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Bon Jovi’s Back in Camden
Actually, he never left
By Marianne Aleardi

This story begins 10 years ago, when rock icon Jon Bon Jovi climbed into a yellow school bus in Camden. He was about to tour the city with some government officials, leaders of Camden nonprofits and a few HUD officials who came from Washington at his invitation. The goal? To see if the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation should play a role in the city’s resurgence.

Camden officials certainly thought it was a good idea. But Bon Jovi wanted to know if he could truly make an impact here, if his backing would be put to good use and definitive change would occur.

“In those early days and in the eyes of many,” Bon Jovi says, “transforming Camden seemed like an impossible task. But in the word ‘impossible,’ remained the word ‘possible.’”

On Jon Bon Jovi’s first tour of Camden in 2009, then-Mayor Dana Redd spoke with Bon Jovi at Joseph’s House grand opening

Bon Jovi made the decision to get involved, but slowly at first, directing his foundation to start with a pilot program – he referred to it as “a gesture.” The Greater Camden Partnership (now Cooper’s Ferry Partnership) was trying to launch GreenUp, which would transform vacant lots into landscaped spaces. Bon Jovi agreed to make a matching $50,000 donation; the partnership just needed to raise the same amount. Within months, the nonprofit blew past its goal, raising $150,000.

That was exactly what the singer needed to see: the city was willing to roll up its sleeves, take what he could give them, and run with it – fast and far. They had proven change was absolutely possible. They just needed help. So he helped.

In the decade that has passed, the Soul Foundation has stepped up to fund numerous projects in Camden, including an initial grant which transformed Joseph’s House from a vision to a free-standing homeless shelter on Atlantic Avenue. There was also $262,000 for Heart of Camden to build nine homes, $75,000 for Saint Joseph’s Carpenter Society to renovate five homes and $58,000 to Hopeworks ’N Camden to help with its construction of housing for 10 young adults.

“Jon Bon Jovi is a super star in the music industry, but to me, he is an angel. He uses his abilities to help others and give where there is a need,” says Camden Mayor Frank Moran, who welcomed the rock star back to Camden last month. Bon Jovi was there to tour a recent expansion of Joseph’s House, the latest project the foundation supported, providing vital help at a critical time.

Just a year earlier, New Visions, a Camden shelter adjacent to Joseph’s House, unexpectedly shut its doors. About 150 homeless people suddenly had nowhere to go.

“There was a lot of concern that a big gap in services would not be filled,” says Shawn Sheekey, executive director of Joseph’s House, a nonprofit that provides extensive services to homeless adults, including an overnight shelter. “Our board quickly made the decision to totally renovate and expand Joseph’s House so we could accommodate those who no longer had a place to go.”

Camden Mayor Frank Moran thanks supporters of Joseph’s House after touring the expanded facility with Bon Jovi last month

Joseph’s House has a unique approach to the problem of homelessness, which is one of the reasons Bon Jovi has supported the nonprofit. People who enter the shelter – always called “guests” – are connected to social agencies which are represented onsite and can provide immediate care.

“When a guest comes in, they typically see a social worker who will try to discern what the key problems are,” says Sheekey. “Many times it’s mental illness or addiction, things like that. We then do a warm handoff to the provider who may say to our guest, ‘This is what we’ve assessed here, so we’d like to sign you up for this particular service.’ And each day, each morning, we have buses that come in and take guests to various programs, then drop them back off here in the evening. It is an ongoing process as they attempt to deal with those issues.” All services are free.

So when Joseph’s House set out to fill the gap left by New Visions, there was one initial roadblock: funding the expansion. But there was also one person who immediately came to mind when thinking about who could help: Jon Bon Jovi.

A few phone calls later, and the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation donated $200,000 to kickstart the capital campaign.

“There really wasn’t a hesitation on our side,” says Heather Goldfarb, executive director of the foundation. “We heard about everything that happened with the other organization leaving and how the board had thought about bringing in another agency, but they decided to move forward themselves. We’ve worked with Joseph’s House for quite a few years now. We know the organization. We know the great work they do. Our board didn’t hesitate. We said, ‘Of course, we’ll help you however we can.’”

 

Community leader Pilar Hogan Closky was on Jon Bon Jovi’s first tour of Camden in 2009

 

“Ten years ago, Jon stood in Camden and said, ‘We are going to commit to helping Camden,’” Goldfarb adds. “And here’s the funny thing, when he came back to celebrate Joseph’s House and see the expansion and renovations that had been made, it was almost 10 years to the day: Oct. 22. It’s a testament to our board and our organization. We’ve always felt very strongly the partnerships we create are what keeps things going, what moves things forward. The people of Camden have been so wonderful, and Jon believes in them strongly.”

So strongly, that Bon Jovi came back to Joseph’s House to see the expansion firsthand, scheduling the visit a few weeks after ending his 2019 worldwide tour. Sheekey, Mayor Moran and other officials walked the star through a larger dining area, a new dormitory that can sleep up to 90 guests, a waiting room for those who may not be ready for services and a storage area, so guests needn’t carry their belongings with them all day (often in trash bags). Joseph’s House also has laundry, showers and a computer lab.

“I call it the Taj Mahal of shelters,” says Sheekey, “because it really is just a beautiful, bright building. We try to engage people there. We’re not here to buy them a cot for an extended period of time. Our goal is to find out what we need to do to help people get back into mainstream society.”

Bon Jovi ended his tour of the facility by addressing a crowded room of city supporters, shelter employees, press and government officials.

“In 2013, we partnered with Joseph’s House – along with the Connelly Found­a­tion, the Camden City Office of the Mayor, city council and the Camden County Freeholders – to take hope to the next level,” he told the crowd.

“When we funded the purchase and renovation of 555 Atlantic Avenue…were we achieving the impossible? Maybe, but our partnership goes deeper than that. It’s more than just money. Members of our board and their families have all volunteered and served meals at Joseph’s House many times over the years. We’ve spent a lot of time here with the foundation, and I’ve also spent a lot of time here personally with my day job. Of course there is much more work to do, but together I know we will continue to take hope to the next level and achieve the possible.”

Bon Jovi was referencing the music videos for his songs “Reunion” and “Living with the Ghost” when he talked about his day job. Both were filmed in Camden in 2017. The same year, he produced a short documentary “This House is Not for Sale – Camden, NJ.” Since that first bus ride through the city, Bon Jovi has proven repeatedly that once he decides to help, he does just that.

“For a decade now,” Bon Jovi adds, “Camden has held a very special place in my heart.”

 

Read our features on Jon Bon Jovi from 2011 and 2017.

November 2019
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