August 21, 2013

Volunteers From Princeton Say They Won’t Abandon Capital City in Crisis

Twenty-nine homicides have been reported this year in Trenton, and it’s only August. Shootings have become an almost daily occurrence.

Last Saturday night, police were pelted with rocks and bricks when they tried to disperse a block party that got out of hand. Violence in the capital city seems unprecedented, despite the addition of New Jersey State Police who were brought in last month to help Trenton’s police force, which was depleted by layoffs last year.

New Jersey’s capital city is clearly in crisis. But the dire conditions have not deterred those who volunteer with its various social service agencies or serve on their boards. Rather, these individuals — many of whom live in Princeton — say the situation makes their assistance more important than ever. Several interviewed by Town Topics scoffed at the idea that Trenton has become too dangerous for them to continue their work.

“I will never stay away,” said John Heilner, a volunteer and former board member with Mercer Street Friends, a soccer coach with Trenton City Youth Soccer League for 11 years, and an advisor to the popular Foundation Academy charter school. “I think Trenton needs human resources much more than the surrounding suburban towns. If people in places like Princeton can help with some very basic volunteer work, and if there is better government and economic investment, it will help revive the city.”

Mr. Heilner was particularly discouraged when Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, who was indicted on federal corruption charges last December and is still in office, folded the youth soccer league after 20 years. “The last year before it closed, it served about 250 boys and girls,” he said. “Programs like this give youth healthy alternatives to the street life.”

Focusing on children is the strategy of Princeton resident Jane Rohlf, a physician on staff at Trenton’s St. Francis Medical Center for the past 20 years and a volunteer who “adopted” the Robbins Elementary School, running its GrandPals program, which brings adults into classrooms to read to students. “If we can get these kids off the street and into these really good, life-changing programs like the NJTL [National Junior Tennis and Learning of Trenton], the golf program -[First Tee of Greater Trenton], the Boys and Girls Club and the Trenton Children’s Chorus, there is no question that their lives would be better,” she said.

As part of GrandPals, Dr. Rohlf reads to kindergarten students and runs a book club for fourth graders. She got free tickets for Robbins students to American Repertory Ballet’s The Nutcracker at Trenton’s War Memorial last year. She hopes to expand GrandPals in the future. But while children are Dr. Rohlf’s focus, they are not her only concern.

“What I feel badly about is that my older patients feel they can’t leave their homes at night,” she said. “They feel like hostages in their own neighborhoods. There are so many good people who are living here and trying to make things better. The blow that we suffered was $25 million gone from the budget, in one snap. We lost a third of the police force. You can’t recover from that. What’s so disheartening is that there are good people here. It will take us years to recover from the violence. I don’t understand why it’s taken government so long to be outraged. The cost to society is phenomenal.”

Dan Rodgers, a professor emeritus of history at Princeton University, has been a board member of Mercer Street Friends for more than a decade and former chair of the board. It is important to recognize, he said, that crime rates vacillate and cities go through cycles. But people in Trenton are clearly struggling to carry on.

“All historians know that in the U.S., cities are complicated social and economic societies,” he said. “When the economic base hollows out for one reason or another, it’s difficult. At the moment, what worries a lot of us are the cutbacks in federal funds, and what appears to be a real and historic retreat from helping the neediest folks in our society.”

Princeton resident Liza Peck has volunteered at the Crisis Ministry of Mercer County for three years. She also helps Dr. Rohlf at the Robbins School, transporting GrandPals volunteers and organizing the program. At the Crisis Ministry, she helps people maintain stable housing situations.

“We’re trying to avoid the disruption and dislocation of being evicted,” she said. “This kind of disruption can lead to a lot of negative avenues, particularly homelessness. It’s the heart of the whole equation. You feel like anything you can do to keep a family together and in one place, or the neighborhood they’re accustomed to, is going to help.”

Ms. Peck usually visits the Crisis Ministry’s office on East Hanover Street in the morning. “It really isn’t intimidating to go there,” she said. “There are a lot of people out and doing things. I could probably count on one hand the number of times I felt even a little bit uncomfortable.”

Attorney Albert M. Stark grew up in Trenton and knows the city well. “I’m not afraid of Trenton at all,” said Mr. Stark, who has donated considerable time and money to the tennis and education programs of the NJTL. “I know the neighborhoods not to go into. I don’t consider myself just a Princetonian. I consider myself a Trentonian who lives in Princeton.”

Mr. Stark has watched children who participate in NJTL emerge from challenging situations. “If you look at Trenton’s problems, there are only four ways out of poverty: Crime, politics, education, and entrepreneurship,” he said. “What the NJTL program does with it’s sports and educational component is really give their 2,500 kids an opportunity to see the light at the end of the tunnel. There is parental involvement. They make it possible for single mothers to be involved. They go into the neighborhoods, the homes, and the schools. And it makes a difference.”

Changing the educational system to allow neighborhood high schools instead of sending all of the city’s teenagers to Trenton Central High would also make a difference, he believes. “That’s where you can foster parental involvement and deal with kids in their own environment,” he said. “It’s helping those who get lost in crime and corruption.”

Local volunteers for Trenton organizations urge others to join them. “All of these organizations need people with brains and access to money to serve on their boards,” said Dr. Rohlf. “These programs have to keep going. They are always looking for people with talent and a desire to help out. I just keep saying, if it’s not good for all of us, it’s not going to be good for any of us.”