CAMDEN, NJ — Joel Oquendo admits it – he’s not far removed from the day-to-day life of summer camp himself.
At 14 years old, he was in those shoes not so long ago.
But since volunteering with Camp Kroc, the program at the Camden Salvation Army Kroc Center, that fact almost doesn't seem true for him. Talk to Oquendo and he'll explain how he’s matured quickly, really out of necessity.
“If you’re asked to get something done, you need to do it right away because people are waiting on you. (It's all) about thinking and processing quickly,” he said.
Oquendo is among the volunteers that lend a hand in the day-to-day camp operations at the Kroc Center, many of whom are part of the Kroc Krew, a leadership program for ages 14 to 18 during the summer months.
The group of 30 or so teens, from across the South Jersey area, learn job skills and receive training in areas such as health safety while assisting camp counselors with the children.
Oquendo said he has become good at working with kids from time spent with younger cousins. His introduction to the Kroc Center resulted from communication between family members, including an aunt who brings her daughter to the camp.
“It’s nice to see how campers enjoy such little things," he said.
“(The program) is a great opportunity for them, and it helps make camp run smoothly in a lot of ways so it’s practical for us too,” said Hillary Jones, education manager.
And it takes a dedicated effort from everyone at the facility these days.
Each year of the camp is marked by a swell in enrollment. What was about 80 kids in the first year, still filing in until early June, has reached a point this year of 250 kids with spaces full by the third week in February, Jones said.
“The camp pretty much takes over our building over the summer," said Major Terry Wood, Kroc Center Administrator. The 120,000 square foot facility features a lap pool, game room, indoor water park, and performance arts space, all of which are used during the camp day.
The Kroc Krew program continues to develop right alongside the camp, started about a year after.
Potential enrollees are put through a process similar to one when going for a job; the teens first have to fill out an application online then are contacted for an interview. A resume is expected in hand for that meeting. From there, a second application must be completed and include three references.
“You have to prove that you have skills and you’re an asset," Wood said, "and it’s demonstrating the value they have in themselves, helping them to realize that at an early age."
Jones said that the staff hasn't turned anyone anyway due to their interview "but it does give us an opportunity or a place to start having conversations.”
A typical day for a Kroc Krew member — committed to at least two weeks of camp between June 24 to Aug. 16 — includes a class on career guidance and two group assignments. These are either being paired with a counselor of a certain age group of campers or with a class instructor (dance, music, sports, or art) based on their interests.
The teens also become familiar with administrative tasks (data entry, filing, answering the phone) and work with special needs children.
Learning to interact one-on-one with different children is something that stuck with Kaseem Edwards, who was hired as a counselor after serving on the Kroc Crew the last two years. Those situations led to "more of an understanding of some of these kids," he said.
Edwards, 18, echoed the comments from Oquendo: the program experience gave him a greater level of responsibility.
"Even as a volunteer, you are expected to do (the job) and do it thoroughly," Edwards said. "You take these skills with you not even just in jobs, but in life."
Two counselor hires were actually made this summer from the Kroc Krew program, plus two more from volunteers in the building's pool area, which Jones said is an exciting prospect.
“I think that’s a huge success because it means that we’ve built skills in people that now they can work and take with them,” Jones said. “And a lot of the teens will say that it’s given them the ability to get a job if they’ve gone somewhere else.”
Being able to provide jobs, especially to Camden residents, is a fulfilling element of the now five-year-old Kroc Center, said Ben Ovadia, resource development manager.
Prior to the building’s construction, the Salvation Army had about four or five employees in the city, he said. That number has risen to more than 200 through the year for Kroc Center operations, with half of the employees from Camden. Day camp staff alone accounts for 62 of the jobs.
A member of the summer team and a Camden resident, Anika Channer said it’s nice to be part of a community helping local kids.
In her third year as a counselor, Channer, 23, said she would volunteer in high school when she had the time. She recognizes how this job can help her build to career opportunities, but also how it can make a difference for the campers.
“They always say kids are the future, so I think (this is) a good way to impact kids in a positive way,” Channer said.
A Camp in Demand
When it comes to summer childcare in Camden, families have a ton of options.
Jones said the Kroc Center program has become such a popular choice because of the accommodating hours to parents that are working or going to school. Children can be dropped off at 6:30 a.m. and then picked up at 6:30 p.m.
"The majority of our families are working, going to school full time but low income, so that’s who we want to serve and want to be connected with," she said.
The activities available are certainly a draw as well, she said. But, like the case of many other city afterschool and summer programs, the guarantee of food figures to be the strongest component.
The Kroc Center staff provides two meals daily thanks to a government program, and will throw in a snack, too, because "even that's not enough," Wood said.
“When the parents come to pick (children) up early, if it’s at mealtime, they’ll ask to take the meal with them," he said. "It’s really a great service we’re providing that’s needed in this area.”