What do you love about Hammonton?

Hammonton Heart & Soul releases 69-page action plan

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Speaking to Cassie Iacovelli about Hammonton Heart & Soul, it’s hard not to feel the sense of hard work and determination that has created this group.

She’s not alone in the process, which also includes Dan Bachalis, Elsie Baez, Christina Birchler, Zachary Brown, Steven Carr, Tracy Carr, Jim Donio, Patricia Donio, Ivette Guillermo-Magee, Johanna Johnson, Matthew Littlefield, Denise Mazzeo, Richard Rehmann, and May Trinh.

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The community members were guided by the Community Foundation of South Jersey, Transform South Jersey, Community Heart and Soul, Leanne Tingay, Erik Estrada, Andy Frazier, Lois Greco (Hammonton’s coach) and the other Heart and Soul towns in southern New Jersey.

Each member brought a skillset to the table whether it was collecting and organizing data to technical aspects of the process.

The community members recently released the Hammonton Heart and Soul Action Plan – 69 pages long – which details everything that has transpired since civic leaders were awarded Community Foundation Transform South Jersey’s $100,000 grant.

The action plan is provided in English and Spanish.

What is Hammonton Heart & Soul? Its mission, according to the action plan, aims to listen to the community, cherish all traditions, embrace our diversity, and ensure inclusion to build a strong social, cultural, and economic environment now and for future generations.

The Hammonton Heart and Soul Action Plan is the culmination of over three years of work with the community.

They asked:

  • What do you love about Hammonton?
  • What are your hopes for the future?
  • What were your concerns?

This action plan gives a summary of the work of the volunteers of Hammonton Heart and Soul and the projects and goals the community would like to work toward in the future. This is a “vision plan, a roadmap for our future, written by the people who live, play, and work here.”

“It includes our Heart and Soul statements, which summarize the ten core values of the people who live here,” the action plan states. “They are intended to serve as a guide for future decision making in our community.

“We hope to engage the town government, community groups, and volunteers to use this document to ensure that Hammonton keeps the attributes that it loves and create an even better community,” the action plan continues. “We realize that Hammonton is an ever changing community, and the information in this document may not accurately represent all projects or current events.

“This is a working document, one that will grow and change over time as we accomplish goals and create new ones. New ideas and new people are welcome to join our efforts.”

The journey towards the action plan began when the Community Foundation Transform South Jersey, a nonprofit organization that helps South Jersey residents harness the power of philanthropy to transform their communities and the issues they care about most, was in search of five communities – one each in Atlantic, Burlington, Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem counties – to award grants of $100,000 each.

The grants would support initiatives that bring people together in order to build stronger, healthier and more economically vibrant communities.

Transform South Jersey is a collaboration between the Community Foundation of South Jersey, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, New Jersey Health Initiatives – the statewide grantmaking program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the OceanFirst Foundation, the Orton Family Foundation, and the Wells Fargo Regional Community Development Corporation.

In September 2019, a meeting was held about the grants, which garnered a lot of attention among different civic groups.

“A bunch of us from Hammonton were at the meeting,” recalled Iacovelli, who is the executive director of MainStreet Hammonton. “There were 11 different groups, all unrelated.”

The people who attended the meeting learned that one application had to be filed per town.

“It became clear that we had to work together,” Iacovelli said.

The members of the different groups did just that. They came together to submit one application. And in February 2020, Hammonton was one of the six communities selected.

The other communities selected included:

  • Burlington County – Willingboro
  • Camden County – Winslow Township
  • Cumberland County – Downe Township
  • Gloucester County – Woodbury
  • Salem County – Salem City

The southern New Jersey communities joined more than 80 Community Heart & Soul projects throughout the nation that are creating resident-driven community change.

In March 2020, a leadership team was assembled. What timing! By mid-March 2020, the world essentially shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The remainder of 2020 was Phase I – laying the groundwork as best they could – developing an informational mailer, a website, social media page and video. The program was presented to the town council.

