Introducing: The Joseph Collection

 

I was introduced to the Joseph Fund in the fall of 2012, about ten months prior to my marriage to Lindsay. This was definitely a transitional moment in my life, both philosophically and residentially. I recognized a need to live more selflessly as I prepared to become a husband. I was also living in a one-bedroom apartment my buddy and I had converted into a two-bedroom by building a scrappily made, pressure fitted wall to divide up his living room. Yeah, the rent is too damn high. PJ was still living on Spruce Street at the time, a few months out from his eventual move to Minneapolis, and I had shared with him a few running routes I’d mapped out to train for the Philadelphia Marathon. Of course, PJ and I relate best when we are either surfing or running. These activities are the corner stones of our friendship. Our favorite run together took us east through historic Old City, accessing the foot path of the Ben Franklin Bridge to cross the Delaware River into Camden, NJ.  Although we’ve had some pretty great runs along the Schuylkill, we often chose to cross the Delaware on what we affectionately began to refer to as “bridge runs.” Once we crossed the bridge, we’d tag the lamppost near the staircase that descended to the unfamiliar Camden streets below. This subtle action became a ritualistic way of proving to ourselves that we had made it across the bridge. I also believe it symbolically represented our under appreciation and ignorance of the city of Camden and its depraved situation.

As I prepared for marriage, I wanted to re-emphasize the role of service in my life. Through church, I met an energetic if not eccentric individual that worked at the Romero Center over in Camden and shared my affinity for punk rock, Dr. Who, and the Bible. Yes, Patrick and I quickly became good friends. Always looking to recruit new talent for his mission, Pat encouraged me volunteer with him at a homeless shelter over in Camden. At the time, Joseph’s House was operating out of a dilapidated Camden row home that served as a better alternative to spending the night on Camden’s streets, but couldn’t really qualify as anything more than “a shelter.” Folks staying the night would enter through the front door and head up to a large open space that simultaneously served as the kitchen, dining room and after spreading out their sleeping bags/sheets, a communal bedroom. I assure you, the facility was nothing more than a safe, warm space. However, I soon realized that the quality of Joseph’s House extended far beyond the structure itself.

Volunteers at the Joseph’s House had a really great way of creating a familial community. When you choose to visit, you are doing much more than cooking or serving someone food; you are volunteering to be someone’s friend for the evening. If you allow it, the experience unlocks a transformative revelation in which you get comfortable with each individual’s situation and realize that there are few differences between you and the people you are serving. Each time I visited Joseph’s House, I found that my actual contributions came in an easy and extremely natural way. Sure I cooked, cleaned and served food to the residents, but I noticed that folks preferred the conversations I had with them over the second serving of baked ziti I carried with me. My time was most effective when I was listening to someone’s childhood stories or having a conversation about college basketball.  These experiences were beneficial for me as well. My service at Joseph’s House became almost addictive. The more I got to know the residents, the more comfortable I became and the deeper our relationships grew, which made me more inclined to return the next weekend.

This is what differentiates the Joseph Fund from other charitable organizations of similar scope. Their mission is far more than just fundraising and executing a service. Joseph’s House challenges us to look at the marginalized and see within them the same humanity that we have within ourselves. Reflect on the last time you passed someone in need on the street. If you live or work in a city like New York or Philadelphia, this might be a really challenging exercise. Did you treat them appropriately? You can’t give everything to everyone, but did you see them as a brother or sister? Can you possibly empathize with their situation?  I’m an engineer and was building fake walls in one-bedroom apartments to save money, so it isn’t too difficult for me to understand how difficult circumstances can be at times.

Camden, NJ is a city in dire need. It is a former industrial capitol that once headquartered Campbell’s Soup and RCA. Existing on the critical artery of the Delaware River, it has interesting shipping and nautical past. Unfortunately, it was left behind by a modernizing, global economy. Companies moved out, taking Camden’s livelihood with it. It now has the highest crime rate in the United States. It was declared a “Food Desert” by the USDA when its last supermarket closed in 2013. It’s total population continues to decline. The city is literally dying in silence, 75 miles south of New York City and 3 miles east of Philadelphia. Unlike its rust-belt sister cities, it has not benefitted from the media attention that almost exclusively follows the collapse of the American auto industry. PJ and I were completely unaware of Camden’s situation. It was just another “sketchy” neighborhood to drive through when commuting to the Jersey Turnpike. On our bridge runs, we casually tagged that lamppost ignorant of the circumstances Camden’s citizens were living in, immediately below us.

The Joseph Fund does much more than house Camden’s homeless, although Joseph’s House has recently migrated into a beautiful new facility. Programs such as L.U.C.Y. (Lifting Up Camden’s Youth) focus on youth development and mentorship, empowering a new generation of citizens to work to improve their hometown. The Carpenter Society has restored entire city blocks, renovating historical homes in dangerous conditions and empowering Camden’s citizens to work for their new homes. The Joseph Fund promotes “Hand Ups” not “Hand Outs.” The Joseph Fund powers these initiatives and more. It realizes that in order to be effective, it must empower Camden to self-sustain. The Joseph Fund is a community of peers working to improve themselves. It is this characteristic of the Joseph Fund that has warranted partnership from Knots Apparel. We are ecstatic to welcome them as our second charitable partner, and are excited about our new line of winter ties.

 
Brian Bozzo