It’s been two years since the rocker with a soul came to Camden – not to perform, but to make a difference. And what a difference he’s made. Corner lots are greener. Families have homes. College kids have a safe place to stay. And homeless men can rest a bit easier.

Next month, Jon Bon Jovi will attend the Heart of Camden gala to accept the “Small Things with Great Love” award for his foundation. The people of Camden have seen firsthand what can happen when a rock star picks you from the crowd – it can change everything. In Camden, it already has.

It started in 2009, when Jon Bon Jovi directed the efforts of his Philadelphia foundation – now called theJon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation – across the river to a city he recognized desperately needed his help. “We did express an interest in helping Camden back then,” he says, “and our Soul Foundation has been working with our community partners there ever since.”

Jon Bon Jovi appears in the movie "New Year's Eve" alongside Lea Michelle and many other stars

Jon Bon Jovi appears in the movie “New Year’s Eve” alongside Lea Michelle and many other stars

That work has been so successful that Heart of Camden, a nonprofit known for its work rehabbing homes in Camden, is honoring the Soul Foundation at its annual gala in December. Bon Jovi has agreed to attend and accept the award.

The world-famous musician is quick to note that his attendance is in honor of all the volunteers who are working to improve the impoverished city. He even requested to event organizers that representatives of the foundation’s community partners in Camden also attend the gala.

“It takes more than any one person to make a difference,” Bon Jovi says.

“But it also takes a willing community who believes in a better tomorrow for all. We are big believers in the power of we. And we on behalf of all of us graciously accept this accolade.”

Two years ago, the singer first surprised Camden officials by coming to town to get an up-close look at how the community was trying to help itself. “I had my eye across the bridge and into Camden for a long time,” says Bon Jovi. “I was just waiting to see a foundation there.” He met with community leaders, visited nonprofits and talked with residents to see how he could spark change. He initially settled his attention on one project: GreenUp.

“Our goal was to clean, green and stabilize 81 vacant lots. A number of areas in the city were filled with trash and weeds. You might find a tire buried in the ground or even an abandoned car in the middle of the lot,” says Jake Gordon, executive director of the Camden Special Services District, which manages GreenUp. The Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation gave a $50,000 matching donation to the project.

“We met our goal,” says Gordon. “And two years later, every one of those lots looks like it did when it was first cleaned.”

Gordon credits the sustainability of the lots to Camden residents and the work of his organization, which is funded by about 30 Camden businesses, including Campbell Soup and Cooper University Hospital. “But one of the biggest reasons – and this is something you see in other cities that have had similar projects, like in North Philly – is that once the lot looks like it is cared for, there is a respect from the residents. Everyone who walks by is passively showing support for the project. None of these lots were trashed after they were cleaned up, and some people predicted they would be.”

Since the completion of the 81 lots, the city of Camden and the Camden Redevelopment Agency applied for a federal grant and included additional funding for GreenUp. “That was approved,” adds Gordon, “so we are continuing to improve our neighborhoods. We have another 100-200 lots that will be cleaned and greened. And that’s a direct result of the original investment and initiative of the Soul Foundation. It was a great initial project, and now it’s ongoing.”

The widespread affects of Bon Jovi’s efforts can be seen throughout the impoverished city. Many of the supported projects provide affordable housing, which the singer chose as the primary area of interest soon after starting the JBJ Soul Foundation.

“One day, I focused my attention out the window of a hotel in Philadelphia, and I saw a man sleeping on the steps of City Hall. I thought ‘this is not what our founding fathers were thinking about when they wrote that stuff on paper,’” he says.  “I thought we could focus our efforts on something that didn’t discriminate – it doesn’t care if you’re black, white, Democrat, Republican, Eagles fan or Giants fan. It can affect anyone at any given moment in time.”

So Heart of Camden, which has rehabbed over 220 dilapidated homes in the city since 1984, was an obvious beneficiary for the foundation. The renovated homes – complete with new plumbing, heating and electric – are eventually sold to Camden residents at a reasonable price.

The Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation gave Heart of Camden a $262,000 grant to build nine homes.

“It came at just the perfect time,” says Helene Pierson, executive director of Heart of Camden. “In community development, you never know where that next dollar will come from or how you will survive another year. It used to be that something from the government always came through, but that’s not the case any more. So when the foundation showed up, it couldn’t have been at a better time. Without them, we wouldn’t have had enough money to do our next housing project.

