As the boys in homemade "rock the vote" shirts walked through the Camden bus stop, a woman cried: "Oh, they're rocking the vote! No, they're just looking to get paid."
Jonathan Mangual, 18, shook his head.
"If I was trying to get paid, I would get a job that
," he said.
The six teens registering voters in Camden this month
do receive minimum wage for their work, but they say educating voters has provided its own rewards.
"When you're on the street doing this, you feel like you're grown," said 15-year-old William McNeil. "Like you're doing something."
The teens are members of the STARR youth development program, a venture for Camden teens that incorporates weekly soccer games with service projects and occasional field trips. STARR is funded by the Campbell Soup Foundation and private donors, and participants pay nothing. The voter-registration portion of the STARR program is sponsored by the Center for Children and Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden.
After a few days' orientation in late June, the five boys and one girl have spent each weekday afternoon knocking on doors or soliciting in public with voter registration forms in English, Spanish and Cantonese. When the teens encounter registered voters, they offer information about local polling places.
STARR president Robert Atkins, a Rutgers nursing professor, had hoped they would register 1,000 voters by the end of July, but most people the teens have approached are already registered. They had registered about 170 people by Thursday.
Camden has a very high voter registration rate, he said. According to CAMConnect's 2008 report, 76 percent of voting-age residents were registered to vote for the 2004 presidential election. Half the residents registered voted in that election.
Residents of high-poverty cities often work during nontraditional hours and at distant locations that make voting difficult, Atkins said.
"It's easy to say they don't care, but it has a lot to do with socioeconomic, demographic issues," he said.
Most people approached by the teens reacted warmly to their entreaties to register, though many, like Micah Khan, running the water-ice stand across from the station, said they were registered.
"I think it's great," Khan said. "Get involved in politics. This election's going to make history."
The teens, most still too young to vote, know their work is important, Atkins said, but the real enthusiasm of many community members has reinforced that sense.
"In a place like Camden where there's so many kids, when they see kids doing something positive and constructive, they're excited about it," Atkins said.
Chesilhurst resident David Ayotte, who registered for the first time in this area, agreed.
"I like to see young guys out there working," he said.