Finding a Calling in Camden

visi camden

Editor’s Note: The following entry is from Jenny Mayo, Communications Director for Georgetown Visitation in Washington, DC. The article reflects on the experience of students and faculty from different Visitation schools throughout the country who spent a week of servie in Camden, NJ, with De Sales Service Works. The Oblates have a strong connection with the Visitation Sisters because one of the founders of the Oblates, Mother Mary de Sales Chappuis, was a Visitation nun. We both treasure Salesian spirituality and seek to spread this spirituality in everything we do. This post originally appeared in the Summer/Fall issue of Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School Alumnae Magazine.

Camden, New Jersey, sits just across the Delaware River from bright, bustling Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—and yet, it resembles a war zone. Blocks of abandoned buildings crumble like bombed-out targets, and its alleys teem with bits of life left behind: old furniture, overstuffed bags of trash, used syringes. The stats aren’t reassuring either: Nearly half of Camden’s population falls below the poverty line, and its crime rate was the highest of all U.S. cities in 2009.Beneath its decaying, dysfunctional surface, however—-in fact because of it, Camden boasts a sizable community of individuals and organizations seeking to help improve the situation. This summer, students from three Visitation communities spent a week working with and learning from one such group: the inspiring De Sales Service Works, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales ministry that uses Salesian teaching to bring beauty and hope to those who so desperately need it.The trip was this year’s installment of Vistory, a summertime meeting of Visitation schools for service and sisterhood. Georgetown Visitation’s Christian Service Director Kathleen Looney was instrumental in anchoring this year’s program in Camden and believed that De Sales Service Works had a lot to teach the participating students.“When we were thinking about this year’s event,” she said, “we saw this ministry as a unique opportunity to experience Salesian spirituality in action. The true immersion into the community would offer us the privilege of seeing and learning first-hand the challenges and hope present there in Camden.”
Students from Georgetown, Minneapolis, and Mendota Heights, Minnesota all saw Kathleen’s vision come to fruition over the course of Vistory 2010. Their temporary residence was the Service Works house in the heart of Camden, which despite the surroundings, immediately felt warm, safe and welcoming—largely due to the tireless work of Service Works director, Father Mike McCue, OSFS, an impossibly kind, respected figure in the community. From this home base, the Visitation women set out to a variety of volunteer placements: passing out lunches and food bags at the Cathedral as part of its Sandwich Service, sharing conversations with the homeless at New Visions Day Shelter, and providing a free Bible camp for area youngsters.
Vistory participants were continually pushed to the edges of their comfort zones throughout their time in Camden, yet they embraced the experience, facing some rather shocking scenarios with courage, patience, and compassion. At New Visions, for example—where students were to provide a “ministry of presence” or be supportive companions for the homeless—one Mendota Heights student, Mary Sicoli, embraced a woman who intimidated even the chaperones. She was 30-something, olive-skinned and dark-haired. In a different set of life circumstances, the woman might have been what some people would consider beautiful. But now, sporting cuts across her face, a tube dress that didn’t stay put, and the most haunting drug-induced nod you’ve ever seen, she was difficult to look at. Mary did more than that; she grabbed the woman’s hand and held it for nearly half and hour, asking her name (Kelly), soliciting details of her life when she could (from a good home in the Philly suburbs, turned to drugs, got kicked out of her house and forced to live on the streets, recently in the hospital for pancreatitis), and telling her things were going to be OK.
“She didn’t want to let go of my hand,” Mary told the Vistory group while walking home with an awed look on her face.
At daily morning and evening prayer services, other students shared similar stories of how they had engaged the downtrodden in a loving, Christ-like manner, and how the people of Camden expressed their appreciation for these interactions. Vistory volunteers described massive smiles on the children at camp, and the heartfelt gratitude they witnessed when they did something as simple as hand out a sandwich. Even amid all the despair, these glimmers of hope and small moments of happiness uplifted and inspired the students. They found it possible to find beauty in ugly situations, and recognized that it felt good to do good.
Guest speakers like New Visions director Kevin Moran and Camden-based painter Brother Mickey McGrath, OSFS, further challenged the young women’s notions of poverty and dared them to do more to help others. Social worker Sister Helen Cole, SSJ, who mostly counsels the families of murder victims, gave an especially powerful, thought-provoking lecture. Her anecdotes encouraged girls to ponder what life might be like as a working, single mother without a washing machine, or as a school child who hasn’t eaten in two days and is coping with domestic violence at home. The unspoken question that lingered: “What do you take for granted in your own life?”
Mendota Heights’ Sarah Neuberger responded to this query during the Vistory closing night ceremony. She’d been pondering the fact that during the service week, she’d gone without many of the creature comforts she’s used to: a stereo, Internet, unlimited cell phone use, and so forth. She told her fellow volunteers, “It was really nice to realize so many things we think we need, we don’t actually need—because I had a very full life without them this week.”
Many other students admitted they also had new perspectives on a lot of things. Georgetown’s Tiffany Ogundipe ’13 said that now she understood that service was much more that just giving someone a meal; it could also be just listening, or even playing cards with someone in need of a friend.
Molly Ledwith ’11 said, “I think that Camden has taught me a lot of things, but mostly, it’s not to judge anything. Before I came here, I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, something bad is going to happen.’ but that’s obviously not the case. I’ve met some really amazing people here.”
One of the last speakers of the evening, Tonia Ogundipe ’13, opened up about her attitude about service before the trip—one that she surely has shared with others—-and how that changed. “Starting out, I just wanted to get the service hours required by the school. But by staying here, I wanted to help people.” It is a mission she and many of her fellow Vistory volunteers will remain committed to far in to the future, long after they leave 35ht Street.
To learn more about De Sales Service Works, visit
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