To fix a community problem, it may be better to bypass the adults and leave it to the kids. After all, they revived “the most depressing park in America” in what has been considered one of the roughest towns: Camden, New Jersey.
I was lucky to learn about this story at my college reunion when I sat down for breakfast next to classmate William “Jud” Weiksnar, now a Franciscan friar and former pastor of Camden’s St. Anthony of Padua.
Jud told me he was curious to see if middle-school students could learn civic engagement, so he offered it as an after-school activity. Community organizing, he says, “goes at the root of the problem” and is all about “finding your own voice and speaking for yourself.”
I had to smile at his group’s name: the Student Leaders’ Von Nieda Park Task Force, or SLVNPTF. With an acronym like that, they had to be serious.
The first meeting of interested sixth-, seventh-, and eight-graders was less than three years ago. They chose a target: their dark, rundown, crime-ridden neighborhood playground. They then set out to “make the calls, write the letters and meet the people” who had the power to fix it up.
The students have been stunningly successful. The park now boasts Continue reading