Norwood-Fontbonne Academy eighth graders Nora Kenney, Olivia Taylor, Emma Veon and Kara Celano help deliver Christmas gifts to families in Camden.

by Paula M. Riley

The Benjamin Franklin Bridge connects more than two cities. It is the link between two communities who are brought together throughout the year and even closer during the holidays.

Norwood-Fontbonne Academy in Chestnut Hill works with Guadalupe Family Services in North Camden, a social service agency. For more than a decade, NFA students and their families try to lighten the burdens of Christmas for almost three dozen children.

Whether a wished toy or game, pair of shoes or heavy coat, school supplies and or household needs, families receive gifts cloaked in love. Sr. Helen Cole, a Sister of Saint Joseph and executive director of Guadalupe Family Services, visits NFA regularly and in early December she spoke with students about the needs in her Camden neighborhood.

“People in Camden think I am wonderful,” she said. “It is only because of the generosity of NFA and others in the community that I can do wonderful work in Camden.”

NFA’s relationship with this north Camden neighborhood, and in particular the Holy Name School, goes much deeper than gifts at Christmas. Through the academy’s fully integrated Service Learning Curriculum, NFA students of all ages are empowered to impact the lives of others while developing sensitivity towards others and an awareness of social injustice. Each grade works throughout the school year with a particular service site. Eighth graders partner with Holy Name School where they mentor and share life experiences with first graders.

“The visits are an integral component of the NFA’s Service Learning program where students focus on social justice issues and the rights and needs of others; becoming more aware of the world outside their own neighborhoods,” said Terri Hutsell, NFA Communications Director.

As the big yellow bus heads over the bridge into Camden, the landscape changes and our students find themselves in a poor, broken- down neighborhood where they know a growing spirit lives. What they experience when they arrive at Holy Name is the joy and camaraderie shared with a spirited group of youngsters. The eighth graders know that these children have similar interests, hopes, and dreams.

Later in the spring, the NFA students organize a day of service in the spring where their Camden buddies visit NFA for a daylong event featuring interactive activities, picnic lunch, team-building and mentoring exercises. Older students develop special relationships and serve as role models while the younger ones bring out the playful side of NFA teens.

A long-standing relationship with Father Mike McCue (an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who directs the de Sales Service Works in Camden) continues ever stronger despite having to cross a bridge. Father Mike frequently comes to NFA to preside at special liturgies and services. With each visit, NFA children learn about the richness and goodness found in one of America’s poorest cities. The students understand that Father Mike and his ministry is a vital presence in Camden; they anxiously await Father Mike’s message each visit.

Although a river, and in some ways an entire world, separates the two schools, there is more in common than not. The relationship continues to build and each benefits from having spent time with the other. Christmastime is just one of the many moments these communities enrich each other.

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