Magazine article Momentum

Never Too Young to Lead

Magazine article Momentum

Never Too Young to Lead

Article excerpt

THE STUDENT LEADERS OF THE VON NIEDA PARK TASK FORCE WORKED FOR MORE THAN TWO YEARS to un dark the park" in front of their school, St. Anthony of Padua. In spring 2014, these sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders secured $ 154,000 for lighting in the park from the City Council of Camden, New Jersey.

A magazine article called Von Nieda Park the "worst in the United States." It was a dumping ground for trash, a place too dark and dangerous for kids. That was before a class on civic engagement in the park in summer 2011.

"The park is right across from our school," explains Ashley Melendez, an eighth-grade student leader. "It was not very attractive to look out the window and see a park that nobody goes to and is abandoned. So we started working to change it, and now we can see a big difference. It's a beautiful park with flowers, murals, and painted benches. When the lights get put up, there will be a big difference for kids. It's a safety thing."

Already students have recess and gym classes in the park. It has a basketball court, baseball field, playground, and soccer field.

Franciscan priests serve in St. Anthony of Padua Parish. While Kate Goodman served as a Franciscan volunteer in the parish, she got involved with Camden Churches Organized for People (CCOP), to which St. Anthony's belongs. CCOP demolished abandoned houses and moved old police trailers off land they turned into a community garden. As part of her volunteer work, Kate taught a class on civic engagement. The class chose picking up trash as their first issue.

When Father Jud Weiksnar needed help planning Martin Luther King Day for the parish, he asked Kate to recommend three students.

"I was trying to get the local park cleaned up and having zero success," says Father Jud. "So I asked the students to come along to a meeting for city and county park officials. They co-chaired the meeting with me and really wowed the officials. That gave me the idea to turn the civic engagement class into a community organizing class. We think it is the only one for kids in the country."

The task force holds weekly meetings after school and monthly meetings at the community center in the park. The students get released from class from 1011 a.m., one Friday a month. City council members, police officers, the head of the community development corporation, and reporters have all come to meetings. The student leaders chair the meetings and set the agenda. The students not only go to City Hall, but people from City Hall and the county departments come out to the students' turf.

"We were promised a date for the lighting," says Ashley. "It didn't happen, so we had to keep calling, emailing, and inviting council people to our meetings." Seventhgrader Ziani Sanchez insists, "You have to hold the officials accountable; it's the most important thing. Often they think if they give us an award, we will forget what we have asked for. If we don't stay persistent and hold them accountable, they are never going to do what they promise."

"What I like about civic engagement is how it teaches us to organize and help our community," says Rodrigo Reyes, a St. Anthony seventh-grader. "We go to meetings to talk to officials at City Hall about the problems we have and they give us answers. Our voices have power."

"We give these young people a lot of responsibility," says Father Jud. "We tell them you have to email this person, or call this person. They make the phone calls to the officials."

"I'm good at making calls," says Ziani. "At first I was really scared, but then I got good at it. …

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