The five teenagers had stopped expecting the money they’d been shorted for their work to promote the U.S. Census during a hot COVID-19 summer in Camden.
When Nyzia Easterling, their leader on that project, called in December to let them know that Rev. Tim Merrill’s Asbury Community Church in Woodlynne had decided to give each of them $400 to make up for the deficit, they were “beyond happy,” she said.
“It was just a blessing,” said check recipient Janiayh Williams, 16.
The saga began when Easterling’s Saving Grace Ministries, which she founded in 2011 to help children who had lost family members to homicide, partnered with Camden’s Department of Human Services to pay area teens to encourage residents to participate in the census.
In a city where the response rate was running 20% lower than the New Jersey state average, the teens knocked on doors, staffed tables at supermarkets, and made posters and videos to increase awareness.
Salaries for the summer for most of the 25 teens were provided by Camden County. Five of them, who worked the same hours as the others, were hired by the city under an annual Community Development Block Grant. But a fund earmarked for census work ran out before the five could be paid what they were owed, and each was given several hundred dollars less than their coworkers paid by the county.
Camden Director of Human Services Carmen Rodriguez and Mayor Frank Moran acknowledged the disparity, Easterling noted, but said their hands were tied because the census fund had been depleted and the city couldn’t violate the parameters of the block grant.
When Merrill, a Camden resident and community activist, heard about what had happened, he decided he wanted to “shock the teens with grace.”
“I just can’t bear to see our young people taken advantage of, especially then they’re serving their city,” he said. “I just can’t bear to see them discouraged that way.”
Merrill, who is the social justice pastor at Asbury Community Church, went to his senior pastor and “made the case that someone has to make this right.”
On Dec. 23, Merrill stood in his church’s parking lot and handed out checks to the teens. He said he wanted to give them the money in time for holiday shopping, but they all put the checks in their bank accounts to save for cars or college.
Sherry Fisher, whose son Tamir Rice received one of the checks, remembered Merrill from attending his Bible study in Camden with her friends when she was 13 years old and pregnant.
“As bad as we were,” Fisher said, “we made it to Bible study! I had my first child at 14, and he was such a help. He said we were the reason why he knows how to handle his daughter.”
For Merrill, who feels the “the denominations have pretty much abandoned Camden,” the money was all about “living up to what your mission is” and helping people like Easterling.
“We should be finding people like Ny and asking how we can help,” he said of Easterling. “And that virtually never happens in Camden.”
Tracey Bright, whose son Kysaan Bright, 17, was given a check by Merrill, had gone to City Hall at the end of the summer to express her frustration about the city’s handling of the situation.
“You want to stand up and fight for what’s right for your children,” she said, “but all of us had given up.”
The census work was her son’s first job, and Bright said she told him not to let the partial payment discourage him. He is never late for his current job at Walmart, she said, and “saves and saves” the money he makes.
Merrill’s gesture, she said, reiterated what she had told her son at the end of the summer.
“I said, ‘See? Sometimes, you just got to have faith! Here’s a total stranger giving you what you earned.’ It goes to show that there’s still good people out here that believe in these kids.”
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