It is Hopeworks' most recent project. Called the CRIB (Community Responding in Belief), the house is host to four inner-city youths who are trying to turn their lives around by enrolling at Camden County College, working part time, and helping out in the community.
The Rev. Jeff Putthoff, founder and executive director of Hopeworks, a nonprofit organization that since 2000 has been working with inner-city youths, hopes to add more residents in coming months. The house, which opened in August, has a capacity of 10.
Putthoff said Camden had plenty of high school dropouts who want to go to college, but "the issue is housing."
Some are homeless, others live in places permeated by substance abuse, and many just don't have a structure in place to stay focused in school.
So Hopeworks - started as a partnership among Christus Lutheran, Grace Lutheran, and Holy Name Catholic Churches in 2000, with the help of grants and donations - invested $600,000 to create a haven for youths who want to follow "DREAMS," or in Hopeworks' lingo, "Dynamic Realizable Effort to Attain and Maintain Success."
To live in the CRIB, youths must successfully complete a Hopeworks training program, enroll in their first semester of college, and work part time with Hopeworks.
So far, youths have "self-selected," Putthoff said, so Hopeworks has not had to choose residents.
The idea is for them to stay for two years while they complete an associate's degree. But two residents who moved in shortly after the house opened already left for "various reasons," said Sean Dougherty, director of operations.
CRIB residents must maintain good grades, attend weekly meetings, and obey curfew. The organization is looking to implement a drug-testing policy, Dougherty said.
The price is $300 per month, which Hopeworks calls a "life investment," not rent, plus $75 a month for food.
Adult supervision comes from CRIB "presence" staff residents, who receive room and board in exchange for making sure youths comply with rules.
On a recent night, while Perez made dinner, housemates Christopher Alicia, 19, and Jonathan Lugo, 21, worked in the CRIB garden, raking the soil and planting broccoli.
Just after 7, three of the residents, along with staff members and a guest, sat at the long dinner table and passed around the papas rellenas, rice, and steamed vegetables.
The group chatted about a Hopeworks fund-raiser they all attended at a Maple Shade bowling alley. Laughter erupted as they discussed the advertised Ladies Night, and Lugo, at the head of the table, pretended to put on a wig and switched to a feminine voice.
Born and raised in Camden, Lugo has lived in just about every neighborhood in the nine-square-mile city. Growing up without his father, he packed up whenever his mother decided she did not like her neighborhood anymore.
They even ended up in Allentown for a few months, he said.
Lugo finally felt some stability in high school. He made it to his junior year at Camden High until several absences led the school to take him and his mother to court in 2006 for truancy.
Instead of seeing the proceedings through, Lugo's mother pulled him out of school.
"I didn't have any say," Lugo recalled. "I wanted to be the first in my mom's side of the family to graduate high school."
Feeling hopeless, Lugo said, he slept in late and just hung around the house. He eventually landed a job sorting linens for a hospital laundry.
After he quit that job, he found odd jobs around the neighborhood. Then, while searching for employment online at the Ferry Avenue branch library in Centerville, Lugo saw a flier for Hopeworks.
He decided to try it out.
The father of a 2-year-old girl, Lugo says he wants to be a better person, not just for himself but also for his daughter.
"I want to be that strong figure I didn't have," he said.
Another CRIB resident, Perez, came to Hopeworks after being expelled from high school and having had a bad experience in a group home.
Dante Spain, after graduating from high school, had no motivation. Since joining Hopeworks in September, he has enrolled in a fine-arts program and hopes to become the next big hip-hop artist.
Alicia got kicked out of Camden County Vocational and Technical School in Gloucester Township with just three months left, because of a high absentee rate from taking care of his ill grandmother, he said.
"I never looked to do anything for myself," Alicia said. So when he was dismissed just short of his diploma, "I didn't care."
All four young men see CRIB as another chance.
Perez has gained confidence by becoming involved in Hopeworks' Web-design program. He is now working toward an associate's degree in computer science and hopes to return some day to his native New York City after earning a bachelor's degree.
Alicia is working toward a forensic-science degree.
Despite strict rules at the CRIB house, he says: "I get a lot more freedom here than I did when I was with my grandma."
Contact staff writer Claudia Vargas at 856-779-3917