Camden, NJ—What would you do if you won $50,000? For Lanning Square West resident Pino Rodriguez, the answer was simple–buy an $18 pair of work boots.
Rodriguez was recently the awarded the top 2018 Russ Berrie Making A Difference Award—which comes with a cool $50,000—for his work with Camden Block Supporter Initiative [CBSI], a community-based program that encourages and helps Camden residents clean and beautify the fronts of their homes, along a block's vacant lots.
The award came as a surprise to Rodriguez.
"It drove me crazy, I couldn't sleep at night," he said, adding that he was kept thinking about the other honorees and their accomplishments.
"I'm not doing much more than they are—maybe even less—look at all those things that they’re doing. I was so humbled to be a part of that group," said Rodriguez.
The Russ Berrie Making a Difference Awards are administered by Ramapo College and the Russ Berrie Foundation, and according to its website, the awards "recognize individuals who make New Jersey a better place—whether through extraordinary community service or a single heroic act." Each year, three major awards of $50,000, $35,000 and $25,000 are given, with up to eight awards of $5,000.
Rodriguez founded the CBSI program in 2004 in his Lanning Square West neighborhood, when as a divorced father, his children were not allowed to sleep over due to the unsafe neighborhood. He credits enlisting the neighbors on his block to keep the front of their homes clean, and the installation of flower boxes that are maintained by the residents, to a safer and more proud environment.
"That's what this program does, it gives you hope now," said Rodriguez. "Until things happen—if they happen—you’ll have pride, respect, responsibility and accountability, so now you can be a better person while you wait."
According to Ridriguez, the success of the program depends on the investment of the neighbors, the "block supporters."
"It has to belong to them," said Rodriguez, who added that the residents that are part of the CBSI are personally responsible for maintaining a clean block, along with any vacant lots as well.
In 2015, he was hired by the Camden Lutheran Housing Inc. [CLHI] to bring the program into the North Camden neighborhood. Now, there are 544 households participating, and 12 local residents are employed in the fall, spring and summer.
"I had a feeling he was going to take the top prize," said Betsy Clifford, executive director of CLHI who nominated Rodriguez for the award. "It's a very special award in that its not a grant to the nonprofit ... it's a personal acknowledgement of his work, his dedication and his perseverance and commitment."
"For more than 20 years, I've always been financially disabled. But I’ve always given myself to change, to better the situation and I’ve always been a survivor of change and difficult situations," said Rodriguez, who added that even with the money, he still thinks as he always has.
"But it's a great feeling to know that we’re going to be able to make a change with the funding, and we’re starting to make a change with the funding," said Rodriguez.
"It was an amazing experience to go up there [for the award], and have a lot of our staff with him and his family," said Clifford.
Rodriguez said that he has already purchased a new push mower, leaf blower and weed wacker for his Lanning Square West neighborhood, along with paint for the curbs and block supporter stickers.
"I'm going to use a lot of that money to continue doing what we do—to maintain—and instead of one block, [expand to] more of the neighborhood."