BRIDGEWATER, NJ - For several Bridgewater residents, volunteering is about getting to know families and helping them move forward – and that is what they are doing with HOME of Somerset County.

Based in Somerville, the organization is a homeless shelter for families and children, operating with a full continuum of care that provides stabilization services for families who are working toward goals of housing independence.

“We provide emergency shelter and food security through houses of worship,” said executive director Alyssa Martini.

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Martini said they have more than 1,000 congregational volunteers throughout the county, and they distribute donations of basic needs, food security and daily living items to struggling families.

Bridgewater-Raritan High School senior Isabelle Rijksen started volunteering with her family several years ago every time her church, Basking Ridge Presbyterian, hosted the families.

“I then joined the youth board to continue my volunteering,” she said. “I volunteer because getting to know the families and helping them to move forward in their lives is really meaningful. I encourage others to get involved with HOME so that they can support the families too.”

Bridgewater resident Tracy Liston is the food coordinator with St. Bernard Church, in Bridgewater, which works with HOME and hosts guests approximately five times every year. Liston has been working with the organization for more than 25 years, first as a cook, then she took over as food coordinator about 20 years ago.

“I plan the menu and recruit cooks for the entire week,” she said. “I try to ensure that we have nutritious and delicious food every night for our guests, and that we have a varied menu.”

Liston said her goal is to serve healthy food that mirrors a typical family meal of the season.

Liston said she is happy to volunteer because she loves to do anything associated with cooking.

“I’m a foodie at heart,” she said. “I enjoy cooking, meal planning and trying to follow the seasons with our menus. And I feel a real sense of giving back to the community by organizing a few meals for a family in need.”

Liston said their volunteer cooks are phenomenal, and always rise to the challenge to continue to provide meals, even in the middle of the pandemic.

During the pandemic Martini said, the congregations have been unable to host families because of building limits and shutdowns, so they have been unable to operate the normal shelter rotation model. Instead, they are housing families in motels to accommodate their needs, which has also prevented them from being able to accept new homeless families into the emergency shelter.

"We are hopeful that by mid-summer, with eased restrictions and increased health protocols such as vaccinations, that congregations will be able to allow our families back into their houses of worship for sheltering," she said. "We are able to take clients in through our Neighbors in Need program that assists families who are in their own housing already, but are at risk of homelessness due to a lack of resources."

When it is safe for HOME to return to an on-site model of providing shelter and food, Liston and the other coordinators at St. Bernard are planning to review their program to make some changes.

“A few people may not feel comfortable with in-person volunteering, and that’s okay,” she said. “There may be new volunteers who are looking for a way to serve their community, especially with more people working from home. We may find we have a larger pool of people to tap into who previously were not available due to work constraints.”