Timothy ’07 and Cheryl Heatwole Shenk ’07 recall that their fourth visit to Camden, New Jersey made all the difference.
“Though we had planned to work internationally after graduation with Virginia Mennonite Missions or Mennonite Central Committee, the intentional community we had connected with asked us to consider moving to Camden, and by the end of the week, we felt like Camden is where God could use us to learn, grow and serve.”
They had first visited on a Y-Serve trip and returned later on separate occasions to lead two more spring break service trips, research an independent study project, and earn practicum hours. The couple graduated in April, married in May and in August 2007 began living, working, worshiping and serving in one of the country’s most troubled cities.
They have now spent nearly 14 years there, living as some of the few white residents among Black and Brown neighbors. Together with their neighbors, they have responded to issues of racial injustices, poverty, environmental injustices, and economic disparity.
The couple are both dedicated educators. Cheryl started a now-thriving Montessori program at nearby Sacred Heart School, where their children Lydia, Matteo and Vivia attend; Tim teaches PE there and is now working on a reading specialist certificate, while volunteering and contributing to program development and fundraising.
In 2019, Crossroads staff visited the family in Camden for a profile. The afternoon included a memorable walking tour through the neighborhood, enriched by our guide Timothy as he told us about their joys, sorrows and relationships, amidst the domineering forces of discrimination, racism and segregation.
In recognizing Timothy and Cheryl with the 2021 Distinguished Service Award, we also value their wish that the honor not ignore that “our Black and Brown neighbors have been deeper in the struggle, and we have been welcomed/adopted with so much grace and love into their lives and work.”
Join them for a walk through their neighborhood.
These locations were selected by the Heatwole Shenk family as important places in their daily life. The descriptions were contributed by Timothy and Cheryl.
“Blue House” on Broadway Avenue, 2008-2013
We moved into this community house, the only residence on the block, six months after relocating. The block included some abandoned houses and lots, a ministry, and a liquor store across the street. The location meant nightly disruptions, often heated arguments, and drive-by cruising from outsiders coming to buy drugs and sex. We got to know people trapped in prostitution, addiction, alcoholism, and PTSD. There was a need for constant vigilance, as we were trying to create safe spaces for neighborhood children to visit our house. Lydia and Matteo were born in this house.
“Ferry House,” Ferry Avenue, 20017 and 2013-current
Our current home is a rowhouse among Black, Latinx, Vietnamese, and white families. Vivia joined our family here in 2014. Our kids can play out on the sidewalk and we have a rich network of support. Neighbors shovel snow, share food and child care, and work together to respond to issues, such as illegal truck traffic or an influx of homeless and addicted people. We grapple with the privileged treatment we sometimes receive just because we are white , such as when a plumber asked if we were missionaries. Some of our Black neighbors also intentionally relocated to this community, but don’t receive the same benefit of the doubt. Derrick, a regular community volunteer, was talking to a friend outside his home when wrongfully detained & harassed by police. On another occasion, both white and Black neighbors responded to an accidental gun discharge on the block. Officers acted suspicious and spoke disrespectfully to Marquis, while giving full courtesy to us who were white.
Our small neighborhood is surrounded by 25 polluting industries. New Jersey is greatly segregated by race and class, a factor that disproportionately impacts the pollution burden of poor communities of color. In our neighborhood, Camden County’s sewage is treated, trash is incinerated, old cars and scrap metal are shredded. Wealthier suburbs shunt these vital services to poor communities that cannot fight back, a striking example of environmental racism and injustice.
Site of Anjanea’s shooting
While waiting for food outside the corner store on Jan. 20, 2011, Anjanea Williams, age 20, was caught in gunfire. At the time of the shooting, Cheryl was preparing to walk that direction, towards the library, with our toddler. Anjanea’s death spurred community conversations, organizing and marching.
Center for Environmental Transformation, greenhouse, and gardens
The greenhouse and gardens were what first drew Cheryl here as an undergraduate studying environmental science. She did a practicum with CFET, learning about sustainable agriculture. Our connection continues: Cheryl serves on the board and we speak to visiting high school and college students at the retreat center (one common question we field: “How could we choose this environment to raise our children in? Aren’t we scared for their safety?”). Our commitment to environmental justice also encompasses organizing around these issues in our overburdened community, integrating these concepts into our education work, and shopping at the youth-run farmer’s market.
Liney Ditch Park
We take our students here every day at recess, and our own children gather with friends to play on the playground, fields, and to walk and play on the nature trail that we made in a wooded section. Timothy taught PE classes here before a gym was created in an abandoned movie theater a block away.
Sacred Heart School
Sacred Heart School is a Catholic Partnership School serving approximately 200 students, including the Heatwole Shenk children. Initially, Timothy taught PE and Cheryl was an assistant in second grade. Never attracted to the traditional classroom structure, Cheryl eventually discovered Montessori’s unique pedagogy strategies and its potential to help overcome economic and racial disparities in education outcomes. She founded Sacred Heart’s preschool in 2015, with the help of a $30,000 grant. As lead teacher and director, she also supports staff in a second Montessori pre-K/K classroom. Timothy still teaches, volunteers, works with students on reading as he earns a graduate degree, and aids with fundraising.
“… We felt like Camden is where God could use us to learn, grow and serve.”