For most residents at Camden’s Northgate II development, there can never be too many community events during the summer. Until recently, it had been years since residents of Northgate II experienced a community barbecue for themselves – something that made a big difference for many tenants.
But this past Saturday, residents of Northgate II development were in a jovial mood as they celebrated their community in ideal summer fashion. With the help of volunteers from groups AQUA Corps, Inc. and TOUCH New Jersey, Inc., grills were frying, music was playing and laughs were shared as residents of all ages and races partied and danced during a three-hour community barbecue.
“I think it’s really nice,” said Northgate II resident, Lady Dee, 53. “I’ve lived in Northgate II for 25 years. We should have more things here because the tenants don’t get to have fun like we used to. It would be worth it for us to come out and have something like this once every year.”
Before, Northgate II’s social services operations have helped to finance events such as barbecues for the tenants. They continue to find new ways to enhance the quality of living for its tenants.
“Northgate II social services staff sponsors many events for our residents throughout the year,” said Marilyn Mock, Director of Social Services at Fair Share Northgate II, “including a Senior Prom, a Harvest Day party, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, a Valentine’s Day party and a number of other health-related events such as health fairs.”
But a community barbecue was one of the few events that had not been done in a few years.
Andrea Brooks, MSW, LSW president and founder of AQUA Corps, Inc. explained why having the community barbecue and other events is important for the Northgate II tenants.
“Especially for older folks during the summer months,” said Brooks. “It can be very exhausting. You know how it is with your neighbors. They might say, ‘oh, they make too much noise, or this and that.’ This is something fun and they can celebrate each other and just have a good time. They [Northgate II residents] deserve to be celebrated. They’re great people.”
For residents like Thelma Sims, 50, the barbecue proves that there are more close-knit communities in Camden that deserve some spotlight.
“There is a lot of good stuff,” said Sims. “Camden isn’t that bad.”
And like many, Sims ignores the negative stigmas attached to the people of Camden.
“I don’t pay it any mind because I hear it all the time,” she said. “They always talk about how Camden is bad, but if people looked at the news they would find out that a lot of trouble is in Philly, too.”
Northgate II runs under government social services where underprivileged can be housed. The Northgate towers were built between the 1960s-70s and severed as luxury apartments before both became controlled under separate services. Northgate I is now privately owned, dilapidated and known by many at the Northgate II tower as having living conditions less than ideal. Health and well-being is a primary concern for those that assistant the Northgate II residents. As apart of Fair Share Housing Development, Northgate II provides nearly 400 rental units in the 23-story complex, with 308 apartments for the elderly and disabled.
“A lot of the work we do here is aimed at improving the health and well-being of our residents,” said Northgate II community center coordinator, Kathleen Koviak, 23.
Koviak works as a Jesuit volunteer, a program that placed her to volunteer in Camden for a year. She is leaving Camden in a couple weeks and hopes to receive her graduate degree in public health. Saturday’s barbecue with the Northgate II tenants confirmed why she would miss her time spent in Camden.
“Just because of the relationships that I’ve come to experiences with the residents,” said Koviak, “It was tough at first – coming here and not knowing anybody. A lot of the residents here [Northgate II] speak Spanish. But building those relationships, having conversations and listening to people’s stories has been transformative and eye opening for me.”
She considered it a great opportunity to spend her last weeks with the community at the barbecue.
“We were thankful to have AQUA Corps, TOUCH New Jersey, Inc. and other contributors step in and say, ‘we want to throw this BBQ for your residents.’ They [residents] love to get out and socialize and it’s great for them,” said Koviak.
Northgate II security guard, Barry Harris, 24, also shares the same feelings.
“There are a lot of personalities,” said Harris. “But everyone is cool in my book. It’s cool for them.”
Meher Merchant, 56, was one of several AQUA Corps and TOUCH, NJ volunteers at the event. He considered his work that day – cooking hot dogs, burgers and chicken – to be personally rewarding.
“I’m basically using my god giving skills of cooking to share with people,” said Merchant. “It’s very fulfilling for me seeing that my cooking is benefiting underprivileged people.”
Merchant was especially privileged to cook hot meals for the tenants. In 2009, when AQUA Corps, Inc. first started, it was common for volunteers to make more simple meals.
“At that time, AQUA Corps used to make cold sandwiches and I said, ‘hey, I can cook. Why don’t we do hot meals for dinners at St. Paul’s (Camden)?’” said Merchant. “That’s how I got involved as far as cooking was concerned.”
And for staff like Marilyn Mock, Merchants cooking – along with the help of others – was much appreciated.
“A special note of thanks goes to Gerald Davis, TOUCH Executive Director, for the involvement of TOUCH and Meher Merchant who prepared almost all of the delicious food,” said Mock. “We are also most grateful for AQUA Corps’ involvement and for their volunteers who so lovingly served our residents over the course of 3 long hours. Thanks as well to Northgate II social services and property management staff who assisted in serving residents and who prepared the salad for the event. A note of appreciation is also extended to Milly’s Pharmacy and Miguel’s Pharmacy who brought health information and giveaways for our Northgate II residents.”
Tenants at Northgate II are expecting more community events in the upcoming future, including a prom. Contrary to what people think of Camden, tenant Lady Dee says that there is plenty to do around the city. People are just searching in the wrong places.
“I don’t think that Camden is that bad,” said Lady Dee. “It’s what you make out of it. It’s about how you feel about yourself, then you can become anything you want.”