By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
CAMDEN – Local businessman Al Serje recalled one of the times that spurred his community advocate into action.
A native of New York who has lived in worked in Camden six years ago, has been nominated by The Latino Index to the 2022 New Jersey Top Latino Initiative, this month. His volunteer work has come from the heart and his own experience growing up.
"I will never forget was when I was at a red light in Camden at midnight after work," said the owner of NJ Janitorial and Facilities Services. "I looked around and saw prostitution, drug use, and I said to myself how can children concentrate on their education if they have to walk daily these streets on their way to school.
"That night I wasn't able to sleep thinking about the children in Camden. The next day I spoke to my employees and we volunteered to clean up the streets that kept me up at night. I came up with the slogan, 'Clean Streets for a Better Education.' We fed the homeless, we cleaned the streets and provided the children hope. It is a great feeling."
That personal, on-the-street commitment was molded while being raised in the inner city of New York with his Colombian mother.
"While we were growing up my mom, a single mother of four, had to ask neighbors for food, so that my siblings and I wouldn’t go to bed hungry," Serje told Front Runner New Jersey.com. "Today, finding myself doing well and feeling blessed, I am fortunate to bless others. I know the struggle. I lived it."
Serje said three years ago, he was approached to start distributing food to needy people and provided transportation and logistics.
"This ignited my passion to give back to those who are less fortunate," Serje said. "For the year 2020, I was a key figure in [delivering] 12,000 pounds through different cities including New Brunswick, Lakewood, Trenton and Camden. In the year 2021, I increased the amount of food to Camden, almost reaching 1 million pounds along with over 150,000 pounds in the city of Philadelphia."
He credits numerous individuals and groups in playing a key role with the distribution like Camden Mayor Vic Carstarphen, City Council President Angel Fuentes, Councilman Chris Collins, City Council Vice President Sheila Davis, Dept. of Public Works Keith Walker along with several committee people such as Tameeka Mason and Alicia Rivera.
Among the organizations were One Camden, Parents Invisible and businesses such as Stars Medical. Serje also purchased Chromebooks, iPads, coats, face masks, face shields, hand sanitizers and entertainment (such as the first live camel to visit Camden) on several occasions to make my events more family-friendly while investing in our city’s children.
"Through all these activities I developed a close relationship with Diego Maya, who is the person behind The Top Latinos in New Jersey," Serje said. "He is a witness to my commitment to the communities in need, so he personally nominated me two years in a row to be a Top Latino of New Jersey.
"I feel inspired when nominated to be amongst some of the most important Latino leaders in New Jersey. It is a humbling experience to be recognized for something you love to do."
In a letter from Maya to Serje dated Jan. 14, he told the businessman that his volunteerism is making a real difference in the area.
"You influence our community positively by setting the example of what hard work and consistency can lead to in our country," Maya wrote to Serje. "You are also an important ambassador of brotherhood with the Black community, creating bonds of friendship and community so that New Jersey and Pennsylvania can progress in unison."
Serje said he believes in the Latino community, which would be the second largest in the world behind Mexico if they were their own country.
"It is that sense of my culture and heritage, which push me to feel a sense of pride and duty to all those who need help," Serje said. "And being part of a minority we have to excel at whatever we do to make a difference. It is why, I decided to take the path of giving back so that not only would I be helping but I would also be inspiring other Latinos to follow in my steps and do something amazing."
Serje has continued to grow his business. He originally started a local cleaning business with a partner but a year ago went on his own. NJ Janitorial and Facilities Services focuses on servicing schools.
"My company does floor stripping, waxing, cleaning, COVID disinfecting and protecting," Serje said. "I love what I do. I am a strong believer that if our children are in a clean and safe environment they can then concentrate on their education."
When asked who inspires him on a daily basis, Serje said he has a mixture of personal and family inspirations.
"I am inspired by seeing our people struggle to make a living when they don’t even speak the English language," Serje said. "I am inspired to continue my path of giving when I see children in inner cities fighting the status quo of poverty.
"I am also inspired every day when I think about my children Justin, Jalysa, Giovanni, Aiden, Alvarito and my grandson Navi who deserve a better world. It’s important for me to teach my kids that it’s good to give back, hard work and dedication is the key to success. More importantly becoming involved with the community and its people."
Serje said he believes Camden can become one of the most prosperous cities in the state if Black and Brown communities work in unison for that specific goal.
"We are fortunate to be under great leadership at the municipal level, which is part of the equation," Serje said. "Now it is up to the residents and businesses to unite and move towards progress.
"I will continue to do my part and help build up the black and brown communities. Feel free to reach out to me if you'd like to partner up or help finance food donations in order to make a difference in this life. I lead the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Latino Affairs Food on Tables Program."
With Serje's determination and dedication, he is heading toward a day where his sleepless nights will be part of his past.
QUESTION: What should Camden city leaders do first to makes the lives of their citizens better? Answer in the Discussion section below.
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