The year construction began on the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden, NJ, the city was the most dangerous place to live in America. Inside Camden proper, 39 people were murdered that year, with 13 homicides occurring in one month alone—making it the worst month in that New Jersey city since 1949.
But hope is in the air.
The Camden Kroc opened in 2014—the last of the 26 Kroc Corps Community Centers to be built in the four USA territories, bringing to a close a nationwide legacy that was Joan Kroc’s dream.
“The city of Camden was overwhelmed,” said one Camden resident, now a Kroc member. “This is the best thing that could ever happen to Camden—especially in this neighborhood.”
Actually, the 24 acres on which the facility is housed is a former toxic landfill. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection had to clean the site, legally signing off on the land’s safety and suitability, before The Salvation Army could take possession and turn the first spade of dirt.
“It’s a bit of an irony that the land had to be reclaimed,” says Lieutenant Dabiel Valdes, “sort of a precursor to the many lives we know will be reclaimed by God for decades to come!” Lieutenant Dabiel serves alongside his wife, Lieutenant Luz Valdes, as Kroc congregational life officers.
Yet another irony is that the last Kroc (Camden) to be built is loosely modeled on the first (San Diego), according to Lieutenant Valdes.
“The environment here at the Kroc and the employees are exceptional,” he says. “It has quite a family feeling to it. The staff and members know we are a church and they approach us to pray with and for them, and sometimes counsel them.”
The Camden Kroc Corps replaces the old Camden Citadel Corps, located not too far from where Salvationists serve and worship now.
“This is a diverse congregation,” the lieutenant adds. “Most everything we do here in the corps is bilingual, and even the soldiers who came over from the old Citadel are thrilled to have a facility like this to carry out the Army’s mission and ministry.”
The city of Camden and the neighborhood residents were “on board” to carry out the project of landing and building a Kroc. To help with the construction of the Camden Kroc, the city even replaced an older bridge near the center’s entrance in order to handle the traffic of trucks and equipment.
Local corporations were also on board.
Campbell Soup Company, headquartered in Camden, built and sponsors the Kroc Café—with proceeds from sales supporting the Kroc operating budget.
The Subaru Corporation sponsors the Choice Food Pantry, which serves an estimated 1,000 families per year, averaging about 20 families daily. The pantry is a little supermarket of sorts, allowing folks to pick out their own grocery needs—meats, produce, dairy, canned goods—without the indignity of having someone looking over their shoulder or telling them what they can and what they cannot have. Two caseworkers oversee the pantry, which is part of the Kroc’s Pathway Of Hope program.
The Wells Fargo Conference & Education Area consists of three large meeting areas that house a Book-exchange Library, an Arts & Crafts Room and a Computer Room that provides computer instruction for adults and children.
The three areas can also be configured into one larger room for special events.
The Town Plaza is a centrally located area within the Kroc, where folks can “hang out,” get lunch at the Kroc Café or enjoy the Kroc Aquarium—which is maintained daily by the Camden Aquarium, which treats the tank and takes proper care of the fish.
The Aquatics Complex is sponsored by the New Jersey American Water Company. The Black Box Theater (hosting drama, music, and dance) is a gift of the Nardi Family.
Interestingly, a Press Room overlooks both the Kroc Gymnasium on one side and the Aquatics Complex on the other. Windows peer over both venues, giving media reporters and commentators the means to broadcast and/or narrate sporting competitions both on the court and in the pool—perhaps even simultaneously should meets in both sports be scheduled.
Majors Terry and Susan Wood are the Kroc Center administrators, rounding out the Kroc officer staff at present.
“Our chapel seats 220, and a moving wall can accommodate an additional 200,” Major Terry says. “But our ministry doesn’t stop there—we have 120,000 square-feet of space in which to promote the Army’s mission and evangelical thrust.”
Adult Ministries at the Camden Kroc features Bible studies two times each week, as well as meals with “unlimited coffee.”
A Youth Ministries Room is used several nights a week, with free Wifi available throughout the building so students can do their homework. Friday evening is Youth Night, with a Bible study, a meal and lots of fun. Three flatscreen televisions, play stations, air hockey, ping pong and board games are available. Wednesday nights bring Chat & Chew. Teens and young adults share a meal around a huge table and discuss topics of interest. For instance, one week they talked about a positive self-image and how God sees us. The next Wednesday, the topic was healthy relationships and what the Bible says about them.
“The only rule at Chat & Chew is that they have to turn off their cell phones,” the lieutenant says.
“It’s an honor to be here,” he adds. “I grew up in a neighborhood like this across the river in Philly. Really, Camden is not much different from Philly—we know the need in the neighborhood and how best to relate to the people here. There is such potential for ministry!
“This is a beacon of hope for all of Camden.”
—Major Frank Duracher is the Assistant Editor