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The tradition of the Camden Retreat

Each year at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria every student is guaranteed the opportunity to participate in one retreat. In addition to the retreats specific for each class, there are the Camden and Kairos retreats. Among these retreats, Camden is the most popular. It is a three-day service trip to Camden, N.J. for about 20 students. For the 2017-2018 school year, there is a Camden retreat once a month in October, December, January, February and a summer outing in June.

Camden is located across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. It has been ranked among the top five poorest cities in the United States for the past 45 years. Filled with drugs and alcohol, the city is in desperate need of help.

Fortunately, Oblate Father Mike McCue, a former campus minister at Ireton, directs the DeSales Service Works (DSW) organization, which helps serve the less fortunate around the city and hosts the retreat. The DSW base lies near the heart of Camden and is large enough to hold separate boy and girl sleeping spaces. The Camden community greatly relies on DSW and several other service organizations for daily assistance.

The retreat actually starts before the bus departs for Camden. The Thursday morning before the group leaves is used as a bonding and informational session. This includes some ice breakers, games and informational notes about Camden. After several hours, the bus leaves Ireton for Union Station in Washington where a Megabus then transports the group to Philadelphia. The subway is taken to Camden for a Thursday night arrival.

Each Camden trip has its own unique experience, but there are some common activities in which all groups participate. One highlight is being able to hang out with the local kids at Holy Name School during their recess time. Senior Sawyer Warren recalled her time playing with the kids and teacher/supervisor Caroline  Duffy. “Playing with the children was such an enlightening experience,” Warren said. “Seeing the pure joy that these little kids had, I couldn’t help but have a smile on my face the whole time I was with them. The kids also found it very amusing when Ms. Duffy and I played a competitive basketball game.”

In addition to playing with the students, there also are many other activities. One of these experiences is the “bodega dinner,” where each student is given $1 to purchase enough food for his or her dinner. Usually four or five students will group together to buy different ingredients for a meal large enough for all of them.

There are many service opportunities in Camden, which include cleaning or picking up trash at the local church, making sandwiches for the needy, city upkeep, and attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

The AA meeting is widely known as the most serious and thought-provoking experience of the trip. The Camden residents fully express themselves and their lives in the meeting where nothing is censored. “The AA meeting showed me the dark reality of alcoholism,” said senior Matthew Fennimore. The meeting, along with all the other service works, help reveal the harsh realities of the city and reinforce the reason why it’s so important to help.

Overall, most students would agree Camden is a unique and unforgettable experience. “Students who go on Camden often find that they have a deeper appreciation for the gifts they have and also typically look for more ways to serve the less fortunate,” said Father Edward J. Bresnahan, school chaplain. “Camden is a life changing experience for so many.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017