As a Fortune 500 executive with a mahogany-paneled office in Red Bank, Mark Hodges could watch sailboats gliding on the waters of the Navesink.

His new full-time workplace at St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral parish offers a view of a half-vacant duplex on a tired East Camden street.

But the scene inspires in its own way, reminding him of the many houses to rebuild, families to bolster, and children to teach in the city. And a new parish project called the Joseph Fund - Hodges is executive director - aims to raise the money to get the job done.

"At St. Joe's, our focus is not on fixing the system, or the government," says Hodges, 57, who lives with Susan, his wife of 30 years, in Moorestown. The couple have two grown children.

"Our focus is helping one child at a time, one person at a time, one family at a time," adds Hodges, a veteran of three decades in the real estate development business, now retired. "That's how Camden eventually will come back."

Sporting a crewneck sweater and a ready smile, he meets me at the door of the Romero Center. That community-service program for students is one of St. Joe's six ministries, which include a landmark pre-K-8 school on Westfield Avenue, a child-development center, home-ownership programs, and services for homeless adults.

St. Joe's serves 2,500 people annually, has 85 employees, and a budget of $9 million, about $1 million of which comes from donors, and much of the rest from tuition, home sales, rent, and fees.

Msgr. Robert McDermott, who grew up in the neighborhood, has pastored the sprawling Catholic parish of 2,000 families and its nonprofit enterprises since 1985.

"I'm not going to be here forever," says McDermott, adding that it was "a shock" to turn 70 recently.

A pastor who has made St. Joe's an uplifting force in East Camden and beyond, McDermott says: "We're not satisfied with standing still. We're always looking for money to keep it going. And to expand."

Enter the affable, energetic Hodges. A board member of the St. Joseph's Carpenter Society, the parish's housing ministry, in the 1990s, he was brought on as executive director of the Joseph Fund last July, after working as a consultant to help establish it as the central money-raising entity for all six ministries.

The competition for dollars, and increasing demands among donors for long-term plans and demonstrable results, requires even a faith-based nonprofit to operate like a business.

Which sounds good to John Klein, who runs Joseph's House, the drop-in center for homeless men and women in downtown Camden. The rented facility on Stevens Street is not a shelter but does offer coffee, conversation, and referral services on cold nights.

"Having the Joseph Fund in place means we can look for a home of our own," says Klein, whose program serves about 50 people a day.

"We will have the ability to go find a place, purchase it, and renovate it into a place that will welcome people who need housing."

Hodges, who grew up mostly in Haddonfield, rejects the notion that poor people choose to be poor. But he doesn't see government as the answer, either.

"Government doesn't work very well in solving the kind of problems that are here," he says. "Private enterprise isn't going to solve the problems of Camden either, because private enterprise has the requirement for profit, and profit can hold the best of intentions hostage.

"I am convinced that if anything is going to save Camden, it's the work of nonprofits."

Which takes money. The Joseph Fund hopes to raise $6 million by the end of 2014.

"It's easy to say, 'Give up on Camden,' but what you're giving up on is people," Hodges says. "We're not willing to do that. We're not giving up on people."

Contact Kevin Riordan

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