to serving and learning. It gives you a great sense of hope and future. In a city like Camden, these signs of hope and inspiration are so necessary," Cummings said.


While volunteering, many students realized the urban problems facing Camden residents had little to do with the residents themselves. And, many walk away with the sense that they do "have some responsibility to Camden and other places like it," Cummings said. About noon Thursday, Hill broke for lunch after toiling in a fallow community garden near Fourth and Jasper streets in South Camden. He was part of a small group that tilled soil and checked new irrigation lines that will water the entire garden at the root level. Hill applauded UrbanPromise for spreading its Christian-based message through its after-school programs, which help keep young people off the street and out of trouble. Holly Smith, 18, a freshman politics major at Ursinus College in Collegeville, Pa., chose to participate in the program because she "wanted to have a meaningful spring break. "It's awesome because I know I'm changing people's lives," said Smith, who grew up in Cherry Hill. She said the community service work opened her eyes to the impoverished conditions of Camden. "It's really a reality check," she said. Reach Wilford S. Shamlin at (856) 486-2475


Subscribe to Blog: 15 March 2010