CAMDEN, NJ — In a pre-coronavirus world the main lobby of Camden’s Salvation Army Kroc Corps Community Center at the start of August could be coated by confetti in celebration of a birthday. The walls could be echoing in applause as a group of nursing graduates prepare to embark on their careers. A couple could be gathered for a baby shower, eager for another addition to the family. 

Meetings. Training sessions. Graduations. Ben Ovadia, resource development manager for the Kroc Center, told TAPinto Camden the iteration of events are endless. 

However, of the roughly 350 to 500 the center would have hosted by now, the pandemic has made none possible. 

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The center, like many throughout the country, had to halt any in-person gatherings in mid-March due to the ongoing health crisis. It also meant that the center no longer requires 130 staff members in the building, instead relying on 45 or so.

Ovadia estimates that between 20,000 to 25,000 people visit the Kroc Center a year - a number that will look very different in 2020 for the first time since the center opened in Camden roughly five years ago. 

But that’s only part of the loss felt, with hundreds of member families also not having free rein of the 120-square foot facility located on a 24-acre campus in Cramer Hill.

“We certainly have families who have felt the loss,” said Hillary Jones, education and senior program manager, “We were two weeks away from putting on a ‘Jungle Book’ performance...also an arts competition that was set for the Spring. We've certainly missed it too, but we’ve tried to serve them as best we can whether they need a place for their kids to go or activities to do at home.”

The summer typically sees close to 300 children bustling in and out of the center to take advantage of fitness amenities, a swimming pool, water park, group activities, arts-oriented workshops and more. 

Today, roughly 50 children are enrolled in a program for parents who work on site, with another 60 enrolled in “Camp in the Box.” The latter provides children with a grab-bag of take home activities that lasts six weeks and includes a live online component for cooking classes and lessons on how to play the recorder.

Existing in the new norm

Adjusting to the pandemic has been an ongoing process. 

“Some of our visitors come once, some of them three, four or five times a year. They're going to come back but our feeling is when they come back amid COVID it's going to be a different dynamic,” Ovadia said while touring the facility. 

“We know the importance of reinforcing [social] distancing when people are here,” he continued. 

It’s evident upon arriving at the Harrison Avenue center that it’s noticeably changed in the past five months. Upon entering, a barrier protects a masked-receptionist who is ready with a sign-in sheet — which serves a dual purpose for prospective contact tracers.

Hand sanitizer is also on hand, and cleaning staff spends the bulk of the day maintaining a sanitized environment, Ovadia said.

With the loosening of some restrictions, the center is currently able to run essential childcare services, a food pantry and aquatics indoors. 

The pantry - which is now located toward the back of the center’s main lobby - feeds around 5,700 people a year, with the help of approximately 1,000 volunteers. On Wednesday, three new volunteers were getting a lay of the land. 

“Our food pantry is usually in the back of our building since we share an entrance with Cooper’s [primary care office on site],” said Captain Brennen Hinzman, who manages operations for the pantry. “We realized we needed a new space for safety purposes.”

Temperature checks could be conducted at the center, but Ovadia says the best policy for prospective visitors is to self-monitor for symptoms and stay home if they are feeling unwell. 

If someone begins to display symptoms or is feeling unwell, the center can isolate them in specified rooms if need be. Jones said she is hopeful they won’t need the one located near the pool with other regulations — such as sign reminders to wear face masks while on deck, limits on coming in contact with others and designated lanes for swimmers — creating a safe environment.

An indoor water park located adjacent to the pool remains out of use. 

“Of course, as I've said to myself, it's thinking not about if it happens, it's when it happens,” she said. “So, we’re continuing to talk about those procedures and protocols. It's really important for us so that people know we’re prepared.”

Taking steps ahead of time has also been important, Ovadia said, like creating a fitness area with spaced out stationary bikes in the gymnasium. Also, making sure they have a "cohort" system in place ahead of the school year - with an expected influx of children.

“It’s about being ready and just really listening to the governor to figure out week to week, day to day, what we can do,” he added.

More than one new addition

The learning curve has been anything but uneventful for Captains Keith and Pam Maynor, who recently took over for Majors Terry and Susan Wood.

The majors, who recently stepped down, had served in the center's top role since 2015. 

The Camden Kroc Center team, “have stared down COVID-19's daunting challenge, and they have not flinched,” said Captain Keith Maynor, during his first day in the role Wednesday. “They courageously serve and aim to impact everyone in need. As we move forward through the pandemic, we will continue to strive to serve, listen to healthcare professionals, and continue to establish the Kroc as a safe and secure haven.”

Balancing the ongoing challenges of the pandemic has not stopped other endeavors from moving forward. 

Last week, the center broke ground on a 4,500-square foot complex it will add by year’s end. The $2 million project will include a multipurpose room for fitness classes, distributions and recreational activities.

On Wednesday, the Community Foundation of South Jersey also granted the Kroc Center with $5,000 to help continue providing groceries and other food items to residents in need. 

“We are so thankful that the Community Foundation of South Jersey was able to help fund our organization and support our families in need,” said administrator Major Terry Wood. “The pandemic is not only an economic crisis but a mental health crisis caused by the stress residents are feeling.  We are working hard to help alleviate some of that stress as we provide help and hope. This grant surely helps.”

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