Camden's Little Citizens With Big Dreams

Answering your questions about Diane Sawyer's recent report.

Nov. 29, 2007 — -- Thank you to all of you who have reached out (and are still reaching out) to the children you saw earlier this month on "20/20." There was a large response to Valeska and her wish for a bike. Many of you offered to donate one, and the above photo shows Valeska with the bike she received from a "20/20" viewer in Queens, N.Y.

Many of you have also asked about going to one of Wade's piano recitals. He is very flattered by the interest and will try to organize a recital sometime soon. We will post information about it when we get it. If you want to help the children of Camden, you can click here to help the children you met or the organizations that are working in Camden to help the children there every day.

Nine months ago, "20/20" visited Camden, N.J., a poor, drug-ridden and crime-infested city. We introduced you to three young citizens who were attempting to thrive and survive in an impoverished community with a murder rate seven times the national average, and climbing.

Four-year-old Ivan Stevens was homeless, and he sometimes spent entire days in a park, dirty and hungry. At night, he and his mother, Precious, and little brother, Imere, would seek temporary refuge in an illegal boarding house where the landlord had padlocked the refrigerator to keep them from taking food. All three slept on one chair surrounded by clutter and roaches.

Billy Joe Marrero, 17, was struggling to become the first person in his family to graduate from high school, and he juggled school with a part-time job. At home, electricity and heat were scarce, and the family would often use the stove to keep warm. At night Billy slept on the cold, hardwood floor, but he had a dream of becoming an actor. He even went to a casting call in nearby Philadelphia, but was ill-prepared.

Six-year-old Andrieana "Moochie" Rodriguez was a witness to what life is like in Camden. She took "20/20" on a tour through her neighborhood and playground. "Don't fall," she said. "You might get stuck by the needles. The drug dealers come and put a whole lot of needles in here."

Ivan, Billy and Moochie's stories represent those of 12.8 million other children living below the poverty line in the United States, and since our special "Waiting on the World to Change" aired, the lives of all three have changed (Click here for photos of the children featured in the first special).

America Becomes Ivan's Superman

Ivan said he wanted to become Superman so he could find his family a house. "I want my own room and I'm never going to get it," Ivan said of his family's yearlong struggle to find housing.

He also dreamed of learning to read.

"I wanna go to school so bad. I wanna read," he said excitedly on the first day of kindergarten. But when asked by a school administrator about what he eats each day, Ivan was at a loss for words.

After our special aired, a tidal wave of generosity hit Camden. Donations of everyday necessities including food, clothes, furniture and household appliances poured in. Monetary gifts were placed into a housing and education trust to make sure Ivan and his brother will have their basic needs taken care of, including the monthly rent.

Ivan, who so badly wanted a warm bed to sleep in at night, finally got his wish. In early February, he walked into a cozy two-bedroom apartment and saw the new life America helped create for him.

Immediately, Ivan started looking around in awe at the cabinets stocked with food, the new bed lined with Superman sheets and the pretty curtains that hung from the window. He was speechless, but the smile on his face said it all.

"It is something to call our own," said his mother, Precious. "I'm happy because they are happy."

At school, the once-scared kindergartener proudly showed off the reading award he received on the last day of school. "He's been a pleasure," said his teacher. "He is the ideal student."

This was a new beginning for Ivan's mother as well. She enrolled in a GED course and made a life plan — she wants to study nursing.

When "20/20" returned to visit Ivan a few months later, the change was dramatic. He was active — constantly jumping on the bed and riding his bike — and looked healthy, even putting on a few pounds. His brother, Imere, would start crying if he had to leave the new happy home.

"We made it," said Precious. "To God and all the supporters, I'm grateful."

Ivan, now in the first grade, continues to blossom academically. "I got a book to read to you," he told Sawyer. His next mission? "I'm going to save the city," he said.

More Shining Stars in Camden

Camden is still a city in need of saving. For every child you met in our first report, there are thousands of others with just as much promise and just as much need. Children like Mayesha, Ci-Monie, Xavier and many others who hear gunshots at night and want nothing more than to make their neighborhood safe. These children dream of becoming doctors, lawyers, police officers and firefighters — careers derived from their own experiences in Camden. Click here to meet more children from Camden.

Eleven-year-old Rashida's older sister was shot and killed just two weeks before her high school graduation. "She was going to be a doctor," said Rashida. "My mom cries all the time. Every day my mom cries about it. But sometimes … I just have to put it aside. Don't think about it."

Every day, on her way to school, Rashida walks by the corner where her sister was murdered and worries whether someone in her family will be next.