In spring 2021, Phase 2 was the launch of the Heart and Soul program. Volunteers assembled on April’s Third Thursday for a volunteer informational session. A mailer was sent out to educate residents about the Heart and Soul program.

In summer and fall 2021, data was collected at town events; one-on-one interviews were held; group story gathering began at civic/community meetings; students created projects and conducted interviews; an outreach liaison position was created and a headquarters was set up.

“We were allowed to use the grant in any capacity,” Iocovelli said, noting they were able to hire a full-time program coordinator.

Up to that point, Iocovelli had been coordinating and running the meetings. The consensus of the group decided to move forward as is with Iocovelli continuing to coordinate and run the meetings.

As busy as she was, Iocovelli decided to continue on a voluntary basis.

In winter 2021 into 2022, story gathering interviews continued; data was collected from interviews and information was shared with the public at headquarters and on social media.

In spring and summer 2022, a second informative video launched in two languages; civic/community group meetings attended; diversity outreach occurred at Allies in Caring, where targeted story gathering occurred; and story listening continued.

Reaching the Latino community was very important during the process. Hammonton Heart & Soul partnered with Allies in caring and conducted group interviews on two separate occasions.

In fall 2022, Heart and Soul statements were drafted. Volunteers met and examined data about what matters most to residents. They examined over 1,000 pieces of data about what people love about Hammonton.

In January 2023, a community summit was held with the community to vet statements. Eighty-two people attended. The statements were revised and finalized.

In 2023, Phase 3 was the Community Plan of Action creation. Volunteers examined data on hopes and concerns to create goals. A town wide mailer and survey was created to prioritize action items for Action Plan. Stakeholder meetings were held.

In January of this year, the 10 statements were read and endorsed at the Town Council meeting. The statements touch upon every facet of Hammonton from cherishing the small-town feel, diverse population, and community traditions, to appreciating the town’s farms and agricultural workforce, variety of parks and recreation, and valuing the presence of the fine and performing arts, and downtown historic buildings.

The action items include:

  • Focus on improving and expanding current parks
  • Develop more walking and hiking trails that are accessible
  • Complete and maintain sidewalks
  • Strengthen the downtown retail and dining offerings
  • Add more trash and recycling cans, especially in parks
  • Continue police presence in schools
  • Research sports offerings and facilities at Hammonton Middle School
  • Coordinate mentor/career day with local universities and/or business owners
  • Research a garden/greenhouse at Hammonton Middle School
  • Increase the diversity of the school board and staff
  • Incorporate diversity and equity activities throughout the school year
  • Plant more trees and flowers in Hammonton
  • Create a walking trail through historic neighborhoods
  • Create a police bicycle patrol
  • Create a centralized resource hub for those in need of assistance
  • Develop more biking paths
  • Improve the 54/40 shuttle

The Hammonton Heart & Soul reached a milestone as of June 12, according to Estrada, community manager of Community Foundation of South Jersey (CFSJ).

The Hammonton Community Endowment met their minimum goal of raising $25,000 for their fund, which only took a little over a month since they kicked off their first fundraising event.

“That has been matched by CFSJ, so they currently have a $50,000 endowment for Hammonton,” he said. “With a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we’ll match up to $50,000, so they are still working towards that goal and are in the midst of planning a fall festival community event at the end of September.”

Estrada said when they first designed the grant initiative, $25,000 was the goal they set as the minimum amount to open the endowment. With the new minimum at $50,000 because of the match, they would love to see communities build the endowment to millions, even multi-million dollar funds.

This way, the Heart and Soul programs can distribute closer to $50,000 and $100,000 in their respective communities, he said.

“I am hoping that the successes in communities like Hammonton and Downe, [it is] making them realize that this really isn’t an unrealistic goal,” he said.

For more information about Hammonton Heart & Soul visit hammonton.com/heartandsoul.

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