“And what was really great,” she adds, “they didn’t just give us the grant, they advanced us the money, as opposed to having us spend the money and then get reimbursed. That was critical for us. It allowed us to move forward.”

A Lanning Square corner lot looks today as it did after its 2009 rehab

A Lanning Square corner lot looks today as it did after its 2009 rehab

So a year later, Pierson was planning the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser and getting ready to select the winner of the “Small Things with Great Love” award. The choice, she says, was obvious.

“Jon Bon Jovi’s work, his spirit and the mission of his foundation is sincerely to help the homeless and the families of Camden, and to rebuild neighborhoods,” says Pierson. “He’s trying to give people better lives. That fits the mission of the award. There couldn’t have been a better fit.”

Once Pierson and her planning committee invited Bon Jovi and the Soul Foundation to the event, “we were excited, but we had to wait to see if he would come,” she says.

“Obviously, he’s very busy. It’s not a quick ask and a quick commit. You put the concept out there well in advance, but he can’t commit to his schedule until four months in advance. We had to wait until we knew he was coming. And, he has a movie coming out right on the heels of this gala. We almost lost him because press in L.A. starts on the day of the gala, but it turned out he wasn’t scheduled for anything on that first day.”

Bon Jovi will be at the gala for the dinner and the award presentation. “And he will make a speech, which I’m sure will touch everyone’s heart,” says Pierson.

“He’s really passionate about his work. It isn’t about throwing money at something and never being a part of it,” she says. “For him, it’s about being a part of something.”

Other projects funded by the JBJ Soul Foundation since Bon Jovi’s initial 2009 visit include a $75,000 grant to the Saint Joseph’s Carpenter Society for the renovation of five homes in Camden. The nonprofit has built or rehabbed over 800 homes since its opening in 1985. St. Joseph’s also teams with Campbell Soup to provide the Homeowner Academy, a 12-week program that teaches first-time homeowners skills to transition from renter to homeowner. Anyone who purchases a St. Joseph’s home is required to take the class.

In additional support for St. Joseph’s, Bon Jovi posted a birthday wish on his website asking for donations for the homeless shelter the nonprofit runs, Joseph’s House. Normally, the shelter would close in the spring, but because of the harsh weather this year, organizers wanted to keep the shelter open for the month of April. Bon Jovi got his birthday wish – and the house was funded for another month.

Jon Bon Jovi visited Hopeworks after his foundation donated to the nonprofit’s housing project for employed youth

Jon Bon Jovi visited Hopeworks after his foundation donated to the nonprofit’s housing project for employed youth

Over at Hopeworks ‘N Camden, an organization which teaches Camden youth web design and video production skills, the JBJ Soul Foundation awarded a $58,000 grant to help with its construction of a community home for ten young adults.

“The program is called C.R.I.B. – community responding in belief. It’s a residential community for youth who have earned a job with us or are in college,” says Sean Dougherty, director of grants and video production at Hopeworks. “We found many of our youth have unsafe or unstable living arrangements and that can jeopardize their success in college. The Camden diocese sold us an old convent for one dollar, and we were able to turn it into a place where ten people can live.”

Jon Bon Jovi and his wife visited Hopeworks in July and met with the young people who live at C.R.I.B. “It’s great that he would take the time to come and see what he invested in and meet the people his foundation invested in,” says Dougherty. “He spent about an hour talking with our youth. They asked him questions about how he overcomes obstacles in his life, and what advice he had for them as they began their college careers. They also asked how they should give back, because they see him as someone who gives back to the community.

“Jon Bon Jovi told them how he came to be involved in focusing on housing issues. He said it’s a big problem but you do what you can do. He said their generation was the army that would take it to the next level.

“As far as college, he said you have to work hard and stay focused. He’s a member of a top touring band, but he said he practices playing guitar every day. He encouraged them not to lose their focus but to work hard to achieve their dreams. He made an impression on their lives.”


The Power of We

In all of his philanthropic work, Jon Bon Jovi speaks of the “power of we” and how each person can make a difference. If you would like to help the people of Camden, contact any of the following nonprofits:


November 2011
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