This is Rachel LeWitt, coming at you from the Romero Center, main campus, in Camden, NJ. Today was our second day volunteering, and our first opportunity to go to New Visions, a day shelter in downtown Camden whose doors are open to all and whose kitchens serve about 100 people a day. We had been introduced to New Visions through the executive director, Kevin Moran, who spoke to us on the first night about the shelter and what things Camden can expect to see form him and the work he does: a new night shelter called Joseph’s Cafe will open next week! Six of our 11 girls accompanied me to the shelter, and we began by unpacking boxes of juice, various pastas, and pork and juice…. go figure! After the brief stint in the food pantry, we went upstairs and were met with a roomful of voices, laughter and eager faces. We chatted with a few people before coming upon Mister Eddie Isiah Marshall. This man was incredible; intelligent, eloquent and engaging, he held Lexi, Janet and my attention for the better part of three hours. After I had said the word “what” too many times for his liking, he asked me, “What is the definition of what?” I was speechless. For about 5 seconds, and then frantically attempted to come up with something to say. Mister Eddie was a college graduate, who also received his Master’s degree in Psychology (his Bachelor’s was Sociology). Meeting him was definitely the highlight of my visit thus far. I have rarely come upon a person as sharp and intense as he is, and I am looking forward to seeing him again tomorrow when I return to New Visions. After we ate a somewhat hasty lunch in Kevin’s office, we served food to the population that had stayed since breakfast and the various stragglers who made their way in for a hot meal around noon. It was a wonderful experience being able to serve food to so many people who needed it, although some of the people were dishonest about having received food, which we as a group admitted later was a little disheartening. We chatted again with Eddie, and said our goodbyes, with promises of returning soon.

After we got back to the Romero Center, we had a brief interlude with several different types of snacks and hot beverages, with entertainment provided by the Disney coloring books that were brought courtesy of Team Builder Liz Rentschler. Following that, we went on a tour of Camden, led by a member of the wonderful Romero Center staff, Sharrin (sp?) seeing both areas which surprised members of the group with their charm and areas that saddened members of the group with their sorrowful facades. It was striking to see the differences between the security of the tourist-y Camden waterfront, for instance, and the vacant lots and abandoned, dilapidated houses of North Camden, just an underpass away from the tourist areas. The tour added to a growing sense of understanding of some of the issues that face the people of Camden on a daily basis.

We dined again, this time on yummy tacos, minus the actual shells. Conversation topics such as vegetarianism (always a favorite of mine) and speculations as to what we were doing after dinner kept us occupied. After the meal, we went to Saint Anthony of Padua for a service that kicked off their Unity Week. (Tomorrow, 180 members of Camden’s police force will be laid off, in addition to other municipal workers. This is half the police force in an already incredible dangerous city). The members of other local churches came to St. Anthony’s to pray for a “revitalization” of Camden. Some members of the group found the service inspiring, while others found the nature of the evening to be a little too religious. Since we were informed that it would have more of a town hall/meeting type feel, this is understandable. All in all, it was an interesting cultural experience- half the service was in Spanish!, one that I’d never been privy to before. We even prayed over an abandoned building! After the service we enjoyed a special “oneg” or “fellowship” with food and (perhaps Mexican) hot chocolate. Team Leader Ariel, Sarah, Lexi, Steph and I enjoyed a somewhat raucous conversation that somehow steered toward pranks and hand nubs.

Another fantastic reflection by Reflectionator Annie Groves began by asking everyone anonymously to say something with which she was uncomfortable. Answers ranged from happy to serious, but it led to a honest and thoughtful discussion of what we were doing here in Camden, what service means to the individual and to society as a whole, judgments and questions, what we’ve learned so far and what we’re most afraid of when it comes to the unknown.

A marvelous day filled with learning, service and interesting conversation. Can’t wait for the next one!