Joe Piscopo-10/25/06

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Friday, Oct 27, 2006

Posted on Fri, Oct. 27, 2006

Elizabeth Robertson / Inquirer

The Unity Community Center's Rob Dickerson and comic/singer Joe Piscopo greet children arriving for an afterschool program.

Wanda Dickerson of Camden and Joe Piscopo entering the Unity Community Center on Mount Ephraim Avenue on Wednesday.

Camden's celebrity adoption

By Dwight Ott

Inquirer Staff Writer
Elizabeth Robertson / Inquirer

While Angelina Jolie and Madonna have adopted orphans from impoverished countries, comedian/actor Joe Piscopo has adopted an entire city - Camden.

This week, former Saturday Night Live comedian Piscopo arrived in the Whitman Park neighborhood in his black Hummer to discuss Camden, its problems, and ways to showcase one of his favorite organizations - the Unity Community Center.

Because of the center's investment in young people, Piscopo said, the Unity Community Center - hidden in one of Camden's worst ghettos - is a model for other organizations to help revive ailing cities throughout the country.

Piscopo, who's from Passaic, adopted the group back in 1998 when a state official told him about the organization. Piscopo was searching for meaningful organizations to promote through his Positive Impact Foundation. The Unity Community Center, he said, has given him new insight into Camden and its problems.

"I see shining stars all around here - the children. I love what these kids can do... . Their fathers may be in jail, their brothers, and even some mothers... . It's hard to sidestep those problems."

Making things worse, he said, is the steady erosion of entry-level jobs to China, India and other countries, leaving few opportunities for the young.

"When I look in their eyes, I see myself," Piscopo said. "There but for the grace of God... "

"This is as grassroots as it gets," he said of the center, which provides activities in a city where there are no bowling alleys or shopping malls. "They've gone completely against all odds and achieved greatness."

It was hard to see greatness in the battered storefront in which Piscopo stood with its dusty trophies in an aging display center.

Across the street and down the block, there were teens wearing "hoodies" selling drugs.

The Unity Community Center storefront looks like an abandoned business left over from the riots of four decades ago, when businesses fled Camden in droves.

The center was founded by the now-middle-aged couple Rob and Wanda Dickerson. To Piscopo, the two are like urban missionaries trying to bring hope to a bleak land.

Rob Dickerson is an instructor in boxing and the Kyokushinkai style of karate. His wife is an instructor of dance. Both have invested two decades into the Unity Community Center, the spartan storefront in the 1500 block of Mount Ephraim Avenue where Piscopo had parked his gleaming Hummer.

"Rob runs this on a shoestring," Piscopo said, speaking of the center, which operates on a half-million-dollar yearly budget, raised mostly through performances around the country.

The center describes its mission as saving children through "developmental and discipline programs."

Martial arts are the core, and from there, members progress into performing arts, including African dance and drum, jazz ensemble, brass band, and drill team.

There also is an outreach person, Queen GiGi Bey, whose job is to counsel families of the youths who join the center.

Bey looked at Piscopo with a twinkle in her eyes.

"He uses his celebrity status to come into the community to highlight organizations like ours. He identifies those organizations, using them as models to show other organizations how to empower themselves."

Said Piscopo: "The dream for me is to bring awareness to small grassroots organizations like this. I would like to see the government get involved... . We're always supporting the Boys and Girls Clubs, but what about grassroots organizations like these that get to the heart of the matter?"

Piscopo is hoping to showcase the group in Philadelphia, possibly at the Merriam Theater in the spring.

The show, a fund-raiser, would be vintage Unity Community - a kind of African American "Cirque du Soleil" featuring stilt walkers, drill team members, and karate performers, as well as a jazz ensemble.

"It's always been my dream to showcase the kids at the Tweeter or some place in Philadelphia to show another side of Camden," Piscopo said. "That's what I'm here to talk about."

He has also made donations.

"Just this year, he went into his pocket and gave us $2,500 right on the spot for expenses," Rob Dickerson said.

Piscopo said he's currently acting in a movie called Joey Benefit about "a guy trying to make it who can't say no to charities."

"It's fun meeting him," said Naomi Sabree, 7, of Cream Elementary School. She wasn't sure she knew exactly who Joe Piscopo was, but said: "It's fun meeting him. He's famous."

Piscopo said it would be great if other celebrities got involved in helping Camden - or in their hometowns.

"Like Shaquille O'Neal has done in Newark and Bill Cosby in Philadelphia," he said.

"Where's Madonna originally from?"

Listen to an audio interview with Joe Piscopo at http://go.philly.com/piscopo

Contact staff writer Dwight Ott at 856-779-3844 or dott@phillynews.com.