On any day of the week, the Neighborhood Center of South Camden opens early in the cool breeze of the morning to prepare lunch for residents in the community – most of whom are homeless.
When you walk through the front entrance, through the main hall, and into a modest size wooden floor gymnasium, a recreational space that is used for families and children turns into a dining area to serve meals at approximately 12 o’clock in the afternoon.
On the third Saturday of March, a group of community volunteers prepared a delightful spaghetti, roasted turkey, soup and salad lunch – topped off with a sweet, hot and crispy cherry/apple cobbler – for a couple dozen residents in the neighborhood.
The mood was warmhearted, resembling the feel and smell of a Thanksgiving dinner.
Among the volunteers were Beth Connolly and JoAnn Lowden. Both are familiar, friendly faces to the Neighborhood Center and have been devoted advocates for the homeless in Philadelphia and Camden for twenty years.
Beth Connolly, 52, and her friend, JoAnn Lowden, 61, entered the gates of the center that Saturday in Beth’s 1979 tan van filled with boxes of clothing and book donations from friends and neighboring Methodist congregations. JoAnn’s mother, Gerry Lowden, 81, was also there to assist.
That Saturday was a special visit to the Neighborhood Center for Beth and JoAnn, as both women come at least once a month.
“I’ve seen homelessness all my life,” said Connolly. “I grew up in New York City. I saw homeless people in the 60’s, 70’s & 80’s up there. If we were somewhere, my family would get a sandwich or cup of coffee and give it to them.”
JoAnn, who met Beth at Chews United Methodist Church, recalls how she began to help the homeless in Camden and the Neighborhood Center.
“We used to go to North Philadelphia to the Mary Jane Center and feed people up there, but then it closed,” JoAnn said. “So me, my husband and my sister and some friends would do our own thing in Philadelphia at Love Park and then we went underground in the subway.”
“We [Beth and I] decided to bring clothes once a month to the Neighborhood Center. I finally was able to go with Beth on Tuesdays and that was even more exciting.”
Founded in 1913, the Neighborhood Center was formed by a group of community organizers and concerned citizens in an effort to fix the ills of poverty, food insecurity and hopelessness of Camden residents. In early years, the site was under the direction of a Deaconess and originally named “The Deaconess Home and Community Center.” It served as an important safe haven for families and children during the Great Depression and World War II.
As a non-profit, faith-based organization, the Neighborhood Center relies on the help of community partners and volunteers to help run its meal servings and maintain the facility.
Staff at the Neighborhood Center strives to uphold the goal of “love your neighbor, as yourself,” while providing a sense of food security at every lunch served each day a week.
The center partners with Shop Rite, BJ Wholesales and the Food Bank of South Jersey to provide fresh produce and protein foods. The majority of food grown in the center’s community garden is completely organic.
“It’s about making sure that our neighbors have a consistent access to healthy fresh foods,” said Michael D’Italia, Assistant Director of Community Outreach at the Neighborhood Center. “Our primary focus is family and children. We provide an emergency food pantry, have our community kitchen, and are open 365 days a year.”
Michael D’Italia, who started volunteering at the center when he was 14, also helps to facilitate the community kitchen lunches, including the one that Connolly and Lowden attended.
Future plans for the Neighborhood Center are promising.
“Our first goal is to make sure that the Neighborhood Center is sustainable for the near future, and developing roots so we can stay around longer,” said D’Italia. “We’re in the process of expanding our garden. We have a developing partnership with Rutgers that is about developing educational opportunities for children. We will also be renovating our gym before the beginning of the summer.”
Connolly is convinced that the community kitchen and additional services are putting Camden’s homeless in the right direction out of poverty.
“The Neighborhood Center does a lot of great things,” said Connolly. “What other place feeds 365 days a year?”