B.A.S.I.C. - Niagara students lend a helping hand
With only one week left of break before another busy semester, how would you choose to spend your time? For a group of 10 students from Niagara University, accompanied by school chaplain the Rev. John Maher, a weeklong trip of service and spirituality in Camden, N.J., was what they had in mind. From Jan. 10-18, these volunteers lived at the Romero Center and provided their time in a city considered the most dangerous and one of the poorest in the country.
The students on the trip included Frank Arena, Matt Bartock, Peter Davidow, Vicki Gilliland, Anna Hoffman, Bethanie Marchese, Kelliann Needham, Becky O'Connor, Carmen Schaff and myself. We were able to demonstrate our faith through the idea of the "ministry of presence." This form of service consists of simply spending time with others who are yearning for the love and attention of others. Many times, just being in the presence of another human being establishes an immediate connection. That connection is just what these people need, as most are eager to share stories of their past with anyone willing to listen.
Frank Arena describes this idea. He says, "I realized through the ˜ministry of presence' that you don't always have to create something tangible to make a difference in someone's life."
Volunteers were to sign up with one of the work sites each day. Some of the different sites included Abigail House, a nursing and rehabilitation center; Bethesda Project, an organization providing housing and services to the poor; Francis House, a center for people infected and affected by HIV and AIDS; New Visions, a day-service center for the homeless; Inglis House, a wheelchair community for the physically disabled; and Hopeworks, an organization that provides opportunities for inner-city youth.
Each site consisted of various forms of service. For example, Abigail House had people spend time in the day-rooms chatting and playing games with residents, serving lunch, and doing room visits. In contrast, Hopeworks had volunteers walk the streets of some of the poorest areas in Camden. They would distribute flyers advertising the services available, such as technological training and job preparation. These kinds of opportunities are essential for the youth in Camden, which has a high school drop-out rate of nearly 53 percent.
Carmen Schaff says, "Every worksite I went to was incredible because of the people. I met a man named James who was an absolute inspiration. He had so much faith - although he had so little - and he never stopped smiling. His positivity was beautiful."
One evening, staff members at the Romero Center presented us with an activity to be carried out for a period of 24 hours. The goal was to provide us with a better understanding of what families living on welfare go through. Students were split up into families of three people, and each member was given $3 to buy food for that day. With a total of only $9, this did not seem possible for an entire family to live on for a day. All the families returned from a trip to the grocery store with similar products, such as bread, peanut butter, eggs, soup, rice, beans and bananas. It was almost impossible to avoid a diet consisting of mainly carbohydrates and starches. Staff members explained how this is the unhealthy reality for many families in Camden. It becomes even more difficult on families with children, especially babies, because of the necessity for children to receive adequate nutrition for growth and development. This can also lead to students having difficulty staying focused and concentrating in school. Another obstacle is when family members have health concerns that require special diets.
Throughout the week, we concentrated on the principles of Catholic social teaching. Each day would focus on a different principle. Some of these included human dignity, community, society's responsibility to the poor, participation, economic justice, promotion of peace, and solidarity.
The idea of living in solidarity was what stood out to me the most. This involves living our lives by constantly keeping the poor in mind. We have a moral and spiritual responsibility to meet the needs of others. Solidarity can transcend into all aspects of our lives if we make a conscious effort. Everything from the amount of money we spend on groceries, to how many showers we take a day, or choosing not to make that extra trip to the mall. These are all ways we can make a change.
The Romero Center, described as an urban spiritual retreat center, welcomes volunteers at a high school-age level and older to have the opportunity to work in the city, learn about social justice issues, and have time for prayer. During our stay, many topics were presented and discussed such as poverty, community action, human trafficking, unethical business practices of corporations, immigration, and the city of Camden itself. It is just as important to become aware and educated of the root causes of social, economic and political injustices as it is to helping in a more physically direct way. Exposing oneself spiritually, emotionally and physically in this unfamiliar territory is an eye-opening experience and creates a new level of concern and compassion for the poor.
For a city that mainly receives attention for its poverty, crime and corruption, it is hard to think that any hope exists. One must cast away any preconceived notions and expectations of what the city and its people are like. To enter a world so different than our own is a challenge. It forces one to step out of his or her comfortable lifestyle, and to see how others whom are not as fortunate live.
One thing that surprised the NU students was the incredible amount of faith and hope found in the people of Camden. "It was surprising to see how welcoming everyone was. These people had been through more than anyone can imagine and were still willing to open up and share everything they had. I guess I didn't realize that they would change my life as much as they did, and I hope I was able to change theirs for the better in return," says Arena.