Magazine Features

Betting on what matters

Most children are taught that when lights go off in a home or a store, the day is done. But in Atlantic City, N.J., the glowing fluorescent signs of casinos, late–night restaurants, and adult businesses run at full power almost 24 hours a day.

“Atlantic City doesn’t close, and every child who lives here knows that. They’re out all night because the city is open all night,” says Captain Shana Picciotto, who, along with her husband Captain Frank Picciotto, are the corps officers of The Salvation Army Atlantic City Corps, located blocks away from the city’s busiest casinos.

“That’s our biggest challenge as officers; fighting with the influence of a city like A.C., and at the same time, reaching out to its residents,” says Captain Shana.

If you look beyond Atlantic City’s more famous attractions, you will find a community made up of poor and low–income residents, mostly African–American and Hispanic.

The homeless also migrate to Atlantic City, seeking casinos as a source of warmth in the winter and air conditioning in the summer, rather than for entertainment and gambling. Like many major American cities, Atlantic City has also seen an increase in prostitution and human trafficking in recent years.

The challenges of running a corps in a city like this one are immense, which is why the Atlantic City Corps’ after– school program is so important for the children that attend it. Not many organizations would host a children’s program in the area where the corps resides, says Captain Frank, but the difficulties only highlight the need in the community for the Army’s presence.

“When you’re doing God’s work, you expect that struggle,” says Captain Frank. “We are faithful because we know that God has great plans for the city.”

“This neighborhood is one that William Booth would have wanted to help,” says Captain Shana. “It’s our job to prepare the Atlantic City Corps to take on the city’s problems.” The first step towards that goal is reaching out to the city’s youngest residents, the ones most in crisis.

Rebuilding the program

Like many New Jersey young adults, Tasha Travis, director of child care for The Salvation Army Atlantic City Corps, visited Atlantic City while attending Stockton University. But it was not until she was hired by the Atlantic City Corps to rebuild their after–school program that she herself saw the need in the community.

“People don’t come here to interact with the community,” says Tasha. “But it becomes apparent when you take a few steps away from the casinos, and even more when you see it through the eyes of the children who come to the corps after school. There are families living below the poverty line, dealing with social services, and children struggling with their own development.”

Tasha, who began her career with The Salvation Army as an assistant food stamp coordinator at the New Jersey Divisional Headquarters in Union, N.J., in 2001, worked to turn the after–school program into more than a place where children could be watched after class and then picked up by their parents.

The Atlantic City Corps has partnered with the Community Food Bank of South Jersey through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) to daily serve hot meals. Representatives from Rutgers University visit and do projects with the children. Tasha has introduced the children to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) activities, such as building towers from marshmallows and uncooked spaghetti. On Fridays, AtlantiCare garden educators visit the corps to teach the children about gardening and healthy eating.

As in all Salvation Army corps, volunteers are their lifeblood. Tasha beams with pride about the young adults who take time from school and work to be with the children, help them with homework, or arrange a pick–up game of soccer or football outside the church.

“Our volunteers are the heart of the after–school program. You can see it in the joy of the children when they interact with them,” says Tasha.

Beyond Volunteering

Flor Cruz–Morillo and Kevin Gil–Clara began volunteering their time shortly after Travis started in early 2016. Flor, who was attending Stockton University as Tasha did, found The Salvation Army through the school’s Office of Service-Learning. The corps was conveniently across the street from Flor’s home. She had volunteered in after–school programs in the past, but as a child of Atlantic City herself, she was able to bond with the program.

“The kids go to the same middle school I went to,” says Flor. “I know what lessons they’re learning because they are the same ones I learned. I also had the same teachers.”

She remembers her first science project with the after– school program: an experiment where she stacked liquids of varying densities on each other, creating a rainbow in a cup.

“It was going great, until one of the children shook the container!” Flor says, laughing.

Flor has presented grant proposals to Stockton University on behalf of the corps. The funds raised have helped pay for materials needed to introduce children to science lessons and experiments they can do in the after–school program. 

“What Flor has done for our program goes way beyond just volunteering,” says Tasha. “To research and bring in funds to teach these children to do something new—now that’s professional work one hopes to see coming from employees, not volunteers.”

Kevin Gil–Clara, who is starting his sophomore year at Stockton, was assigned to volunteer at the corps through the Champion of Youths program at his high school. He attended the same Atlantic City after–school program where he now volunteers. Today, he sees his own upbringing reflected in the children of the corps, some of whom are first–generation Americans like him. He understands the pressure they face at home and at school.

“One of the most important lessons I try to pass down to the children is that their choices matter; what they’re doing right now matters,” says Kevin. “What they learn in school and after school, this very day, is developing their personality, their identity, and who they’re going to be years from now. I know it does because this after–school program helped shape the person I am today.”

Kevin remembers his parents, Mexican immigrants who came to the United States when they were his age. They worked late hours and picked him up at the corps at night.

“My parents always told me to do and be better than them. They are such good, hard–working people. I didn’t understand what they meant at first, but I do now,” says Kevin, who, like Flor, is the first member of his family to go to college. “They want me to succeed so that I don’t have to struggle as they did.”

Dreaming big

While Atlantic City businesses fight against increased service programs for the poor for fear that it may distract their customer base, the number of after–school attendees at the corps grows, and the Atlantic City Corps continues to bet on its outreach efforts to the community’s children.

“It’s not always easy to get volunteers,” admits Flor. “The Army does a lot of background checks on anyone who works with children. Finding the right people is important.”

Tasha wants the after– school program to go beyond the walls of the corps.

“If I could wave a wand and get anything here for the children, I would give them a state–approved school bus with a licensed driver,” says Tasha. “Field trips and outings expose children to the world beyond their neighborhood, beyond the city they see every day. That’s how you inspire them. That’s how you get them to dream big.”

Kevin says, “I would love to see the Army have counselors who can talk to the children, one on one. We know that some children go through things at home that are hard for them to talk about. A professional counselor would be a great help to us, and to them.”

Says Captain Shana, “Kids need routine and structure, and that’s why an after–school program like the one we have at the corps is important. It provides stability and discipline they may not have when they leave here. They know that this is a place where they can learn and can be safe.”

Captain Frank says, “We could not do this without people like Flor, Tasha, and Kevin. God will bless them in anything they choose to do in life, because they take their own time to bless others.”

by Hugo Bravo