I love working with young adults. I love their curiosity, their passion, their integrity, their willingness to try new things. They are figuring out their place in the world, their calling, and I love watching them unfold as they do this work. It is what has called me to be a part of The Center for Environmental Transformation Board and a member of the team that develops retreat work for our students who come to stay at CfET to “experience Camden”. I see miracles every day they are here. I would like to share some of those stories with you.
First, our story. At CfET we invite college and high school students to come stay with us in our 24 bed retreat house, a refurbished convent on the grounds of Sacred Heart Church and in the center of Waterfront South. Near us are the greenhouse and farm gardens that CfET cultivates, the orchards, Sacred Heart School, and many other outreach ministries that surround us in this part of Camden. The students, from mostly middle or upper class families, from Villanova, Neumann, MIT, Rutgers, The College of NJ, Bishop Eustace and Canisius High Schools and many others, come to stay with us for a weekend, a week, or more, and during the day, they get their hands dirty in the soil of the gardens, working with our farmer/educator and the Eco-Interns, young adults from Camden hired by us to work in the greenhouse and the gardens, to plant, care for, and harvest the crops, and plan and facilitate the weekly Farmer’s Market. In the evening, we teach the students about their place in the environmental challenges we all face and to help them think about how the beautiful city of Camden of 1960 became the city they experience today. They talk about the people they met doing their work, the neighbors that come to great them, the children at Sacred Heart School, so poor but full of life, smiles and enthusiasm for the presence of these college students helping out in their class or the homeless men at New Visions Center. They talk about the Eco-Interns and what they learned about growing food from these high school students. They talk about growing fresh, organic food in a place that looks like it would never grow anything, and yet it does, before their eyes, and they are a part of the miracle.
There are many miracles. When we work with them on their first night with us, we ask them “what brought you to Camden?” They respond “they were scared but wanted to see the Camden described in the media” or “they wanted to go out of their comfort zone and try to help others” or “their friends told them about their great experience last year and they wanted to be a part of it”. I ask them to be open to the experiences every day and to work as a team helping each other. We focus on the individual gifts of each participant. We talk about their goals for the week. We remind them we will work with them every day and we want to hear their stories each night.
One year, when we were planting our orchard in September, the students from Villanova were planting the trees on an old abandoned lot surrounded by pallet factories and a few row homes. As they worked in the hot sun, two young boys, six and eight, approached me and asked what the students were doing there, in their neighborhood? When I told the boys they were planting fruit trees, they responded “but who will take care of them after you leave?” Before I could respond, both boys said “we need to help!” I assigned three of the college students to work with each boy. They helped dig the holes for the trees, to cultivate the soil around the hole, to place the trees and to add the compost. We stopped for lunch and they joined us for their first meal of the day. One boy went with his grandmother for a haircut and was back to work fifteen minutes later eager to continue this “important job”. I watched as the students and the boys talked about their lives, laughed, struggled with old, compacted soil, and worked to move and place the trees just so. At the end of the work day, as we walked back to the greenhouse with our tools, I asked the younger boy, Julio, to tell me three things he had learned today. His responses were “I learned all about how to plant and take care of fruit trees”, “I learned all about John and Chloe and Sara’s lives at Villanova and I told them about mine in Camden” and “I started thinking that someday, maybe I could go to a college like Villanova too”.
On another day, when students were preparing to work with the homeless men at New Visions, I asked them to walk in and start listening to the men. I told them not to be afraid, that the men were equally afraid and that being together might change that for everyone. The students returned and were eager to talk about their day. They told me that they met men of many ages, many with work and college experience, who were homeless because of a medical bill they couldn’t pay that took away their home and income. Some were never able to find work, some warned of the dangers of drugs, some were too sad to talk. The students started to understand that all of us could be homeless for many reasons. They were touched by the humanity of these men and all vowed to think differently when they see a homeless person on the street. One student brought his guitar and played to them and was approached by a homeless man who took a chance and started to play old songs he knew from his past. One student described awakening from a dream the night before where he woke up laughing because he realized that the service he was doing at CfET was the way out of his depression and feeling lost in his college career.
On the last day of the retreat as the students get ready to leave, we meet with them and I ask them to tell me some things they learned while they were with us. They always respond with these three statements: “This is not the Camden you see in the media”; “This neighborhood is friendlier than my neighborhood in Cherry Hill, or Media, or Boston, etc”; and “ I learned that I could do something to make a difference in the world”. These experiences come from the mingling of city and suburbs, rich and poor, black, white and everything in between, old and young, and in the work of growing food, helping others, learning from each other. These students leave us with new hope, new drive, new ambition to do something for the world, their town, their career. It’s these miracles that keep me coming back and re-committing to the work of CfET.
I leave you with a quote from Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach,SJ.
“When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change. Personal involvement with innocent suffering, with the injustice others suffer, is the catalyst for solidarity. This, then, gives rise to intellectual inquiry and moral reflection”.
This quote guides our ethic at CFET. Please support us in this important work. Join us on a work day, bring us your talents or passions for being a part of miracles, tell your friends about us. Check us out on Facebook or on our web page (www.cfet.org). Please support us with your contributions. We are all in this this together. Thanks.
Cathy Nevins, CfET Board Member