Camden as a place of hope
A TV show will highlight resilient youths.
When they turned the electricity off in November, the Marrero family in South Camden huddled around the kerosene heater to keep warm as the winds of winter, and the threat of homicides, drugs, poverty and despair, swirled around them.
They were like many of the impoverished families in Camden, just trying to hold on in the financially distressed city.
For two consecutive years, the city was listed as the most dangerous in the nation, and last year it was deemed the poorest. Forty-five percent of its youth live in such poverty that their families cannot fulfill their basic needs.
These are the statistics that usually grab the headlines. But tonight, the nation can see a different side of Camden, a view through the eyes of some of the city's youth who see hope and a better future.
The camera captures the challenges that young people face in a city where the drug trade is a $43 million industry and jobs are hard to come by.
Sawyer got a close-up view of Camden by spending time at the Marrero home - sleeping on the couch, doing dishes with the father - and having a film crew with the family for a year.
Billy Joe Marrero, 19, thinks the program will show a positive side to the city.
"When you hear statistics and numbers, people automatically think negative and that no good can come out of Camden. I think the show will show that faith and determination will get us out of this. There is a great source of positive things that people aren't paying attention to in the city."
Marrero is featured along with four students from Camden's Urban Promise Academy, a faith-based nonprofit that provides educational and leadership opportunities from kindergarten to college.
The academy strives to keep young people off the streets and learning at their highest potential. It offers not only educational opportunities, but also safe havens and after-school programs that keep the youths away from the bad influences that seem to be just around every corner.
Marrero said there should be more programs that feature the bravery and determination of many of the residents of Camden, which has a population of 79,000 - nearly half younger than 25 years old.
He said his family of five brothers, a sister, and two young children of his sister is making it - as are other families - in spite of meager means.
"If only people knew what we've been through together. The neighbors call us M. Force because we are together and there are so many of us," he said.
Marrero, who wants to be a rapper someday, has dedicated one of his rap songs to his father, Victor, 54, who is divorced and raising the family despite being disabled with a bad heart. Marrero said his father is the "force" in M. Force.
To keep their heads above water, Victor Marrero does odd jobs like searching for scrap metal to sell or shoveling snow. The muscular Billy Joe said his father once had to sell of a set of his weights for scrap metal. That, coupled with food stamps and a $500 cash stipend, and an occasional job held by the children, is enough to keep the family going and the children out of trouble.
"People don't usually see individuals like my father and my sister - single-handedly raising her two kids - who aren't drug dealers," he said. "We get through together. . . . My father wouldn't let the streets take us."
Billy Joe, who graduated from Camden's School for Creative Arts, plans to enter Rutgers-Camden in the fall to study music.
He, like the other youths featured, hoped the program would help people see a brighter side of their city.
"I hope something good will come of it," said Eylsa Smith, 14, a high school senior with the highest GPA in her class while holding down a part-time job to help pay for college.
And Joshua Williams, 12, whose family also spent a year with a film crew, said that "maybe after this show, people won't say so many negative things about Camden."
As for Billy Joe Marrero: "What I hope is that people who live in Camden and see this show will spark themselves to work together."
Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 856-779-3844 or firstname.lastname@example.org.