Giving Camden children a sporting chance

Giving Camden children a sporting chance

camdenkids-webKatrina Rodriguez (1), an eighth grade student at Sacred Heart School, Camden, drives past an opposing player during a game at the Palestra, Philadelphia, on Jan. 23. The Catholic Partnership Schools’ sports program was established by social worker Judyann McCarthy and her brother Jim several years ago and has grown significantly.

You don’t have to travel thousands of miles to help those in need. That’s the philosophy of Judyann McCarthy. A social worker who’s volunteered with Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity in India and Kenya, McCarthy found her true calling in the streets of Camden, a few minute’s drive from her Merchantville home.

“I came back from that very inspired,” McCarthy said of her work overseas. “I learned you really are your brother’s keeper.”

Her dedication to Camden and its youth was recently recognized at the 2013 Camden County Freedom Medal award ceremony, which honors individuals who embrace Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to service and unselfishly contribute their time and effort to better their community.

McCarthy serves on the board of the Catholic Partnership Schools of Camden, a student-centered academic program defined by faith-based values, rooted in respect, and compelled by justice. Through the partnership, Judyann and her brother, Jim, helped start a basketball league for all the Catholic schools in Camden several years ago.

“It’s not a Catholic school without basketball,” explained McCarthy.

The league was inspired by the lessons of their parents, particularly their father, James Sr., who passed away in 2005.

“He coached teams my whole life,” says McCarthy. “He coached all my brothers and I. I know how much sports can add to the lives of kids. There’s a lack of [sports] programs in Camden. If we give you an outlet, and you turn out to be good at something, you’re going to go toward that rather than the negative. Instead of joining a negative gang, they’re joining our gang.”

The basketball league, which includes St. Cecilia in Pennsauken, Holy Name, Sacred Heart, St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral and St. Anthony of Padua, has grown significantly since its inception, expanding to multiple traveling teams, as well as the first girl’s traveling team for the Catholic schools in Camden in 35 years. Other team sports have been added to the program, including cross country and baseball, which will be entering the North Camden League in the spring.

“We’re trying to provide kids with many different choices,” says McCarthy. “We have great kids. Our kids want what every other kid wants. You give them an opportunity and they rise to that challenge. It’s a real gift to all of [our] coaches to work with these children.”

Since the inception of the Catholic Partnership Schools’ sports program, not one child who participates has had to pay a single cent to play, thanks in part to the generosity of many parishes willing to lend a Christ-like hand to their neighbors in Camden.

“A few of the parishes are really reaching out to us,” says McCarthy. “Christ The King in Haddonfield is nice enough to lend us their gym for free. When we started cross country, St. Pete’s in Merchantville couldn’t have been nicer. We were welcomed from the start.”

She also singled out St. Joan of Arc in Marlton for their generosity. The parish donated ref fees and one coach paid for warm ups.

The local community also lends a hand, volunteering as coaches or participating in fundraisers, such as the sixth annual James Gillespie Sr. Memorial Charity Event, held at the Taproom, 427 Crystal Lake Ave., Haddonfield, on Saturday, Feb. 16 from 2 to 6 p.m., which directly benefits Catholic Partnership Schools Athletics.

“Fundraising is very important,” says McCarthy. “Right now, we have around 100 kids in the basketball league and we never charge them.”

McCarthy and the many volunteers involved with Catholic Partnership School Athletics are committed to continually enhancing the program, allowing the children of Camden, whether they are Catholic or not, to be able to have a healthy and safe outlet to grow as individuals and members of the community.

“The children that we coach, their parents don’t let them out of the house because it’s too dangerous,” explained McCarthy. “We’re just trying to give them opportunities to have what the kids in the suburbs have. That’s our mission.”

Frank Sinatra is a communications professional living in Pennsauken.

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