Neighborhood Collaborative Community Gardens Blooms for North Camden Community


Photo of Jacquelin Santiago-Vicente courtesy of NCCG website.


CAMDEN — The air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil where we plant, and the homes we occupy all converge to shape the environment we live in.

These factors are great indicators of a community’s overall health and wellness.

Jacqueline Maria Santiago-Vicente was born and raised in Camden and has worked vigorously to restore the city’s environment and educate residents on the importance of farming and self-sustainability. 

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In 2017, after returning to the city from Chicago, Jacqueline Vicente looked to make a difference in her city. Vicente began community volunteering as a supporter of the Block Supporter Initiative in North Camden headed by the Camden Lutheran House. 

“I believe we should take care of our homes,” said Vicente. 

Vicente’s volunteering would blossom into the Neighborhood Collaborative Community Gardens of which she is the executive director. This nonprofit is an extension of Vicente’s passionate commitment to community development. 

The Neighborhood Collaborative Community Gardens — or NCCG — teaches residents about various aspects of environmentalism. Many of her family members fill various positions on the board proving this venture to be a family matter. 

Diego Vicente. Photo courtesy of NCCG.

“Miss Vicente is my mother. We’ve been doing this since 2017. She has motivated me a lot throughout my whole, this and my life in general and how I am learning in school. She’s helped, she helps a lot of people and she doesn’t give herself enough credit for it,” said Diego Vicente

Diego Vicente is a high school student at Pennsauken Technical High School studying environmental science and is also NCCG’s media director. Diego manages all the website, YouTube, and all social media, as well as educational outreach.

Hispanic Leadership and Community

Each week students, community members, and volunteers meet at Mastery School to be educated on the city’s environmental needs, gardening, community services, and initiatives that will benefit the city. 

“We meet several times a week; the students learn a lot! We grow blueberries, apricots, pears, peaches, and raspberries,” said Jacqueline Vicente. The program is completely free. Participants meet Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays to learn the many aspects of gardening. 

“We don’t just teach putting seeds in the ground. We teach gardening A through Z,” said Erielys Vicente, who is Jacqueline’s niece as well as project coordinator and head of graphic design for NCCG. Erielys is a Rutgers University student studying graphic design. The university recognized her community work, featuring her as a panelist fit for their Environmental Justice conference. 

“We take these kids in the summer. We take them to farmer’s markets every Saturday where we teach them business skills, how to build partnerships, how to do sales entrepreneurship, public speaking; and that’s just through selling the fertilizer that we do,” Erielys Vicente said. 

Photo of Erielys Vicente courtesy of NCCG website.

The fertilizer she references is known as ‘Black Gold.’ Students learn how to feed and take care of the worms, harvest their castings, and after mixing the material with scraps the organic fertilizer is produced. The fertilizer is sold at the local Collingswood farmers market for $10 a pound.

“We have a super colony with over 10,000 worms,” said Jacqueline Vicente. 

“Students are paid, fed, and taken on trips. Their first summer alone, I believe they raised about $4,000, and as a celebration date, they were excited. ‘Cause at the end of the summer we used some of the money to take them on a trip,” Erielys Vicente said.

Students have had the opportunity to visit Camden Aquarium, the Philadelphia Zoo, several greenhouses, Longwood Gardens, and even Sesame Place

Joely Verroa, Mastery High School of Camden student, has been a member of the program for two years.

“I’ve helped to grow carrots, blueberries, and various flowers,” said Verroa. “My favorite part of the program is working during the summer. It helps us learn real skills.”

Verroa works in the visual arts program and envisions himself continuing to help the organization even after he graduates. “I plan to use my skills to help promote what the organization is doing around the city and hopefully the world.” 

Maya Oquendo is a Mastery High School of Camden student. An 11th grader, Maya has been a part of the program for the entirety of her high school career and is currently the social media assistant. 

“I take pictures and make videos,” said Oquendo. She reflected on how the program has helped her conquer her social anxiety, “I was always in my shell so my friend asked me to be a part of this program to get out more and I’ve been doing it ever since.” 

“I got my brother who was just like me — struggling with social anxiety. And it helps really to get out more and help the community at the same time,” Oquendo said. 

NCCG has also played a vital role in local beatification, adopting several lots to clean and restore to improve the environment and aesthetics.

“I’ve seen Camden people change and they are changing for the better because of what we’re doing and what they’re seeing in their community. People are cleaning their streets, they’re coming out, they’re doing voluntary work,” Diego Vicente said proudly.

“People are coming from different states to come to help us. We’ve had people from Minnesota, Washington, and New York coming in, making a change with us along with our neighbors and alongside us,” Diego said. 

The non-profit tends to have a total of four gardens on Byron Street, one of which is often referred to as the “bioremediation garden.” Recycled tires that got dumped at the end of the street are painted and turned into flower planters.

“Technically, we don’t own the lots and shouldn’t take it as our responsibility, but it’s there and it’s a matter of let it stay dirty or make it pretty. I choose the latter — so sometimes I get in trouble for cleaning,” Jacqueline Vicente said. 

Bio-remediated flowers are then planted for their beneficial restorative effects created through their water filtration processes.

“We plant plants that relieve the Earth of toxins,” said Jacqueline Vicente. 

“We plant plants that can take lead out from the water, hold onto the lead, and break it down before releasing it less dangerously,” Erielys Vicente explained the science behind the gardening process. “And it also cleans the water to make it safer to, you know, drink or to take a bath with it or to interact with it in general.

“And that’s not the only thing. There are also willow trees that do that. There are sunflowers, which are often used to remove radiation. There’s a lot of amazing plants that can do these sorts of things, which is what they’re currently learning about for their fourth book!” 

NCCG has played an instrumental role in educating young children about the community as well. The nonprofit creates their books which are written by the students and illustrated through their graphic design committee. 

The book series follows the adventures of Wormington, an earthworm who explores Camden and learns about the environment while accompanied by an insect friend. 

“My favorite project has been the books; books for kids 12 or under. It’s coloring books but also for learning and I like them because I have a little brother and he loves them,” said Oquendo. 

As NCCG continues to grow, so too do their community relationships. Subaru recently donated a greenhouse to NCCG. In addition, NCCG was recently awarded the Food and Agriculture Changemakers grant.

The grant was made possible by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

“The grant is focusing on urban agriculture and food security,” said Sharon Kinsey. Kinsey is a 4-H agent and associate professor of Rutgers University’s Cooperative Extension. Kinsey leads the Camden County 4-H program.

“We have a lot of projects on the horizon and hope to help expand their program. We’re also going to invite them to be a part of our other 4-H programs throughout the state like leadership conferences and other educational programs. We have funding for five years, so that’s exciting,” Kinsey said. 

“Jackie is already doing great work here in Camden, so our grant will kind of supplement some of their programming and also introduce some new programs as well,” said Kinsey.

Most recently, Jacqueline Vicente was recognized as one of eight recipients at Camden’s “Women of Purpose” awards. The ceremony celebrates impactful women who advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion throughout Camden. 

It’s become clear that Jacqueline Vicente’s vision has germinated into a program that services and educates people of all ages. Her community is made stronger by a persistence to change how Camden is viewed and handled by its residents. 

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