Von Nieda Park in Camden has become more than a playground for a dozen middle schoolers from nearby St. Anthony of Padua School. It has become a mission.
Each week, after school, the group gathers to make phone calls and plan meetings to nudge local officials and others into action as part of an effort to transform the park into a cleaner and safer spot.
In the process, the seventh- and eighth-grade student leaders of the Von Nieda Park Task Force learn the skills of civic engagement and community organizing, say the adults who guide them, the Rev. Jud Weiksnar, the parish pastor, and volunteer Lauryn Klingler.
"The park was really, really run down," Weiksnar said. "It was something that needed attention."
Weiksnar had been working on his own for six years to bring the park's problems to the attention of Camden County officials, but he said he didn't get an adequate response until the students became involved. He said it was harder for officials to not respond when young people "put pressure" on them.
The effort to transform the county park grew out of a summer 2011 civic-engagement class at St. Anthony. Three students were chosen to accompany Weiksnar to a meeting with officials about the state of the park.
Weiksnar said the students "stole the show" and "made a very positive impression" on the officials.
Freeholder Jeffrey Nash acknowledged that the students made a "more powerful" impact because of their young ages.
"They can articulate their issues extremely well," Nash said, "and we are very interested in accomplishing what they're hoping to accomplish."
County Parks Director Frank Moran, who is also Camden City Council president, said his agency has a "very good working relationship" with the students.
He recalled one project in which he worked with the students on distributing magnetic signs with the phone numbers of county officials whom residents could call to report graffiti or safety issues.
The student volunteers themselves have made improvements to the park by painting over graffitied benches, cleaning up garbage, and upgrading the playground by adding wood chips and lowering swings for small children.
Eighth-grade student leaders Nelmaris Laureano and Soledad Velazquez, both 13, frequently go to the park and say they are proud of the changes they have helped to bring.
Laureano, who walks her dog in Von Nieda, says the park is noticeably cleaner, with less trash and with benches that are now painted with bright colors and peace signs.
Illegal dumping was once prevalent in the park and took months to clean up, but now, garbage is typically gone in 48 hours, Weiksnar said.
Laureano says the park is important to the community because she wants children to be able to play safely there.
"I love talking to people about the park," she says, "and helping it get cleaner."
Velazquez says she plays with her brothers in Von Nieda and has seen more families there since the improvements have been made.
"I like being able to make a difference," Velazquez says. She hopes people see the good in the community and wants to show that "not everything is bad about Camden."
Velazquez and Laureano said they were at first nervous about calling officials and didn't expect the quick responses they received.
"At first [the students] are shy, but once you hit the call button," Weiksnar said, "they jump right into action."
He said the student leaders have gained confidence to speak in public and interact with local and state officials. The students want to do something "more than a one-time service project," Weiksnar said.
Klingler, a recent graduate of St. Bonaventure University, who is one of four Franciscan volunteers at St. Anthony, helps the students think of project ideas for the park and to make phone calls.
On a recent Thursday, the students discussed the possibility of partnering with another group to bring recycling bins to the park.
There is still work to be done in the park - the bulletin board the student leaders set up has been vandalized twice. Klingler said the students were engaged in their volunteer work and liked making changes in their own neighborhood.
"It really inspires some pride in the community," Klingler said, "and pride in themselves."