Community activists honored for work in Camden

At the Campbell Soup Foundation ceremony are (from left) award recipients Anthony J. Perno, Sabine Mehnert, Curtis Myers; foundation president Dave Stangis; and Cooper's Ferry Partnership head David Foster.
At the Campbell Soup Foundation ceremony are (from left) award recipients Anthony J. Perno, Sabine Mehnert, Curtis Myers; foundation president Dave Stangis; and Cooper's Ferry Partnership head David Foster. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 17, 2014

Four community leaders were honored Wednesday by the philanthropic arm of one of Camden's most prominent corporate citizens for working to improve life in the city.

"A lot of issues get attention in Camden, and what's overlooked are these individuals who really make an impact and try to get to the root of poverty and the different things it affects - be it education, jobs, housing, and health," said Amanda Bauman, program director of the Campbell Soup Foundation, of the awards for Anthony J. Perno 3d, Curtis Myers, Bridget Phifer, and Sabine Mehnert.

Perno was awarded the foundation's Lifetime Achievement Award and a $5,000 grant. He is chief executive officer of the Cooper's Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing and promoting Camden as a place to live, work, visit, and invest.

"What drives me are the people within the city of Camden and the region," Perno, 37, said after the ceremony at Campbell's downtown Camden headquarters. He lives in Merchantville with his wife and two young sons.

"I grew up in Lindenwold and lived in Camden for a while," he said. "There are a lot of great people who live in Camden and deserve better than some of the current conditions within the city."

Among the initiatives administered by Cooper's Ferry that Perno considers most personally rewarding is CHIP - the Camden Home Improvement Program - which gives a city resident a $20,000 grant to make home repairs. Close to 500 people have participated in the six-year-old program, which is winding down this month.

Perno also cited his agency's park renovation program, which started in 1984. Under the program, urban parks - including Johnson, Pyne Poynt, and Wiggins - were built or redeveloped to provide Camden's youth a place to play sports and have outdoor recreation.

Myers, executive director of the YMCA's Camden County expansion program, received a basket of Campbell Soup Co. products, as well as a plaque, as the recipient of the Campbell Healthy Communities Partner Award.

He said the partnership between the YMCA and the soup giant "fit like a glove." The YMCA's three focus areas are youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility. Among the Campbell Foundation's goals is to reduce childhood obesity and hunger in the city by 50 percent in 10 years.

The YMCA Camden County office ceased operations in 2008. The same year, the YMCA Burlington County changed its name to YMCA of Burlington and Camden Counties.

When he took on his current role three years ago, Myers said his personal goal was to bring back the YMCA program and its services to Camden County and the city of Camden.

Myers said the link with Campbell gave him and the YMCA access to day-care centers, parks, elementary and middle schools, and other organizations to reach young people and families.

"We need to get to them in the development stage, when habits and patterns are forming, and they're just starting to make decisions that set a course for lifetime patterns," said Myers, 46, a father to two teenage daughters, who resides in Westampton.

Phifer's commitment to improving Camden's Parkside neighborhood garnered her the Hometown Hero Award and a $1,000 grant.

As executive director of Parkside Business and Community in Partnership, she's behind projects to breathe new life into Camden through housing and community development projects.

One project created 149 units of multifamily housing that gave 80 families the dream of home ownership, she said.

Phifer first encountered Camden 14 years ago.

"The whole idea to serve others and be part of something larger than myself is what drives me," she said Wednesday. "I saw the passion of the people in Camden and it became infectious. The desire was to make an impact and transform that community."

Phifer, 47, lives in Eriel with her 8-year-old son and husband, but "I spend most of my time in Camden," she said.

More adults and children are going hungry in Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, and Salem Counties - something not lost on Mehnert, community engagement coordinator at the Food Bank of South Jersey.

Mehnert, 47, a mother of three from Haddonfield, took home the Volunteer Partner Award for her work.

"It warms my heart to win this," said Mehnert, who also received a basket of Campbell products.

She started at her church's food pantry and landed a job at the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken, for which she had advocated for years. In 2012, she became community engagement coordinator at the food bank.

In Burlington, Gloucester, Camden, and Salem Counties, Mehnert said, one in six people are "food insecure," and one in four of them are children. In Camden County, 25 percent of residents, or one in four, do not get enough to eat.

The Food Bank has sought to accommodate the growing need by recently adding 20,000 square feet of space. It has gone from serving 102,000 people to 173,000, of whom a third are children.

"It says it's getting worse, which is sad," Mehnert said. "But people are out there and finding a way to make it work."

856-779-3928 @SuzParmley

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