"Camden is not a nice place," she said. "I just want to move out."

Last year, Wade's mother suddenly died, forcing the high school senior to live on his own. "Finance is the hardest thing for me, because I don't have anyone to help me," he said.

Wade is working through the grief to pursue his dream of becoming a music therapist, even though playing the piano reminds him of the mother he loved and misses so much.

When asked to envision the happiest possible day in their lives, many children in Camden started with "dad out of jail." Kids like A'lirra, 10, and Edwin, 8, pray for the day their respective fathers are released from prison.

"Sometimes we hold up our palm to glass," said Edwin of the plastic partition that separates him and his dad. "That feels like you're touching him."

Xavier, who is in the second grade and loves math, said his happiest day was when the neighborhood church reopened, providing him with a secure place to do his homework every night. All little Valeska wishes for is "a pink-and-red bike with white wheels."

But for some of Camden's youth, the crime and despair that surrounds them has left them without hope. "I don't have any wish," said 13-year-old Radee. "I don't have a best day in my life."

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has inherited Camden's 50 years of turmoil, government corruption and crime. He told Sawyer that "we're going to keep working every day as an administration, as a group of people, to try to invest in the future and their lives."

Last month Corzine outlined a new crime plan — he improved technology so police officers can better communicate on the streets and fixed police shifts so criminal activity can be consistently tracked.

"It is not just 'What is the state going to do?'" Corzine told Sawyer. "It's not just what the people of Camden are going to do, it's, 'What are we going to do as a society?'"

A New Friend for Moochie

When we first met Moochie, she was confident and excited, especially about her first day of school. "I need to go to college so I can get a job," she said.

But her world slowly came crashing down. Her father battled alcoholism, and her brother got in trouble with the law. Moochie's once vibrant spirit began to dim.

After the program, one of you came to help. Wanda, who works at a record label in New York, contacted ABC and offered to become a mentor to the little girl. "The minute I saw Moochie," she said, "I knew all I wanted was to be a part of Moochie's life."

They became fast friends, and Wanda enrolled Moochie in ballet class in a neighboring town. For Moochie this was something out of a dream.

"I love Wanda, she is awesome!" she exclaimed.

But not everything has changed for Moochie. Her older brother Eric has been charged as an adult on multiple drug and weapons charges, and over the summer her cousin was shot and killed in front of her house. "He was a little bit close to not dying, but he died," she said with a sigh.

Moochie, along with some other kids from Camden, had the opportunity to sit down with Corzine to discuss the issues most important to them. She grilled him on topics ranging from police protection to homelessness in Camden. She also complained to the governor about her needle-infested park. "We should do a better job of cleaning up around here," said Corzine. "I'll look into that specific park."

Two months later, Moochie visited "needle park" to see whether the governor had kept his word.

"He said he was going to fix it and it seems like he isn't going to do anything," she said furiously. The park, as it was been before, was littered with drug paraphernalia.

Opportunity Knocks for Billy

Just days after "Waiting on the World to Change" aired, opportunity literally called for Billy Joe Marrero. Movie director Gavin O'Connor offered Billy a small part in his new film, "Pride and Glory." Billy was ecstatic.

One freezing winter night in New York, Billy was on set awaiting his close-up. "I feel like a superstar," he said, even though his role was "just a Dominican thug at a bodega," he said.

In the months since our first report, Billy did in fact graduate from high school and began attending community college. But what followed was not a fairy tale ending. Billy had trouble focusing on school and soon dropped out of college. He also had a baby with his now ex-girlfriend. Yet he continues to cheer on his four younger brothers who are busy balancing school and work.

Billy's dad, Victor Marrero, who was raising six children and two grandchildren, has also seen his fortunes improve. The city of Camden thanked Victor for his courage and bravery at handling such a large family as a single dad. Other fathers turned to Victor for advice on parenting, prompting him to start a support group for the single fathers of Camden. Click here for more information.

Early one summer morning, something truly amazing happened. Ty Pennington and the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" team made their way to Camden.

"Good morning Marrero family!" Pennington shouted into a megaphone.

Because some of you nominated the family, the ABC television show came to their door and did what they do best — built a new home in just 100 hours. Click here for photos. Words can't describe the joy the family felt knowing they would never have to sleep on a cold hard floor again. The Marreros were sent on vacation to Spain — the first time Billy's brothers had ever left New Jersey — and they returned to see their new four-bedroom house for the first time.

"I didn't see a house," said Victor. "I saw life. Life for me, life for the boys. It was the lifeline that I've been waiting for."

A lifeline that so many other children are still waiting and hoping for.