It was an evening of family, friends, giving and hope as more than 350 families gathered at Newark’s Camden Street Elementary School on Thursday for its sixth annual “Bring Dinner Home” Thanksgiving dinner.

The initiative serves a community dinner to more than 1,000 Newark residents, who received grocery gift cards, winter coats, diapers and books.

The program provides ongoing support to area families over the course of the year, especially critical due to $4 million funding cuts from the overall school budget over the last six years.

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A highlight of this year’s event was a focus on families displaced by recent hurricanes in the Caribbean.

The event also featured tours of the school’s new STEAM Room, (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Technology) a program for early childhood learning, as well as the Camden Cares Room, which supports families with services like the free use of washing machines—purchased to ensure that students and families have access to clean clothes--as well as providing diapers and school supplies throughout the year.

To date, the program has distributed 3,200 coats and 3,000 books and provided gift cards to more than 1,800 families.

The program is the brainchild of Camden Street School Principal Sam Garrison and Marketsmith Inc. CEO Monica Smith and her spouse, Amy Allan Smith, with the concept originating from a book that highlights the importance of good nutrition and bonding over family dinner.

“It’s been six years of loving this community and loving the kids and I owe it all to Marketsmith,” Garrison said.

Garrison knew he wanted to bring an initiative to the school that fostered a culture of quality time.

“I thought, 'how do I build quality time in a school?'” Garrison said. “The thought was that when I had quality time growing up it was at dinner time. Families aren’t having quality time anymore and sitting down and talking together.”

That’s when Garrison decided he would spend his Thanksgiving dinner with the entire school.

Students at the Camden Street School face specific challenges and hurdles as a result of broken homes, poverty and, in many cases, addiction.

Many students have struggled academically due to hunger, said Garrison, while others lack warm coats or clean clothes, often deterring them from attending school.

"Bring Dinner Home" is a response to the issues of child hunger and poverty and is yielding results. Since the program’s inception, attendance has increased and academic performance and test scores have gone up by six percent.

Missing meals and experiencing hunger impair children’s development and achievement, according to the National Education Association. 

Studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry document the impacts of hunger on children’s academic performance and behavior in school, which show that hungry children have lower math scores, are more likely to repeat a grade, come to school late or miss school entirely.

All Marketsmith staff members are involved in the effort as part of their commitment to the company’s mission of, “to do great work, so we can do good things.”

“I believe those of us who have found success owe it to this world to make it a better place,” Smith said. “Every child deserves to be fed, safe and educated.”

Marketsmith President Jill Draper said the program was started to address poverty and hunger issues and their effect on academic performance.

“The kids are cold, they don’t have a coat, and they’re not going to school,” she said. “Principal Garrison is so focused on improving academic reports and giving families a sense of purpose and hope. For us at Marketsmith, giving back is part of our DNA, part of our culture.”

Garrison noted the marked improvement in students’ academic performance.

“Our test results have gone up at least six percent and I can attribute that to the whole culture of the school,” he said. “We’re all about two words—'Camden cares.' People have good hearts and people can know they’re making a difference.”

As the event has grown, so has the response from New Jersey’s business community, with donations from entities providing funding and volunteers, as well as donations of water, diapers and other supplies.

Garrison hopes the school's program will inspire others to take on an initiative like “Bring Dinner Home.”

“There’s a whole bunch of people in corporate America who are trying to make a difference,” he said. “What we’re doing for our school, another company can do. What started off as one dinner has now become a care room and a beacon of hope for the community. This is not a one day thing--we're’re going to be here to support them. People need to be seen and valued and appreciated and that needs to start early. Your neighbor is the person you happen to share humanity with.”

For more information on "Bring Dinner Home" visit www.bringdinnerhome.org.