CAMDEN — The Villegas siblings are like any other close-knit family: They finish each others' sentences and gently tease one another. They share childhood memories and laugh through stories told dozens of times. They relish their dad's expressions of pride, and eyes well up when they talk about their late mother.
But there's one thing that distinguishes Carmelo Jr., Braulio (known by his nickname, Woody), Belinda and Romelia from most sets of brothers and sisters: Each one of them has been a first responder in the City of Camden, where they were raised.
Carmelo, Belinda and Romelia were police officers in the city, while Woody — the self-described "oddball" — spent 25 years in the Camden Fire Department, retiring last month as the city's fire marshal.
"It was always my dream to be a police officer," Belinda said as she, her siblings and their father, Carmelo Sr., gathered for an interview in the living room of her East Camden home.
"But then (Carmelo) decided to take my dream," she added with a laugh, chiding her brother.
Before long, though, both of Carmelo's sisters would go through the police academy. Woody, in the fire academy at the time, had also applied to the police department. But when a recruiter came to visit him, he worried he was in trouble.
"I decided to stay with the fire service," he recalled. "My brother was already a police officer, so I thought we could trade stories."
There were a lot of stories to go around.
Camden was a much different city as the siblings grew up, and the Villegas family was at the center of it before any of them got on the public payroll.
A laundromat, family and faith
Carmelo Sr. and Maria came to Camden from Puerto Rico in the 1960s, and after being laid off, Carmelo decided to go into business for himself, buying a laundromat near their East Camden home. Eventually, he'd own three of them.
The family all worked there; each of the Villegas kids learned about maintaining and repairing the machines, working with customers, keeping the building and the business in good shape. But they learned more than just the laundry business.
"We grew up in laundry," Carmelo Jr. said. "But we also grew up listening to and learning from different people."
Carmelo Sr. chased drug dealers from the laundromat, yelling at them to take their trade away from his customers and especially the neighborhood children. He made sure the laundromat was a safe place in an increasingly dangerous city. Unafraid of the dealers, he eventually earned their respect: When Belinda was robbed at gunpoint at the laundromat, dealers chased down the offender and recovered all the cash he'd stolen, returning it to the family.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the first or only time the Villegas family would experience crime, but Carmelo Sr., who still owns and runs the laundromat, remained steadfast.
"It was a hub for that section of the city," Woody said. "There were video games and arcade games to keep the kids busy," and Carmelo Sr. welcomed them.
"That was my father's mindset," Woody explained. "Even if the kids got rowdy, this kept them off the street, so you'd see the place packed with kids playing games."
As they went into service careers, each of the Villegas siblings drew on their experiences at the laundromats and on Christian values their parents instilled in them.
Maria, their mother, would talk about her faith to people who came into the laundromat, counseling women who'd fallen into addiction. Woody and Carmelo Jr., who'd sometimes play guitar in the laundromat, would set up basketball nets in the neighborhood to get other kids to play, offering another safe outlet.
And the community they served remembered them.
"'Oh, you're the laundromat girl!'" Belinda said people would say when they recognized her in uniform.
"That helped a lot," she continued. "The way we'd carried ourselves when we were younger, people trusted us, they knew they could talk to us because we were like family to them."
"I went on so many jobs where people would recognize me," said Romelia. "There was a respect. People would open up more, and everything would calm down a little bit."
Camden County Police Chief Gabriel Rodriguez grew up in East Camden and knew of the Villegas family long before he worked with them.
"It's an awesome story of a family that gave of themselves to serve their community," he said, calling them "some of the greatest public servants I've known."
"It was never about the paycheck for them," Rodriguez added. "They did what they did for a city they love."
"Their father, the laundromat, the police department, the fire department... It says a lot about how they were raised, the foundation planted for them," said Mayor Vic Carstarphen. "It all goes back to how they were raised, and you get that when you're around them, especially their father. You can tell his character, and how he's passed it along."
