Respond, Inc. was created in 1967 through a joint venture of residents of the North Camden community and the United Methodist Church in Haddonfield, a nearby suburban town inhabited by many former Camden residents. The church assigned its Minister of Mission to meet with neighborhood residents in North Camden. A survey of needs was undertaken and child care for parents who were in school or training for employment became the highest priority.
The Minister of Mission, the principal at Sewell Elementary School, a teacher at the school and other community residents came together to form the North Camden Day Care Project that established the first child care center in the area, using space in the State Street United Methodist Church at Sixth and State Streets. In 1967, the program housed 30 children in a half-day program. Wilbert Mitchell, a young teacher at Sewell School, was appointed the first Executive Director and took a leave of absence from the school district. He has led the agency throughout its history and continues to provide the vision and hard work necessary to ensure its continued success. The child care project was incorporated in 1968, with two programs in operation, the first continuing at the State Street church and a second, the Linden Street Day Care Center, opened at 9th and Linden Streets. Together they served 90 children. Both remain in operation today.
By 1975, administrative offices had opened at 532 State Street in North Camden (the current location) and the agency was re-named Respond, Inc. In the interim, Vine Street Day Care opened, and the child care programs were all extended to a full day. The infant program began in 1972, followed by the Winslow and Merchantville Day Care centers. East Camden and Bank Street Centers were opened in the 1980s. The Firehouse Center on Vine Street opened in 1995, housing both preschool and School Age Child Care programs. Stockton and Washington & Williams Child Development Centers opened in the fall of 1999 and Respond assumed operation of Virtua-Camden’s Leaps & Bounds Child Care Center in the year 2000. Services for infants and preschoolers continued to expand with the opening of the North Camden Child Development Center at 6th and State Streets at the site of the former Check-In Market. A new Infant Center was opened in 2010.
Respond began operation of the New Jersey Abbott District 3- and 4-year-old classrooms for the Camden Board of Education in 1998 at scattered sites in the agency’s existing child development centers. For the current school year Respond has 11 Abbott district classrooms.
State Street Housing and the Community Elders Council were created in 1972 and 1974. The Summer Youth Career Exploration Program, the Summer Enrichment Camp, the Teen Volunteer Program and Youth Advisory Board followed over the next two decades. A weekly intergenerational workshop at the Elders’ center in partnership with members and staff of the Philadelphia Orchestra was one of the new, comprehensive programs that Respond has provided for children, senior citizens, adults and families.
Respond continues to create economic development and educational initiatives, with the opening of a new job training facility that opened in North Camden in the spring of 2009. The New Worker Job Development Center* is a state-of-the-art vocational training facility for culinary arts, automotive technology, adult education and additional areas for expansion, including an under construction Auto repair Shop. Training in vocational areas is targeted to out-of-school older youth, unemployed and underemployed adults and those returning from the correctional system in a holistic program approach that provides the adult basic education classes during both week day and evening hours.
Programs in Culinary Arts for adjudicated young men began off-site in cooperation with the United Way, the Rotary Club of Haddonfield and the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission. Culinary Arts programs now operate in the new facility with Respond instructors. Classes were added in Auto Technology and Adult Basic Education. All instructional areas are designed to assist the most challenged populations to become self-sufficient and economically independent.
The P.A.T.H. Homeless Day Center opened in 1989 in response to the community’s need for a facility offering essential services for homeless men. The center now provides services for both males and females. The low demand emergency Code Blue night shelter was added for several years. Respond plans to re-open the night shelter this year.
In 1993, Respond entered the world of direct welfare reform programming, selected by the state of New Jersey to operate a pilot program for single adult recipients of what was then known as Municipal Welfare in the city of Camden. In 1998, Respond became the lead agency for a grant under the collaborative Employment Partnership of Camden County through the Community Planning and Advocacy Council to establish a New Worker Center on Washington Street in the Lanning Square neighborhood of center city Camden. Programs providing services to both General Assistance and TANF recipients continued with funding from the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development through June of 2004, when New Jersey merged all to-work programs into the newly created Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
In this 53rd year of program operation, the agency’s staff and volunteers number more than 250 and Respond has succeeded in building an outstanding example of how people from many diverse backgrounds and all walks of life can work together toward the common goal of an enriched community for all of its citizens. The respect of that community to know its own needs, and the ability to direct that knowledge into viable programs have combined with exceptional support from staff, from all levels of government, foundations, the faith community, the United Way, local business, industry and private individual donors to make Respond, Inc. the successful organization that it is today.