Pepe Piperno founded the Domenica Foundation in 1991, naming the family foundation after his mother, Domenica. In the early days, the Piperno family delivered food, diapers, and Christmas gifts to local charities. Not long after, Pepe responded to the need for quality education in Camden by sponsoring scholarships to enable children from low-income families to attend Catholic schools.
Today, the Domenica Foundation provides long-term support to 20 or so nonprofit organizations in Camden and South Jersey at any given time. So far about 300 students have received the educational foundation they need to find success in work and life.
All of this impact is inspired by Pepe Piperno’s mother. Born Domenica Lo Giudice in the Calabria region of southern Italy in 1910, Domenica helped raise her siblings and tended the family farm after her mother died when Domenica was only seven. At the age of 19, she married Antonio Piperno. The couple had three children by the time Antonio emigrated to the U.S. to seek a better life. Domenica stayed behind in her father’s house.
During this time, Domenica, poor as she was, shared whatever she had with her neighbors. The privations of World War II were particularly hard on her village. Families would come to her door for bread and a bit of olive oil, and Domenica always gave it – despite the fact that Mussolini had ordered all olive oil to be sold only to the Italian government. When the local authorities found out, Domenica had to hide in her father’s fields for a week, sustained by meals her sisters would sneak out to her.
After the war, Antonio visited from the U.S., taking the older children back with him. Two more children resulted from his visits, including Pepe, the only Piperno son. Shortly after his birth, Domenica emigrated with him and the youngest daughter to join Antonio in Camden, New Jersey.
Domenica went to work on a clothing line in Camden, where she stayed until her retirement 24 years later. She sent money and goods back to her village in Calabria whenever she could. She died in 2005 at the age of 94.
Pepe Piperno’s early charitable work in Camden was profoundly influenced by two activist Catholic priests, Father Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church and Father Robert McDermott of St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral. Their work as champions for the poor was a major catalyst for Pepe’s establishment of the Domenica Foundation. Their work inspired the foundation’s focus areas: education, hunger, housing, and community development. Their tireless work on behalf of underserved residents of Camden continues to be an inspiration.
The Domenica Foundation and the Piperno family are inspired by the way Domenica lived out the Italian value of dovere. Literally, dovere means duty, but the larger concept is responsibility for the well-being of others. As Domenica was fond of saying, “If it’s right, it makes sense. If you hurt someone, fix it. Live with no regrets.”