Camden parish engages youth in community organizing to fix and preserve Von Nieda Park

After more than a year of constantly fighting the city and county about the vandalism and illegal dumping at Von Nieda Park in Cramer Hill, Father Jud Weiksnar has finally received some help.

Weiksnar, pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cramer Hill, and a group of students from the parish school have secured monthly meetings with city and county officials to discuss the issues plaguing what Weiksnar had dubbed “the most depressing park in America.” (He has since taken down a Facebook page dedicated to the "depressing park" because the county and city have since cooperated, he said.)

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Von Neida Park, which is a block away from St. Anthony, is constantly vandalized by graffiti, damage from ATVs driving through or dumping. Not too long ago, a homeless family set up a tent by a mound of garbage at the park’s southern end.

Weiksnar, a soft-spoken Franciscan monk who has a gentle demeanor, had grown so aggravated about the lack of resources provided to the park that he threatened a few times to do something “edgy.” To test his theory that no one cares about Camden’s parks, he wanted to dump some of the garbage found in his park at another county park to see how quickly the garbage would be removed.

City and county officials deny Camden parks receive different treatment.

“Father Jud is great; he cares about the environment, and he is a park monitor in a larger sense,” Camden Mayor Dana Redd said in January.

Weiksnar never followed through on his “edgy” plan; instead, he decided to be more proactive.

“I used to be more of a complainer, but now I’m more into organizer mode,” he said Monday.

Weiksnar is now mentoring youths from St. Anthony in community organizing and having them develop the agendas for the monthly meetings with the city and county. Next one is scheduled for Friday at the Cramer Hill Community Center.

In the last month, the county, which is in charge of the park, has painted several of the benches, fixed some of the swings, and taken down a concrete post.

At least one bench already has been vandalized with graffiti. County spokeswoman Joyce Gabriel said the benches would be repainted and the children would decorate the benches mural-style to deter further vandalism.

“It’s part of how he is teaching kids to get involved in their communities,” Gabriel said.

Angel Osorio, director of the Camden District Council Collaborative Boards, a group of volunteers who work to address public safety and quality-of-life issues, has been mentoring some Camden youths on community organizing. Weiksnar said it is likely the youths from St. Anthony and Urban Promise, which Osorio is mentoring, will join forces for at least one event in near future.

Below is a picture of some of the benches at Von Neida Park being painted (photo courtesy of Fr. Jud).