Fighting Camden poverty through youth empowerment

As my Sunday story on Camden’s poverty showed, many people and groups trying to make a difference in the city.

Father Jud Weiksnar, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church, is one of a number of clergy members I interviewed for the story whose efforts are focused on helping and empowering Camden’s children. He has taken on the city and county in his fight to clean up Von Neida Park in Cramer Hill.

After what seemed like a fruitless fight in 2011, Weiksnar got the youth from St. Anthony’s parochial school to start a Von Neida Park Student Task Force. The students have since done several park cleanups, met with local officials and continue to plan park improvements.

When I went to Weiksnar’s office in November to chat about poverty, he wasn’t sure what to say. Most of his parishioners are Latinos, many immigrants, who are concerned mostly about immigration issues and crime. Many of them come from more severe poverty that what they experience in Camden.

But then he made a connection.

“It’s so tough for kids to grow up in Camden,” he told me as he sipped coffee. While there is more poverty in Dominican Republic, he said, that country “has more natural beauty.” Weiksnar noted the beaches and palm trees in the D.R.

Children in Camden are surrounded “by things that look depressing,” he said, noting the abundance of boarded up homes in the city.

“That’s why we’re working so hard to make our park beautiful,” he said then.

Right after my story ran Sunday, Weiksnar sent me a note about the progress the youth are making, not just in the park but in their character and leadership building.

Four members of the St. Anthony of Padua Student Leaders Von Neida Park Task Force won a local student service competition Saturday at Rowan University. The students from about 10 South Jersey high schools were to design a “project that was doable, fundable, and that would benefit society,” Weiksnar said.

The four St. Anthony of Padua students, who are eighth graders, teamed up with three Washington Township High School students to come up with “Power of Positivity.” The project focused on getting students to believe that their physical appearance, clothes, skin color, and orientation are not most important.

Weiksnar hopes that these students will continue to grow their leadership abilities.

“I tell them, ‘Maybe leave for college but come back and be mayor or police chief,’” he said in November and continues to believe now.