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Making it Work in Camden

October 26, 2013

Solomon Jones, Axis Philly


In many ways, Camden is a microcosm of the worst of Philadelphia’s impoverished communities. Drug corners flourish in the shadow of schools. Abandonment buttresses new development. Poverty stands at 38 percent, and the 16.6 percent unemployment rate is more than double the national average.


These facts came into focus on a recent drive through North Camden with Wilbert Mitchell, the 75-year-old Executive Director of the comprehensive non-profit, Respond, Inc.  I trained a video camera on the houses near 9th and Pearl, where Respond has opened the first Camden bakery in nearly 50 years, and a man began to shout.

“He’s got a camera, camera, camera, camera, camera!” the man yelled.


Everything, it seemed, came to a screeching halt. A group of hoodie-clad young men turned to watch Mitchell’s Ford pickup as we pulled up at the corner.


A “closed” sign hung in the bakery’s window, and as the lookout and his charges continued to stare, Mitchell drove slowly away.


Seeing that corner helped me to understand just how closely North Camden resembles Philadelphia enclaves where crime stubbornly persists. But as Mitchell explained to me what Respond does to address that reality, I knew that in some ways, Camden’s capacity for finding solutions is starting to outpace Philadelphia’s.


With training facilities nestled on the corner of pothole-ridden 8th Street, halfway between a newly built housing development and much older rowhouses, Respond Inc., employs over 250 young adults and seniors, the majority of whom live in North Camden, Mitchell said. The program provides job training in the areas of culinary arts, auto technology, early childhood education, and landscaping. It also provides childcare for over 600 families through its 12 day care centers.


What began in 1967 as a daycare program with a budget of $30,000 has expanded to a comprehensive community service center with a $10 million budget, thanks to diverse funding sources including the United Way, federal, state and local dollars, and donations from companies like Campbell’s Soup and Toyota. That longevity, growth, and effectiveness is among the reasons the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia pointed area leaders toward Respond, Inc., during last week’s Leadership Exchange.


“There’s a set of stories around the institutions—the Eds and Meds—which are part of the redevelopment of Camden,” said the Economy League’s Josh Sevin. “Especially in a place like Camden where poverty is so prevalent. What kind of program is making a difference in workforce education? Where are the leaders doing positive things? Where are the programs that are getting something done? Finding them is part of our ethos.”

Philadelphia should make the Respond model part of our ethos, as well.


Located in a community where entire blocks of demolished housing are magnets for drug activity, and where scrap metal is a precious commodity for addicts to steal and sell, organizations like Respond and the youth-oriented initiative Hopeworks fill in the blanks that traditional revitalization solutions fail to address.


Respond cleans and greens vacant lots to make a dent in the scourge of blight, provides childcare within a community where many residents can’t get to far-flung daycare centers, works with seniors on gardening and farming, and provides ex-offenders and high school dropouts with the social program that matters most—jobs.

Doing so is not easy, however, and Respond’s success rate in finding jobs for its trainees tops out at around 75 percent, Mitchell said, largely because of the barriers faced by program participants.


“Some of the kids have made mistakes,” Mitchell said. “They may have a record following them, although we do offer the course to ex offenders. Many of our young people do not have transportation to get out into the County to find employment. Or the majority, they will lack a high school diploma. We do offer training in G.E.D. to help raise their education level.”


But sometimes that’s not enough. Some trainees suffer the kinds of self-inflicted wounds I’ve heard about whenever I speak to those who run programs for ex-offenders or high school dropouts. The problems include refusal to submit to authority, lateness, lack of dependability, or inability to work with others. Still, most of those who participate in the program are highly motivated, Mitchell said. That’s part of what makes it successful.

I believe that success can be replicated in Philadelphia, where our 26 percent poverty rate is concentrated in communities that are much like North Camden. But first we’d have to commit to making it happen, much like Respond has done in Camden.


I’m not talking about a model like the Nutter administration’s Shared Prosperity, which depends heavily upon pushing our city’s impoverished toward existing programs. I’m talking about a renewed focus that follows Respond’s proven model.


If we focused our energies on addressing young people, and expanded our reach to older generations, we could stem the tide of poverty, violence and crime. If non-profits diversified their funding streams and worked in concert, rather than in competition, we could initiate a program that could last for nearly 50 years. If our leaders looked at addressing poverty as a mission and not a burden, we could begin to make a dent in our city’s suffering.


To be sure, Camden still has much to address. But Respond’s community-based model is a start.


Perhaps Philadelphia should consider starting there, as well.


Read more and catch the video at AxisPhilly.org >>