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Wide Awake: A Presidential Visit
Getting the message that was never spoken

I met Rosa while she was standing at her designated post inside the Kroc Center in Camden. Her job was to keep the seated audience from going into the press area. It was an easy job, because people in the audience were about to see the President – no one was going anywhere.

Oddly, it was eerily quiet. Usually when you have an auditorium filled with a waiting crowd, there’s noise, chatter. But in this room, rows of people sat in silence for more than an hour. Those who did talk spoke in a whisper. I still haven’t figured out why. I mentioned my observation to Rosa, and we started to talk a bit. Then she started to cry.

“I said to my 4-year-old granddaughter, ‘Me-ma is going to see the President today,’” Rosa said. “I kept telling her, so she knows. ‘Me-ma is going to see the President.’” Rosa spoke with such incredible pride. Something was about to happen that she never, ever thought could happen: the President was coming to her city.

“This means the President cares for the people of Camden. He really cares about us. Especially for the children of Camden, now they’ll know someone – the President – cares. I don’t have words to say how much it means.” That’s when she started to cry.

You may have read about President Obama’s talk last month – he praised the new county police force and spoke of how the city was an example for towns across the country. The first quote I wrote down, which I’ve now seen in newspaper headlines about his visit, was: “This city is on to something.” What an honor for Mayor Dana Redd, Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli, and the police chief and his officers. We’ve covered their efforts in the magazine and on “This is South Jersey,” and it’s easy to see they have a personal commitment to making Camden safer. Here was the President telling the world they were doing a good job.

When I was asked to attend President Obama’s talk, I was excited and honored. How many people get to see a sitting president speak, especially in such a small setting? But the impact was different for the residents of Camden. This visit was a sign of hope and confidence for many longtime residents who love their city. I didn’t realize that until I saw hundreds of people lining Federal Street to get a glimpse of the motorcade. I also didn’t realize that until I spoke to Rosa, and then to 17-year-old Rasool and 14-year-old Myles. Both are students at Camden High School who had been chosen to meet with the President before his talk. They even got to shoot hoops with him.

“He told us he was very proud of us,” Myles said. “He asked what it was like in our high school, and he told us to stay on top of our work.”

Rasool, who starts college in the fall, told me the President understood what their life was like. Rasool has four siblings, and he says he always tries to show them how to be a good person. He wants to pass on what he’s been taught. “I have a great support system,” he said. “I know what to do and what not to do.”

I asked both young men what they wanted people to know about Camden, especially when the city gets so much negative press. Rasool commented that many things get blown up in the news just because it’s Camden. Myles kept it simple. He leaned in, looked me straight in the eye and said, “We’re not all like that.”

June 2015
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