"We are all products of the City of Camden," Woody said. "We've lived what everyone else here lived": robberies and burglaries, close calls, the temptations of the street and piles of easy, ill-gotten money. "But my parents talked about helping others, helping our neighbors. We saw police and fire service as a way to do that, and so we got involved."
"There's always a choice," agreed Carmelo Jr. "What was different for us was, we had these beautiful parents. They always told us to be in excellence, to do what's right, to serve others."
First responders in a city on fire
"It was extremely busy," Romelia recalled when asked about her early years of policing. "It seemed like there were murders all the time."
"The '90s were tough," agreed Woody. Poverty become more deeply entrenched in the city, as the crack cocaine epidemic brought addiction and violence, and as disinvestment and neglect brought Camden the dubious distinction of being one of the nation's poorest and most violent cities. "We were the busiest fire department per capita in the United States."
"Camden was burning corner to corner," said Carmelo Sr.
The 2010s brought new challenges: The city was in a severe budget crisis, leading to mass layoffs in the fire department and the dissolution of the city-run police department in favor of a county-run department. The homicide rate spiked to 67 in 2012, and a series of fires in abandoned warehouses turned entire blocks into burned-out shells of their former selves.
By 2012, Woody had risen to chief fire marshal, overseeing fire inspections for new commercial buildings and multi-family residences, as well as fire investigations.
"Those were challenging times," admitted Woody, who joined the fire department in 1997. "It was a tough, tough time, but fortunately I was surrounded by professionals who knew their job, who kept us all safe. We just banded together and got it done, man."
The Villegas siblings looked after each other, too, though: Woody recalled how, if his brother or sisters heard of a fire, they'd check in to make sure he was safe, or, if they were on patrol nearby, they'd go to the scene, then "make eye contact from a distance, just so I knew they were there and they knew I was OK."
Belinda and Romelia were known on the streets as "The Sisters," and they, too, stuck together.
"You would never know they worried about each other, but they did," said Rodriguez. He recalled once when Belinda encountered a man who became belligerent; Romelia, he said, "stood fast; she knew Belinda could stand her ground, but she was still there, just in case."
Working together also meant one sibling couldn't do much without the others finding out quickly. Belinda bought meals for homeless people at McDonald's, gave brand-new shoes she'd bought for her husband to an elderly man who ruined his by stepping off a bus and into wet cement, and even gave the socks on her feet to a homeless man on a cold day — and each time, her siblings quickly heard from others about the quiet act of kindness she thought no one else saw.
Still more service
Carmelo Jr. retired from the Camden County Police Department in 2018, and Romelia followed him two years later. Woody left the fire department last month, honored for his service in a City Hall ceremony. Belinda plans to retire in three years.
But none of them sound like they've stopped heeding the call to serve. Carmelo and Romelia are with the U.S. Marshals, and while Woody is planning on some time off to travel, he's also a part-time construction official in Runnemede and knows he won't be able to sit around for long.
Woody and Carmelo Jr. both live in Cherry Hill; Romelia and Belinda stayed in Camden, but Romelia owns a home in Florida, too. When she retires from the police department, Belinda wants to find a way to help deaf and hearing-impaired people in Camden.
"During the pandemic especially, I saw how isolated they were from the rest of the community," she said, noting that local news conferences during the crisis' worst days never had an American Sign Language translator.
The tradition of service won't end with Belinda, either.
Among the next generation: Carmelo Jr.'s son is a U.S. Marine. Another nephew is in the Army National Guard. One of Woody's three daughters has a master's in health administration; another is working toward a master's in social work. And Belinda's stepson, inspired by Woody, joined the Camden Fire Department.
"We all hold Camden in our hearts," said Belinda.
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden and surrounding areas since 2015, concentrating on issues relating to quality of life and social justice for the Courier-Post, Burlington County Times and The Daily Journal. She's called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at email@example.com, on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: A family of first responders, serving Camden as police, firefighters