By Meryl Spadaro
A little light shines in the center of Camden. It is a garden growing more than just plants.
The Camden Children’s Garden, established in 1999, is a nonprofit environmental and educational facility with a unique approach on serving the Camden community.
“I always say that at the garden, we not only grow plants, we grow kids,” said Jeff Clark, 60, of Maple Shade, NJ, supervisor of Children’s Garden.
Clark, who has been working at the garden for 17 years, said he finds fulfillment in this job, different from any other job he has ever worked. Clark said that when he wakes up for work every morning, he now has a purpose, and that purpose is serving the community and making a difference in the lives of Camden’s youth.
Camden Children’s Garden’s main purpose is to give back to the community through different educational outlets. From family oriented events, to weddings, the Children’s Garden does it all. Clarke said he especially loves working with the youth from Camden that the garden is able to employ.
“By the time you are 18 in Camden, you’re grown up,” said Clark. “You have your values set and your worth ethic set. So if we can get them at a younger age and teach them and train them I think we can help them be more successful.”
According to the Courier Post, Camden has an average high school graduation rate of around 60 percent. The garden puts a lot of emphasis on school when it comes to their youth employees from the community, said Clark. Starting at age 14, the garden hires students in the hopes of offering them skills and knowledge to help them succeed in their futures.
Out of the 500 students that the garden has had come through, only two have failed to graduate high school. Clark said he finds so much fulfillment in seeing kids go through their program. With 17 years in the books for Clark, he has been able to see students come back as professional adults.
“Seeing them come back with their families has been really neat,” said Clark.
Some of the garden’s main highlights include, three rides, a carousel, a train and a spring drop. A butterfly garden that was built by the eagles and a newly built playground. The Camden Children’s Garden presents a fun and safe place for parents to take their kids to play and learn, said Clark.
The garden has faced various struggles in recent years. Their neighboring business, Adventure Aquarium, draws a major crowd. Unfortunately, with a recent change in ownership, they have closed the door on a partnership with the Children’s Garden, which has been a major hit for the non-profit. Clark said they have tried to mend the relationship between the two, but to no avail.
After a major cut in funds from the government, the garden has had to work even harder to gain some attention from people who do not yet know they exist. However, on a break from her Philadelphia shows, singer Adele made a stop at the garden with her son and loved it so much she gave them a shout-out at both concerts. This confidence boost affirmed the staff that they are doing something right, said Clark.
“We may not have the most resources, and we may not always be that crowded, but staying positive and having a staff with a good attitude makes up for it,” said Clark.
For employee Natalie Caldwell of Camden, NJ, it is her coworkers and the children which make her glad to come to work every day for the past five years. Like Clark, Caldwell said that this is the best place she has ever worked.
“It is so satisfying seeing the smiles on the kid’s faces and helping these kids that come from the community,” said Caldwell, 35. “Being from this community I know what they go through.”
As the Christmas season approaches, the staff is preparing for their two Christmas events, ‘Breakfast with Santa.’ A time for kids to visit with Saint Nick before he makes his way down their chimney. Clark is especially looking forward to this event as he prepares for his 23rd year of playing Santa.
The garden will remain open until Christmas and reopen come spring of 2017.