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Four Years at the Mount

Sophomore year

I Saw a City Invincible

Lydia Olsen
Class of 2016

(4/2014) This year I spent my spring break in Camden, New Jersey, with five other students from Mount St. Mary's University. Camden was once a city that thrived on manufacturing goods. It started off as a place for individuals and families who did not want to live within the city of Philadelphia. However, the industry crashed and nearly all of the factories moved out of Camden to other locations. The people within the city all began to move away and those who did not move away had difficulty finding employment. To many it seemed that the only business that ensured a high enough income was the sale of drugs, causing drug sales and use to increase as well as violence. In 2010, Camden had the highest crime rate in the nation. The same year it was also named the poorest city in the nation. Funding to Camden has been drastically reduced and the police force has been cut in half. Mayor Christie has said that he believes the rest of New Jersey should not have to pay for Camdenís excuses. There are no hotels in Camden, no movie theaters, and the last supermarket closed in September, making Camden an official food desert. Yet, the people of Camden are some of the strongest I have ever had the privilege to spend time with. Within the people of Camden, in their hearts, thoughts, words, and actions, there is always a glimmer of hope and an immense love for their city.

For the duration of the week our group stayed with an organization called DeSales Service Works in northern Camden. Through this organization we had the honor of meeting Father Mike, an Oblate priest who is originally from northern Virginia. When our group arrived at the row house we were going to be staying at, Fr. Mike offered to give us a tour of the city. We put our bags down and eagerly followed him as he led us through the alleys and streets, informing us about the struggles within the community and those living in it. As we walked along the sidewalks, people would enthusiastically call to Fr. Mike and inquire about how he was doing. It appeared as if everyone we encountered had had an experience with Fr. Mike at some point in time. He introduced us to two amazing men who both believe that if they had not met Fr. Mike and if he had not been so persistent in helping them, they wouldnít be alive today. It was instantly evident that Fr. Mike was constantly living his life through paying it forward to others. He is like a beacon of hope that many have reached out towards. He never fails to reach out back to those who seek him and help them find their feet to stand again. The two men now pay it forward in their own lives by doing service within Camden, sharing their stories, and becoming more active in the spiritual journeys of others.

Throughout the week we spent time at many different service sites within the city. Our group went to a local Cathedral for Sandwich Ministry, where we made and helped distribute lunches. On an average day the Cathedral feeds between 350-500 people. Also at the Cathedral, we helped to match socks with minor manufacturing flaws that were donated from the local sock factory, so they could be handed out to help those in need stay warm. While working with Sandwich Ministry, we met amazing people like Susan, who organizes and oversees all of the operations, and Erma, who has committed all of her time and energy to service. They both pay it forward not only through their work, but also through their pure passion for aiding to the needs of others.

Another day we had the wonderful opportunity to go to New Visions, a day shelter in Camden. On the day that we happened to be serving there it was snowing outside, which caused the amount of people seeking shelter to be higher than normal. We started out by helping to pass out breakfast, and then we were given the chance to interact with the guests visiting the shelter before lunch. I sat down next to a man experiencing homelessness and had a conversation I will never forget.

His name was Abraham, and he had just celebrated his 55th birthday. We immediately started talking as if we were old friends, laughing with each other and sharing stories. He told me about his impressive bowling career and his dream of opening a sandwich shop he would name Honest Abeís. We talked about our families, my sisters and his children. We discussed God and how we feel Godís presence in our lives. Abraham introduced me to his friends who he calls his family, and I was honored to hear about their life challenges and triumphs. A woman named Alice came and sat down with us and mentioned that her feet had gotten wet in the snow. Abraham immediately reached into his backpack and said, "Well, I have just the thing." He pulled out a pair of socks that a member of our group had matched together the day before. Abraham handed the socks to Alice while she thanked him greatly, and he smiled back at her. Abraham had a personality that radiated happiness and kindness. He was easy to talk to and one of the best listeners I have ever known. Abraham has a drive and determination that is unparalleled. He has been one of the most inspirational people I have met in my life. He not only paid it forward by forever inspiring and impacting my life, but also by constantly being there for those around him and putting others first.

Spending a week in Camden, New Jersey, caused me to grow in more ways than I thought possible. I had so many life-changing experiences, and I know itís a time I will never forget. The stories I mention here do not even begin to encompass all that our group experienced throughout the week. Entering Camden, I was convinced that it was a city in ruins. By the end of the week I had a completely different vision of the city that the members of the community helped me to see. Yes, Camden faces a lot of challenges and continues to struggle, yet I would argue any day that Camden is one of the strongest cities that has ever existed. The city lives off of paying it forward. The community is full of people who are constantly giving, only to receive and then give yet again. Etched in the side of the city hall building is Walt Whitmanís famous quote and the city of Camdenís motto: "In a dream I saw a city invincible." Camden is indeed invincible because the community continues to fight to keep itself afloat by continuously paying it forward.

Read other articles by Lydia Olsen