Community Day Volunteers Give Back to Atlantic City


At left, Ana Patricia DeNise, the interim director of Stockton's Educational Opportunity Fund Program, stands with EOF students Zy Jones, Nasir Terry, Leilani Moreno Solano, Tony Guardado-Castro, Dayvis Muralles-Merida and Ellis Bonds, the interim director of Residential Education at Stockton, as they clean up the Texas Avenue Playground in Atlantic City on Saturday, April 27.

Atlantic City, N.J. — As Ellis Bonds reached down to pick up a discarded glass bottle from the Texas Avenue Playground, he beamed with pride.

Stockton University’s interim director of Residential Education joined a handful of students and staff to pick up trash at his childhood park on Saturday as part of the Third Annual Community Day Clean Up and Party in the Park in Atlantic City.

“I was born and raised here,” Bonds said, adding that he went to the Texas Avenue school just down the street. “This is my hometown, and I think this is a great opportunity for Stockton to advance what we are doing in Atlantic City through efforts like serving the community. We want it to look like we have an actual presence here.”

And that presence was strong as hundreds of volunteers signed up to clean up 10 different locations in all six wards of the city from the beach in front of Resorts Atlantic City to the Chelsea neighborhood surrounding Stockton’s Atlantic City campus.

Joe Bertolino and Kyra Vasiliou

Stockton President Joe Bertolino, left, picks up trash in Atlantic City with first-year Kyra Vasiliou, of Camden.

“It’s really about Stockton partnering with the community to beautify our city,” said Brian K. Jackson, chief operating officer of the Atlantic City campus. “And I say, ‘our’ city because we all have a stake in Atlantic City.”

Sophomore Tony Guardado-Castro joined Bonds in helping clean up the playground. He was one of a few Educational Opportunity Fund (EOF) students to volunteer. The EOF was created by the state to ensure meaningful access to higher education for those who come from backgrounds of economic and educational disadvantage.

“At first, it was a lot waking up at 8:30 a.m.,” he said with a laugh. “But now being able to see everyone here and having fun, it’s made it all better.”

Building a relationship with the students and the city is something that Ana Patricia DeNise, the interim director of Stockton’s EOF program, thinks is essential.

“I feel like we all have a strong pride in our community and giving back to our community is something that EOF holds very dear to us,” she said. “Our EOF program has a strong focus on service, going out in the community to serve the youth of Atlantic City and help prepare them for the college experience.”

As a Plainfield native, Guardado-Castro felt a need to give back to another urban environment like Atlantic City.

“Doing something small, like picking up trash, is something that I just want to help a community that needs it,” said the Business Analytics major. “Atlantic City has a lot of potential, so Stockton partnering up and being able to work with the city and build things and have programs here gives a better light to the city.”

Helping to improve a negative perception of Atlantic City was one of the driving forces that led senior Steven Iannone to participate in a new clean-up site in the Orange Loop.

“I think that this improves Atlantic City’s image from a community perspective,” said the Hospitality major from Paramus. “I think that getting visitors to the city and getting them to try more local businesses instead of just staying in the casinos is a really great way to lift up the community as a whole.”

Scott Cronick, the co-owner of the Tennessee Avenue Beer Hall in the Orange Loop, was extremely grateful to Iannone and the other students who cleaned up Saturday. Cronick started a cleanup last year with his employees and reached out to the university to ask if students could help this year.

“It’s just such an awesome event, that’s why I wanted to be a part of it,” Cronick said. “Since Stockton came to Atlantic City, it’s been such a change in the culture here and for how people view Atlantic City and for how people feel that it’s safe and comfortable to come to the city.”

A trio of Stockton first-year students living in Kesselman Hall — Sol Lopez, Autumn Fields and Kyra Vasiliou — were surprised when Stockton President Joe Bertolino asked to join their clean-up crew around nearby O’Donnell Park.

“Why not?” said Vasiliou, a Visual Arts major from Camden, when asked why she got up on a Saturday morning to volunteer.

“I might as well do some good. We’ve got to do our part, too. I figured clean up first and then party after,” she said referring to the Party in the Park that started after the cleanup.

michael cagno and terricita sass

Michael Cagno, left, the executive director of the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University, joins Terricita Sass, Stockton's executive vice president & chief of staff, to participate in the Red Sand Project, where red sand is poured into sidewalk cracks around O'Donnell Park to raise awareness of human trafficking and how often victims fall through the cracks.

As Bertolino used a trash picker to quickly fill up Vasiliou’s large clear bag, he said he was thrilled that so many Stockton students volunteered.

“It’s so great to see our students who live in Atlantic City give back in such a positive way,” he said. “They are an important piece as we continue to build new and nurture existing relationships with the city.”

Jackson hopes to build on those relationships by adding other service projects, as long as the ideas come from Atlantic City communities.

“I'd like to get to a place where we can really expand our projects from street cleanups. In years past, we've done graffiti removal and tree planting, but I think there are opportunities to do even more,” he said.  

The day wrapped up with the Party in the Park featuring more than 60 vendors with food trucks, live music, a petting zoo and free community resources, such as Jewish Family Services.

“This third annual event just reaffirms our commitment to being an Anchor Institution,” said Michael Cagno, the executive director of the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University. “Many of the artists and the community organizations are from Atlantic City, so we’re really focusing on providing opportunities for connections and to find initiatives that better the city for us to live work and learn. We're all in this together, and collaboration and partnerships are the only way to do that.”  

— Story by Mark Melhorn and Loukaia Taylor; photos by Mark Melhorn