Bidemi Palmer signed up for the Camden Diocese's Summer in the City teen service project after a close friend, who took part in it last summer, couldn't stop raving about it.
Just days into the program, for which she and 34 other teens from throughout South Jersey spent the week of Aug. 11 volunteering with Atlantic City area nonprofits, the 17-year-old said it had already proven to be everything she'd hoped it could be.
"I feel like I've grown personally, as a Christian, because everyone is so close," said Palmer, of Manahawkin, Ocean County. "I'm learning new things."
The teens were split up into groups of seven, called "families," each of which had one or two adult "parents" as leaders.
The groups rotated among several local charities, pitching in to feed the city's hungry at Sister Jean's Kitchen, hosting a prom for the residents of Our Lady's Multi-Care Center in Pleasantville, and more.
On Aug. 14, Palmer's family held a yard sale at Catholic Charities, selling donated goods at deeply discounted prices.
Area residents had already formed a line outside the facility by the time the volunteers opened up shop at about 9 a.m., and despite the already low prices, many still haggled to stretch their dollars even further.
"It just really shows you how every cent counts for a lot of these people," Palmer said. "We see a quarter and we walk right by it, and some people will pick up 10 cents."
The project is as much about having the kids help out their community as it is about giving them lessons on poverty and its effects.
In one early activity, each of the families was given a supermarket sales circular and told to plan their meals for the next day. It was only after they had put together a wishlist that they were told they only had $15 with which to feed their whole group breakfast, lunch and dinner.
The 10 returning volunteers who had already been through the program were separated from their groups during this activity, so as not to spoil the surprise. Andrew Young, of the English Creek section of Egg Harbor Township, was a member of Palmer's family. He said he chuckled when he got back to the group and saw they had initially included crab legs on their shopping list.
After some whittling, the group managed put together a menu of plain fried eggs for breakfast, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, and a relatively extravagant dinner of pasta with sauce and biscuits, checking out with 13 cents to spare.
While their final menu was nutritious, it still amounted to far smaller portions than most of them are accustomed to eating in a given day.
With as hard a time as he had going on so little for one day, Young said the exercise put into perspective what for many is a daily struggle.
"You get really hungry, you think, 'I wish I had, like, a bag of chips, or anything,'" Young said. "People go through that every day, and they have it even worse. They may not even have $15."
The teens returned to their homes - and their well-stocked refrigerators and pantries - on Aug. 17. Some volunteers are better off than others financially, but none face the sort of struggles that are a daily reality in much of Atlantic City.
The week they spent volunteering has given them a fresh perspective, and one that should influence how they help their fellow man in the future.
"You really need to just learn to have that respect for others, even though they have less than you," he said. "You just need to stick with the faith - Jesus told us to help others."
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