Bishop Ireton High School senior, Katie Caler, reflects on her experience on a Salesian service retreat for an essay she submitted as part of her college application process. She shares that with us here as well.
She says, “My experiences in Camden have been the basis for most of my college essays. I hope to return to Camden again this year for my third trip; each time I find it so rewarding to see how things have changed for the better. I can imagine how rewarding it must be to see it changing day by day! Thanks to you all again for all that the Oblates are doing for Camden. I hope you enjoy the essay. Sincerely, Katie Caler”
Camden Service Essay
I didn’t believe them when they said to watch out for drug needles on the ground. I didn’t believe them when they said people would walk up to me trying to sell drugs. I also didn’t believe them when they said that this weekend could change my life, my perspective. This may seem like some foreign city or one that is created in Hollywood; no, this is the reality of Camden, New Jersey. Just three hours from my comfortable home I came face-to-face with a city plagued by homelessness, drugs, prostitution, violence, illiteracy, and abject poverty. Yet, the harsh reality of Camden does not deter me from wanting to go back. If anything, it inspires me to return to do more to make Camden a better place. My visits to Camden have been by choice, to serve those in need along with my peers through DeSales Service Works, the other DSW.
As I exited the train station I honestly had no idea what I had gotten myself into. The area that we were walking through was one that suburban high school students avoid. To say that we stuck out is a gross understatement. Yet rather than focusing on the negative, we focused on the positive changes occurring Camden. We were told, “You are the positive change.” I had not traveled to Camden for mandatory service hours or for recognition; I chose to embark on this service retreat to live out one of my main personal principles: make a difference. However before I could make changes in Camden, I had to make change within myself. I had to shift my paradigm from seeing these people living in squalor, as hopeless strangers; to seeing them as humans, individuals trying to change their circumstances.
I have had the privilege of serving in Camden on two occasions. Upon reflection I realize that my first trip was an introduction of sorts. On my second trip, I was excited to see the changes that had occurred since my first trip. During this visit I played with children from Holy Name Catholic School. At recess I passed the football with several young girls and boys along with a member of our football team. I asked them the typical, “what do you want to be when you grow up” question—and I was struck by their answers. One young boy wanted to be a professional football player, while another wanted to be a carpenter. However, the answers that moved me most were the boy who said he wanted to be different and the girl who wanted to be happy. These last answers showed me that these children have the same dreams, desires and aspirations of every child. Their answers made me question, what do I want to be when I grow up? How can I take the lessons of Camden and use them to “be the change”?
My experiences in Camden mademe thankful and hopeful. From previous service experiences, I knew I was thankful for all that I have, for my health, and for the people in my life. However my experiences in Camden made me more grateful for the opportunities I have, the experiences I have had, and for the positive role models that my parents have taken care to surround me with. Through simple acts such as covering graffiti on a playground wall with a mural with positive messages, I, along with the rest of DSW hope to change the future of Camden. My experiences in Camden have changed me. I learned more from the people of Camden than they probably learned from me. I learned not to judge a community on the number of drug baggies and drug needles I picked up while cleaning a park; but rather the number of little girl’s hair clips and crayons we were able to save from that park. Through DSW and the other service organizations in Camden, I am confident that there will be fewer drug baggies to throw away and more hair clips and crayons to be saved.