Drug dealers mistake them for customers. Children ask why they live in the city when they don't have to. Neighbors see them working in the garden and stop and ask why.

Camden is dotted with young college graduates from around the country working to help a city routinely ranked among the nation's poorest and most dangerous.

They work at nonprofit agencies. They teach. They are on religious missions.

And some live in the city, among the people they are there to try to help.

"I wanted to be a part of the community. I wanted to experience what my kids experience," said Marial Smith, 24, a charter-school teacher from Lansdale who chose to live in Camden. "They respected me, and if I lived here maybe they figured the city was worth caring about, too."

Within a year or two, most are gone, back to other cities or small Midwestern towns. Many will apply to graduate school and wind up in careers far from Camden.

But some stay, taken in by the city and determined to make a difference.

'People are the same'

In the summer of 2009, Joshua Dupuis' father drove him the five hours from Springfield, Mass., and moved him into an old rowhouse in Cramer Hill, a predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhood in North Camden.

"I definitely stand out here," said Dupuis, 23. "I'll walk down the street and people are really friendly. But I get some looks."

Dupuis had signed up to be a Franciscan volunteer, even though he isn't Catholic. He attended a Jesuit school, St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, and liked the Catholic concept of service. After the Peace Corps rejected him because of a heart condition, he was recruited by the Franciscans to spend a year living simply and dedicating himself daily to making the community a better place.

His mother has worried. Before returning to New England, his father called her to tell her about their son's new house, but he left out the part about the burned-out houses they passed on the drive in.

"I think he told her, 'It's not the place you dream of dropping your kid off, but it's not too bad,' " Joshua Dupuis said.

Some weeks he doesn't take a day off.

He works in the community garden, runs a basketball clinic for neighborhood children, picks up trash in Von Nieda Park, and takes food to neighbors when he has extra, or even when he doesn't.

When the weather's hot he dresses in shorts and flip flops. And because he is so polite and welcoming, he seems to have been plucked from the welcome desk of a beach resort.

Tall and skinny, Dupuis says things like, "The city looks different, but the people are the same. They're beautiful."

Still passionate

By 6 p.m. on weekdays, downtown Camden is a ghost town.

The office workers have gone home and most of the restaurants have closed, leaving the city center to those who live there.

Allison Sandusky ended up living in a house on Linden Street after another teacher with Teach for America waxed poetic one night about the virtues of living in Camden, being part of a community, knowing your neighbors.

The 24-year-old University of Michigan graduate moved into the house with Smith and Richard Shephard, also TFA teachers. The restaurant and cafe scenes they'd known in Berkeley and Buffalo and Ann Arbor were nonexistent here, but that didn't matter much, considering that they spent most evenings grading papers and working on lesson plans.

If they did have a night off, they caught a Riversharks game, grabbed dinner at the bar on the ground floor of the Victor building, or barbecued with their neighbors, a racially diverse group of college students and locals.

Sometimes Shephard, a 27-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Upstate New York, would stop by the town-hall meetings organized by local community groups. He liked to mingle with the doctors and lawyers who turned out to talk about saving the city, and sometimes he went just to talk to someone who wasn't a teacher.

In July, two years after they moved to Camden, the trio moved to an apartment near the Cooper River in Collingswood. The house they had been living in had started to fall into disrepair since the landlord, another TFA teacher, moved to California.

And as much as they hated to admit it, they missed checking out new restaurants and places to run and birds chirping. But when new teachers come on, they still give the pitch about living in Camden.

"I don't know. I still feel very passionate about the city," Sandusky said. "We suggested it to the new teachers last year, but no one took us up on it."

Tired of teaching

Maybe Virginia or Maryland, maybe California, eventually.

Sabrina Gomez says she just wants to get out of Camden as she picks at a salad on the terrace of a pizza place on Market Street.

"I was down in Maryland recently. It just seemed different down there," she said.

Gomez, 24, teaches Web design to teenagers at Hope Works, a North Camden nonprofit.

She went through the program after a friend of her aunt's told her about it when Gomez was on her way out of the hairdressing business. That was five years ago, and now Gomez is a full-time employee.

But she's tired of teaching, tired of South Camden, where she grew up and still lives.

Every year Hope Works brings in a new volunteer. They're good people, Gomez says, and some of them she considers friends, but they leave after a year and Gomez is left in Camden with the drug dealers shooting it out around the corner from her apartment.

"It's like a different world for them. They're not used to seeing the things we see," Gomez said. "Now I'm starting to get older, I'm starting to see it a lot different, and I don't like it."

Finding a good fit

Two years ago Andrea Ferich bought her first home, a redbrick rowhouse with a little back garden in Waterfront South.

While attending Eastern University, she heard the Rev. Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church speak about how the country had let down the people of Camden.

His words hit her like a brick. She had been struggling with the relationship between her Christian faith and her environmentalism, and Doyle's Waterfront South, a once-thriving working-class neighborhood then largely abandoned, seemed a place where she could work on both.

Ferich, who grew up in Lancaster, got a job working for Doyle. She and a group of friends moved into a Victorian on Broadway and established a commune-style home where over dinner they would discuss their spirituality and their quest to be better neighbors - sometimes taking breaks to forage in the trash bin of a nearby bakery for discarded bread.

At one point the number of people in the house swelled to 13, and Ferich grew tired of the scene. She ultimately moved out for personal reasons.

Now almost 30, Ferich savors the simplicity of having her own space.

She gets up early to work in what she calls her "fields," a thriving vegetable patch of tomatoes and heirloom squash from which she picks insects by hand. She cans vegetables for the winter, cooks, and enjoys the occasional dance party with the 53-year-old Colombian kindergarten teacher she is renting a room to.

And though Ferich's days of communal living are behind her, her house is often filled with people. As director of the Center of Environmental Transformation, an offshoot of Sacred Heart, Ferich's job is to teach the neighborhood about growing your own food and conserving resources.

It's turned into a 24-hour-a-day job, with kids in the kitchen getting cooking lessons or neighbors knocking on the door to ask her a question about vegetables.

"I'll be walking down the street and I know everyone, and they're all outside talking. It's like my own personal Sesame Street," Ferich said. "I feel like even the criminals have my back."

Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.