Help The Children Of Camden NJ Have A Merrier Christmas This Year.

Dear Santa Claus, Good Day, my name is Benjamin I am 10 years old. To me Christmas means the birth of Christ and a time to celebrate and share with

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Dear Santa Claus,

Good Day, my name is Benjamin I am 10 years old. To me Christmas means the birth of Christ and a time to celebrate and share with family, friends and neighbors and help the needy families.

My wish is to have a bike, a game or what ever you chose to give me.

Thank you Santa Claus and Merry Christmas

Benjamin Rivera

It's hard to describe just how hard life is in Camden if you've never driven through its decaying neighborhoods. Not only is it one of the poorest cities, it's the most dangerous city in America - and it's just across the river from the glittering skyrises of downtown Philadelphia, surrounded by affluent suburbs. It used to be a thriving manufacturing town (anchored by the Campbell's Soup plant, which closed in 1996), but you know how that story goes.

Organizations like Camden Rescue Mission are real bright spots in the town. Knowing that no matter what, your kids will at least get a toy for Christmas makes life a little more tolerable.

But here's this year's equation: 2,500 toys - to be split up among 6,000 families.

I know we're all hurting. But not all of us feel the lifelong, grinding pain of extreme poverty the way people in Camden do. So if you can spare a few bucks to make Christmas a little brighter this year, please donate here.

At the Camden Rescue Mission, the Rev. Al Stewart is facing a tough decision tonight.

He's collected about 2,500 toys for needy children from Camden and other South Jersey communities for the mission's annual Christmas party. But 6,000 children are registered to receive gifts.

Should Stewart hold the party as scheduled on Saturday and give out the toys he has - or postpone the event until he can collect more?

"The party will be rescheduled unless we get a miracle," Stewart said, "and God knows we believe in miracles."

The South Camden mission, along with many charities and hunger-relief agencies across the Philadelphia area and the nation, have received more help requests this season than last because of the economic downturn, charitable groups say.

But organizations such as the Camden Rescue Mission and Salvation Army of Philadelphia say donations are not keeping pace.

The demand for food also has increased. Philabundance, the largest hunger-relief agency in the region, said need rose 35 percent, and the Food Bank of South Jersey said it went up 41 percent.

Early survey results of more than 200 nonprofits across the Philadelphia region this fall show 45 percent indicating they're in worse financial shape than they were six months ago, said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University's School of Business.

"It's pretty much the economy; it's affected the spirit of Christmas," said Stewart, mission pastor. "From where I'm sitting, it's kind of devastating.

"People have moved from [being] 'haves' to 'have-nots,' and we generally depended on the 'haves' for toys," he said. "Now they need help."

The mission has noticed other demographic changes this year, too.

"Ninety percent of the children [at the party] used to come from Camden," Stewart said. "Now, 80 percent of those coming are from Camden. The rest are from Cherry Hill, Bellmawr, Gloucester City, Westmont, Westville, and Blackwood.

"We haven't had clientele from those areas before. But people are out of work. Their houses have been foreclosed on. Life has changed for them, and they're looking for emergency food, clothing, shelter - and toys.

"I don't think we can afford the luxury of letting the economy steal our Christmas," Stewart said. "We're battling it and we haven't given up."

About Susie Madrak

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