The Camden Aquarium has long been one of the bright lights of the city's waterfront. Lesser known is its next-door neighbor: the Camden Children's Garden. The garden could be evicted by the State of New Jersey by the end of the month, but defenders are digging in their heels.
With stories, songs and something called "stomping chimes," Amy Penney is herding 16 children, most younger than 4, through a session called Sprouts and Seedlings. Penney, the energetic education and events coordinator for the Camden Children's Garden, says underneath it all, there's a critical lesson.
"The more children grow their vegetables, they of course then want to eat them," Penney said. "It's amazing to watch something they've created, in a sense put the work in to create. Then eating broccoli is a whole different adventure."
Part of the garden's mission is introducing children and their families in this impoverished city to healthy food and the nature likely hard to find on their block.
From a chilly March morning, we step into the steamy air of the garden's butterfly house. Valerie Frick, the garden's education director, points to hundreds of tiny green plants that will end up in little plots across the city, helping to feed 10 to 12 percent of the population.
"There's not a lot of beauty in Camden, a lot of vacant lots, rather than beautiful places, as in the suburbs or in more rural areas," Frick said. "There is a lot of crime, there is a lot of drugs, and there are not many amenities. So children growing up here don't have all the nature/nurturing a lot of other children have that opportunity."
But the state is demanding the children's garden give up most of its 4.5 acres so it can be used for "economic development" — most likely expanding the Adventure Aquarium next door. When it began, the aquarium was state-run, but now a private company manages it.
The garden and city officials maintain the land belongs to Camden, not the state. They say the land sale was never approved by Camden City Council and so isn't legitimate. The state maintains it has title and is only asking for some of the garden to relocate.
A mission that can't move
Frick, who runs the garden with her husband Mike Devlin, says they can't pick up and move it. They stress being in Camden is part of the place's mission.
"In a city where somewhere between 40 and 60 percent of the youth don't graduate, of the 300 youth that we've had in this program, only one has not graduated," Frick said. "Many have gone on to college, and a few of them remain here with us full time."
Around the corner is one of those success stories. Vidal Rivera was transplanting flowers that had been displayed at the Philadelphia Flower show. The 21-year-old is training to make the 2016 Olympic boxing team and started working at the Children's Garden when he was 16. He says it opened his eyes to new foods and opportunities.
"I never even tried beets before here, and I've tried beets," Rivera said. "I love beets, trying new vegetables. They just bring a whole new world to kids that they never get to see without this being here. "I mean, I would be so devastated to see this close down while I'm here, because I'm planning on bringing my kids here to show what is going on here, and things that they've done to help us."
Passion for the garden outside Camden
There's passion for the children's garden all over South Jersey. Sarah Sperry of Haddon Heights started a Facebook campaign to save it after reading about the possible eviction.
"Initially, I thought . . . we could talk and maybe write some letters," Sperry said. She started the campagin and "within 48 hours, there were 4,000 people, and within a week, there were 6,000 people" who had signed on.
The campaign has helped collect money for a possible legal fight and is mobilizing to put pressure on state officials.
New Jersey Treasury Department spokesman Bill Quinn says the Garden has until March 31 to vacate everything except the office buildings and two greenhouses. While no meetings are planned, Quinn says talks are continuing.
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