In Service to Youth
The Camden Home for Friendless Children is an institution located on Haddon Avenue, above Mount Vernon, the object and design of which is to afford a home, food, clothing and schooling for destitute friendless children, and, at a suitable age, to place them with respectable families to learn some useful trade or occupation. The home was established and is conducted by a corporation.
The charter, granted by the State Legislature, April 6, 1865, sets forth that “Whereas, a number of citizens of this State have formed an association for the laudable and benevolent purpose of educating and providing for friendless and destitute children; and whereas, the Legislature of this State is willing to encourage such purposes; therefore, Be it enacted by the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, that Matthew Newkirk, Elijah G. Cattell, James H. Stevens, George W.N. Custis, J. Earl Atkinson, Joseph C. De La Cour, Joseph D. Reinboth, Robert B. Potts, Jesse W. Starr, Edmund E. Read, John B. Graham, Benjamin H. Browning, Solomon M. Stimson, Philander C. Brinck, John Aikman, Thomas P. Carpenter, Elisha V. Glover, Thomas B. Atkinson, Isaac L. Lowe, Peter L. Voorhees, and their associates, be and they are hereby incorporated and made a body politic in law and fact, by the name, style and title of ‘The Camden Home for Friendless Children.’”
A Need to House Orphans and Needy Children
At a meeting in the First Presbyterian Church on 5th Street in Camden in the Autumn of 1864, Mr. and Mrs. Earl J. Atkinson inspired other dedicated, community-spirited citizens to venture into a project with them. The purpose was to establish an Orphan’s Home to care for children whose fathers failed to return from the Civil War. By February of 1865, the enterprise was established, and a house at 522 Federal Street was rented for these purposes in March. The first child was admitted on the 8th of May, 1865, to what was known as the Camden Home for Friendless Children. Now, almost 150 years later, The Camden Home for Children continues its dedication in giving back to the community by supporting those working with needy youth in South Jersey.
Soon the organization was able to rent an adjacent house, and then both were renovated and filled with children in need. On December 9th of 1873, the Camden Home for Children made the transition to a four-story facility at 915 Haddon Avenue where it remained until 1960, serving from 45 to 100 children at a time, never once asking for financial support from the public, but benefiting from a number of generous donors. The organization proved itself, as it kept its doors open through harsh times such as war and depression. Around 1946, the name was changed to The Camden Home for Children.
The Camden Home for Children was caring for about 157 children in 1957, including those placed in foster homes, but had to turn away numbers of others. At one point the Camden Home served only children 12 and under. Later, children of school age were housed but younger children were placed in foster homes. By 1958 the Camden Home had a staff of 39 and an Executive Director as the administrator. The Board governing the Camden Home had 15 members. By 1958 it was stated that: “All children who by circumstances are without a home are served by the Home. There is no distinction as to race, creed, or color. The only question is: ‘Does this child need care?’”
The need had continued to grow so much that the Board acquired 8.5 acres of land at Kaighn & Vesper Avenues, hired architects to plan three two-story buildings in a campus setting, and launched a fundraising campaign in 1957/58 to raise about $486,000 needed after sale of the Haddon Avenue property to complete the new facility. Cecil Bentley was the President of the Building Fund Committee, and Bryant W. Langston was General Chairman of the fundraising drive.The institution had one goal, and that was to provide the proper shelter and care for children who were abandoned, neglected, misguided, and lacked the proper medical needs and educational background. The idea has always been to prepare many of these adolescents for adulthood (T. Bergbauer, The Courier-Post, 9/14/08). The funds were raised and the campus built, with the advice of experts in Child Welfare, so that each of the 6 floors would house only 12 children in a “cottage plan,” and the children would have the feeling of being in a home.
Changing Priorities with the Times
Known as an organization that has had its doors open to the community since 1865, The Camden Home for Children is truly an historic institution that has drawn in many dedicated citizens over the years. Making room for children and maintaining safe conditions was the organization’s main priority. Photographs of this era show children at church and Sunday school and in moments of grace before meals. The pictures shed light on the spirit of the organization, as it opened its doors to all children, regardless of background. The Camden Home for Children is a community institution, operates as non-profit, and has never been owned or operated by the city or county.
As time went on, The Camden Home for Children continued to help those in need of a better life. Some came and left more quickly than others, but the organization had the same goal for all who walked through its doors. After moving from Haddon Avenue to Kaighn Avenue across from Farnham Park in November, 1960, the new $750,000 facility gave way to what was expected to be a better haven for children with less overcrowding and the ability to properly handle as many as 75 children at a time. At that point, it was estimated the Home had served about 15,000 children. At the time of the closing of the facility in 1979, there were reported to be 31 state-referred, emotionally disturbed, inner city boys between the ages of 9 and 16 housed there.
The next nineteen years allowed The Camden Home for Children to provide the necessary shelter for those in crisis, to accept referrals and subsidies from government funding, and complete a merger with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that created a new title – The Camden Home for Children & SPCC.
Finding Yet Another Role
In 1979, after 114 years of this tradition and largely because of state under-funding for those placed in the residential facility, the Board felt compelled to vote to close the facility. Without increased state funding, The Camden Home and many other residential facilities in New Jersey, were running large deficits and could not maintain the financial needs to stay open. The Courier Post Editorial dubbed the Home “one of the city’s outstanding institutions over a long period of years” (T. Bergbauer, Courier Post, 9/14/08). And it was said to be “one of the most efficiently operated institutions of its kind in the nation and a model of friendliness, warmth, humane treatment, cleanliness and cheerfulness.”
Senator Cowgill, a member of the Board, led a group wishing to close the Home permanently and give its money to the courts. Dr. John (Jack) Breakstone was the Executive Director at that time, and David A. Stedman was President of the Board. They had other ideas. With the support of a majority of Board members who remembered the care the Home had once provided for Civil War orphans at one time and how it had shifted its role over the century to providing residential care for troubled boys, they believed the Home had a useful place in service to youth, even if its direct residential care of troubled youth would cease. And, although the facility itself closed on November 28, 1979, and the State of New Jersey was forced to find new placements for the many emotionally disturbed inner-city boys who were served by the Home, the Board decided to control its funds and continue in a different direction. The facility was sold to the Camden Board of Education for one dollar for use of the school administration, and in 1980 The Camden Home for Children and SPCC became incorporated as a nonprofit foundation.
Led by Dr. Breakstone, the Board assumed the task of helping to bring together other New Jersey youth agencies into a consensus bloc to lobby the State for more reasonable regulations and higher subsidies for its referrals. After this was successful, through existing endowments and return on investments over the years, the Camden Home began to award grant money to agencies and institutions that continue to provide services for children who are in crisis, primarily in the Camden, Gloucester and Burlington County area, but more recently extending to all of South Jersey. In recent years, under the guidance of Executive Director John Powell, the scope of assistance was expanded to assist the “aging out” population, those from 19 through 22. These young adults would otherwise have been denied full support in the transition to independence. Continually reexamining its role in service to youth, The Camden Home has and will continue to remain dedicated to all youth in need.
- Bergbauer, Thomas (2008, September 14). Camden Home for Children was a haven for 114 years. Courier Post, p3C.
- Lieberman, Gail (1979, November 29) Children’s Home shuts doors. Courier-Post. Prowell, George R. The History of Camden County.
- Prowell, George R. The History of Camden County. Philadelphia: L. J. Richards & Co. 1886