Munir Griffin hammered at the thick skin of the


with his drumsticks, contributing his bass to a thunder of rhythm in Gordon Theater at the Rutgers-Camden Center for the Arts.

Since he started playing with Camden's Universal African Dance and Drum Ensemble at age 5, the 14-year-old has practiced an hour every day after school.

"It teaches me to have rhythm and to love my culture," he said.

Yesterday, Griffin and the ensemble helped launch the Campbell Soup Co.'s 2009 Youth Summer Program, which will provide $400,000 to 25 local organizations that sponsor career counseling, educational programs, and summer camps.

Jerry Buckley, chairman of the Campbell Soup Foundation, said the company had maintained the program's funding despite a difficult economy. The company's $174 million profit for the three months that ended May 3 was down from $532 million a year earlier.

"Summer is a time to have fun and to take children places they wouldn't normally go," Buckley said. "You can't put that into a spreadsheet."

Although it missed the deadline this year, ensemble founder Robert Dickerson said his group had received a Campbell's grant every year since 1993 and had been invited to perform for about 120 schoolchildren at the opening event.

"It's so important for kids to have this because we live in one of the poorest cities in America with so much crime and drugs," he said. "I believe what we're doing keeps kids off the streets."

With the $12,000 that the Camden Children's Garden received, founder Michael Devlin plans to hire more teenagers in the organization's employment-training program.

"This is our 18th year, and only one of our students has dropped out of high school," he said.

Andrea Miller of the Girl Scouts of Central and Southern New Jersey said the grant would allow her to send an additional 60 inner-city girls to rural Camp Inawendiwin this summer.

"Out there, they meet new people, build new relationships, and learn that there's something outside of where you live," she said. "And the most important thing: They have fun."

This year, 123 girls applied for the camp, and the Girl Scouts will take all of them to the Pine Barrens to ride horses and work on arts and crafts while developing leadership skills.

The Youth Summer Program, in its 35th year, is part of Campbell's $10 million pledge last year to help revitalize Camden, the city the company has called home since its founding in 1869, Buckley said.

"The foundation is a huge part of what we do and a visible sign of Campbell's commitment to the city," he said.

For 10-year-old Ashley Chambers of Camden's Promise Charter School, the summer began at Gordon Theater, where she enjoyed the drum ensemble's presentation and created her own drum out of pipe cleaners, paper, and crayons.

"I like the different colors, the clothing, and the sound of drums," she said. At the Girl Scout camp, she wants to "learn more, have fun, and meet new people."

Dorothy Black, a 77-year-old reading tutor at the school, said she appreciated the generosity of the program.

"It was beautiful," she said. It gives the children "something to do and encourages them to get out."

With the support and encouragement of the drum ensemble, Griffin said he hoped to continue entertaining people by becoming a sports broadcaster.

"You just have to keep practicing," he said.

Buckley benefited from similar experiences while growing up in Upstate New York, he said, and he and his team visit the various programs every year.

"I get inspired when I see these young people from Camden out at Camp Inawendiwin or at the Children's Garden," he said. "I look at these kids' faces, and I know it's working."