Camden's Whitman Park Tigers are used to making do with little. With no playable home field, the youth football program depends on borrowing other teams' playing fields for games, and equipment is kept in a corner of a Teamsters hall in Collingswood.
Things are supposed to turn around this year. Last summer, coaches met with members of Camden Mayor Dana Redd's staff, discussing long-awaited plans to improve the home field and build a clubhouse. Coaches left feeling optimistic, and officials said they would plan to break ground this month, said Brad Hawkins, director of the program.
But in recent weeks, the project has stalled. According to city officials, bids for the work came in over budget and must be sent back out. The delay worries coaches like Hawkins, who said he has been asking for help for six years.
"Each year, we were promised we'd get our field the next year," Hawkins said. "For the last four years, we've been told we are a priority. And yet, here we are."
Earlier this month, Tigers president Leroy Baylor appeared before Camden's City Council members and pleaded with them to get the project started.
"Our children are tired of being pushed aside," he said. "It's borderline disrespectful that we are being lied to month after month, year after year. I can't look these kids in the eye anymore and tell them to be patient, that the government is working on it."
City spokesman Vincent Basara said a community development block grant in 2012 provided $350,000 for repairs to the field, resurfacing, fences, and a retainment wall. Over the years the project became more expensive as additional features, like a clubhouse, were added to the plan, Basara said.
Bids for the first phase of the work will go out within weeks, he said, even if the city does not have the funds for the entire project.
"The city is committed to moving forward," he said.
The plight of the Tigers is a familiar one to other local youth organizations. Considered one of the neediest cities in the nation, much of Camden's municipal budget comes from state funds. But many residents who run volunteer youth programs say they rarely see a dime from City Hall.
Rashaan Hornsby is president of the Centerville Simbas, another Camden youth football league. The league played games for more than a year and a half with one working bathroom for a period of time, he said. When the field lights were stolen, he said, it took close to three years for the city to replace them.
"Parents were pulling up in cars with their lights on so kids could keep practicing," he said.
When a Simbas Pop Warner team was selected last year to play in the league's Mitey-Mite Bowl at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla., everyone from coaches to parents had to scramble to scrape together close to $20,000 for plane fare, hotel rooms, and other expenses. The city donated $1,000, Hornsby said.
"Every little bit helps," he said, "but we raised that kind of money just carrying buckets on the streets."
Founded in the 1940s, the Whitman Park Tigers served 250 to 300 kids ages 5 to 14 between players and cheerleaders last season.
The program costs about $30,000 annually to run, Hawkins said. It has faced its share of financial setbacks in recent years, including the theft of bleachers from their practice field in 2010, and the loss of about $25,000 worth of team equipment stolen from an outdoor storage locker two years earlier.
A home field, Hawkins said, would give the Tigers more than a place to host games. It would foster self-esteem and pride in their city.
"The tragic part about this is, it's not a bunch of grown folks asking for these things," he said. "It's the children, the kids that we are trying to stop from standing on the corners and getting shot."