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 new lighting and fences, fresh-painted benches and murals, a refurbished playground and a monthly cleanup crew of neighborhood volunteers.
In a crowning achievement, the kids recently convinced local officials to come up with more than two million dollars to fix a long-standing drainage issue that routinely floods the park and the basement of nearby homes.
The cleanup effort has had a ripple effect. Police say crimes of all kinds have dropped significantly and parents are now more comfortable to let their kids walk and play in the park and the neighborhood.
The student leaders list their “biggest accomplishments” in a power point they gave to kids at a multi-cultural parish in Maryland similar to their own:
#1: County and City Officials Take Us Seriously
#2: Giving Presentations in Washington, DC (where they bus to visit their congressional delegation)
#3: People Love Coming to Von Nieda Park Again
Among them are the students themselves who often play after meetings on the swings they asked to be lowered to a more usable position.
See the students’ formula for successful community organizing in the next installment of The Durable Human.
Author’s note: The Durable Human Manifesto inspires kids as well as adults to capitalize, like the Task Force does, on their curiosity, intuition, ingenuity and other human-only assets.
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These students are amazing. I had the opportunity to meet with several of them on an event we were having at Von Nieda Park. These students came to our meeting with Father Jud and were prepared and took notes and have made an outstanding contribution to their community. Thank you.