SILVER SPRING, Md. — Students who advocated for renovation of a Camden, N.J., park in one of the country’s poorest cities spoke at St. Francis International School last week about how they used community organizing to make the area cleaner and safer.
Over the past few years, the Student Leaders’ Von Nieda Park Task Force renovated a park near St. Anthony of Padua Church, a project that garnered much media attention about how teens contribute to the community. The 6th- to 8th-grade students worked with St. Anthony of Padua Parish, which helped arrange for the trip to St. Camillus to discuss their project. Casey Cole, OFM, a student friar at St. Anthony, traveled with the Camden students, and Fran Eskin-Royer of the Province’s Office for Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation, helped with logistics.
The student task force members spoke to more than 50 St. Camillus parishioners, confirmation students and members of the nearby Langley Park community — who are mainly Spanish speakers — on July 15 at the school on the parish grounds.
Since 2012, the Camden teens have worked to clean up their community and make the park a safe place. This spring, they celebrated when lights were installed at the park, garnering even more media coverage.
Welcoming the Students
The students’ visit made for “a great evening,” said Eskin-Royer. “Casey set the tone with a warm welcome and opening prayer and then the kids did their thing — enthusiastically describing how they changed the atmosphere of the park near their church.”
Earlier in the day, the student task force toured the U.S. Capitol in nearby Washington, D.C. “Following the tour, they walked to the office of Sen. Cory Booker. Knowing that he would not be in, they met with two of his staffers,” said Casey. “They shared a little about who they are and what they do, and ended the meeting with an invitation for Sen. Booker to attend their Martin Luther King Day of Community Organizing in January.” Afterward, the students and mentors visited the National Mall and Holy Name College, the Province’s house of studies adjacent to St. Camillus.
They dined at Holy Name College with guardian Tony LoGalbo, OFM, and other friars, and then walked over to St. Francis International School to give their 20-minute presentation. The collaboration between the Camden and Silver Spring parishes was a positive one. It gave the two communities the chance to get to know each other and, most importantly, for the young people to share what their group has done, said Eskin-Royer.
The idea for the students to visit other communities came from Jud Weiksnar, OFM, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua until last month. The friar, now stationed in Buffalo, N.Y., posted a congratulatory message on the Student Leaders’Facebook page.
This was the third year that the students have visited Washington. This was “the first time presenting at a parish, which seemed natural, given the Holy Name Province connection with friars,” said Casey.
In a July 17 entry on his blog Breaking in the Habit, which shows a photo of the “amazing students,” Casey described the impact of the young people.
“They rocked the place,” Casey said. “After they almost flawlessly went through their rehearsed presentation, they fielded questions for a half-an-hour and completely blew people away with their confidence, their poise, and their determination to change their world.
“One person asked for advice on how St. Camillus students could accomplish the same thing. Without hesitation, one of the 8th graders spoke up, saying ‘You can’t be afraid to talk to people who are older than you. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you don’t have a voice or something important to say. You have a voice and you need to make them listen.’ This is an eighth grader with more confidence in front of a crowd and more conviction to speak truth to power than most adults I know,” said Casey.
“At almost no point was there a pause between questions or answer that didn’t immediately inspire the whole room,” he continued. “And from who? Middle schoolers. That’s right, children as young as 12 years old taking an active role in role in their neighborhood and unafraid to tell others about it — children who were able to captivate adults and youth alike, able to inspire even the many in the audience that head up their own local advocacy and community organizing groups. It was truly remarkable.”
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.
Editor’s note: Photos used in this story were taken by student friar Ramon Razon, OFM.