NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Elijah’s Promise has built up a reputation as one of the most prominent soup kitchens in the Central Jersey region, and this Thanksgiving, the organizers will have another go at living up to that name.

This Thanksgiving, organizers are expecting to serve hundreds guests, ranging from the homeless to some of the area’s neediest families.

So for the past week and a half, it’s been all hands on deck at the kitchen. Enter Pam Johnson, the kitchen’s head chef.

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Johnson runs every aspect of the kitchen all year round; volunteer training and organization, planning menus, and altogether every single aspect of the soup kitchen.

Johnson herself started out as a guest, having spent several years addicted to drugs. During the course of several cycles of sobriety and relapses, Johnson came across the Elijah’s Promise Culinary School, and everything clicked into place. She graduated there, started her own restaurant, and then years later, became the head chef at the kitchen.

During the course of the year, the soup kitchen, located at 18 Neilson Street, serves upwards of 150,000 meals. As a social service agency, the center offers different services for the city’s needy population.

For Thanksgiving, it’s been an around the clock operation this week and a half to make sure Elijah’s Promise is thoroughly prepared.

“We’re doing 26 turkeys, 16 hams, eight cases of collard greens, yams on the menu, cornbread, stuffing is on the menu, 15 pans of mac n’ cheese, 100 pounds of potato for potato salad,” Johnson said.

Talking with the head chef was not easy; Johnson’s attention was constantly pulled left and right for someone that needed help, more deliveries that were coming in, moving food from the fridge to the stove or directing newly arrived volunteers, to name a few.

“I get two hours of sleep, especially around the holidays,” Johnson said. “I think we all are just running.”

Donations of food for Thanksgiving line the walls of the pantry, stuffed into the freezer or into Johnson’s office.

They come from people in the community who’ve lent a helping hand, or from private companies such as Johnson & Johnson or Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

Earlier this week, the city gave out hundreds of free turkeys, one to each family. Johnson said that helped lighten the demand which would normally be placed on Elijah’s Promise.

Day of Grace

The schedule for Thanksgiving looks like a well-oiled machine; everyone who's involved has to be at a certain place at a certain time. 

Johnson opens the doors at 6:45 a.m., and 15 minutes later the first crew comes in to carve the turkeys and hams.

Second crew comes in at 10:30 a.m. to heat up the food, set up decorations, set the tables and slice up the pies and cakes.

At noon on the dot, a prayer is said, and bon appetit.

The organizers have boasted that they’ve been able to do away with the bad rap that soup kitchens might get for lower quality, unhealthy food, and instead have been able to provide high-quality, good-tasting and healthy meals.

“We went from serving whatever we could get a hold of and putting together meals based on donations and so forth, to where we were focusing on doing all things healthy,” said Dr. Francis Cole, one of the board members for Elijah’s Promise.

“When we first said that we were going to do this, we were told ‘oh my goodness, there’s no soup kitchen that’s been able to do that and operate in the red,’” Cole said.

For many of the clients Elijah’s Promise serves, Thanksgiving means a lot for them.

“A lot of our people are homeless, don’t have family, or friends they can go to their house,” said Robert Mason, director of social services for Elijah’s Promise.

“We are their family and friends, so they come here to be with us.”

Many people who come to Elijah’s Promise for a meal would likely stay awhile just to be around others, enjoy themselves and maybe play cards.

“Our clients know that when they come here, they’re safe,” Mason said. “It’s a safe environment, it’s warm, it’s comfy, it’s clean and the food is great.”

All hands on deck

The two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving have been a madhouse, and all the while, Elijah’s Promise has had to continue serving people that come in for help.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, a group of half a dozen volunteers from the Morganville United Methodist Church, based in Marlboro, were on hand for food preparation.

One such task involved slicing, dicing and washing the vegetables so that they would be prepared for cooking, according to Richard Bernaudo, team leader for the church.

“This is about the 10th year, we’re here every pre-Thanksgiving to help them to prepare the meal,” Bernaudo said.

In Bernaudo’s team were church member Jim Stewart and Beth Schapiro, a Sunday school teacher at MUMC.

The next day, a smaller group of volunteers were on hand to help out, though each came by themselves, not with any sort of team or group.

Achim Jansen, a German-born, stay-at-home dad now living in Scotch Plains, was dicing a bushel of bell peppers. They’ll be added to a stuffing mixture later on.

Jansen said he’s spent many years cooking for his family, so volunteering to prepare meals for a much larger group wasn’t all that different.

The other 364 days

The main sticking point by the staff, volunteers and organizers at Elijah’s Promise is that hunger is all-year round. On top of that, anyone who comes into Elijah’s Promise stands to gain a lot more than just a good meal.

“We’re a lot more than a soup kitchen, a whole lot more,” Mason said. “We have a culinary school, we have a social service department, we have different agencies that come in every week.”

Some agencies that stop by, such as RWJ and St. Peter’s Hospitals, offer health services, while other groups and people do things such as diabetes screenings, free eye exams and chiropractic services.

Mason said the center operates on one simple motto:

“We feed the hungry, we clothe the naked, we house the homeless, we help the sick and suffering.”

If you’re thinking of volunteering for Thanksgiving, we have good news and bad news; no space for any more volunteers. But that shouldn't stop you from getting involved any other time of the year.

Elijah’s Promise is always looking for donations of food, as well as volunteers to help out with the community kitchen and other social services.

The kitchen serves meals 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday through Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

Reporter Daniel J. Munoz, dmunoz@tapinto.nettwitter.com/DanielMunoz100