PATERSON, NJ – Pandemic or no pandemic, local non-profit organizations say they are committed to doing whatever they can to continue helping a growing number of residents in need.

While life in New Jersey has grinded to a halt, many non-profits have vowed to continue their missions to help the underserved, even if it has meant temporarily suspending some programs to focus on just providing essential services, like meals for those who are struggling.

As the outbreak has spread across northern New Jersey, thousands of people are newly unemployed, which has led to a surge of new visitors to food banks, pantries and soup kitchens. 

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Many in the Paterson were already dealing with food insecurity, an issue that has only grown worse as the pandemic has forced vulnerable people to stay home and supermarket shelves have become bare.

“Over and over, mothers and fathers, the elderly and the homeless, tell us they don’t know how they are going to eat,” Jennifer Brady, executive director at Oasis – A Haven for Women and Children, said. “Literally thousands of families” have turned to her organization over the past month for food, hot meals, diapers, baby supplies, bakery goods, fresh produce and personal hygiene items, which are being distributed from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday to Friday. 

On a recent weekday afternoon, Brady took a break from helping out in the soup kitchen, which she said has been “non-stop” busy these days to fill TAPInto Paterson in about what the non-profit is doing to help. Their goal, she said, “is to provide our neighbors in need with as much food and basic needs as we possibly can.”

During a typical, pre-pandemic day, Oasis served about 150 meals daily and handed out nine or 10 food bags. Between March 17 and April 17, Oasis gave out 10,958 meals and 2,245 food bags from its pantry.

“We turn no one away and will continue to provide services to address hunger and basic needs as long as the pandemic endures,” she said.

Each Friday, the Boys & Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic distributes kits filled with a week’s worth of non-perishable food and school supplies to 2,000 families, according to Chief Executive Officer Wendy McGuire. The kits – available at the Paterson and Passaic clubhouses – are designed to help limit the number of times a family member would need to leave home to pick up food.

McGuire said, “We find that the need is growing in both communities and have partnered with other organizations to find ways of improving availability and delivery of these kits.”

Eva’s Village has suspended sit-down meals at its Community Kitchen and now offers “to go” food Monday through Friday, from noon to 1 p.m. On Fridays, extra food is distributed to help people make it through the weekend.

In addition to the 400 community members served each day by the kitchen – which include the men, women and children who reside in Eva’s Village recovery and sheltering programs – between 300 and 500 “to go” meals are now being distributed, according to Heather Thompson, the non-profit’s vice president of development and external affairs.

Eva’s Village also continues to operate its halfway houses and shelters, as well as outreach programs for those struggling with addiction and mental health issues. “We’ve also done everything we can to continue vital services to our neighbors who rely on us,” Thompson said.

According to Feeding America, the country’s largest hunger relief organization, 95% of food banks across the country are seeing a higher demand, with some reporting double to quadruple the number of people asking for help.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, there were already 37 million people in the U.S. who didn’t have enough to eat. That number is projected to grow by an additional 17 million during the pandemic. Within Passaic County, the food insecure population includes 50,000 adults and 20,000 children, according to Feeding America. 

“The people of Paterson are scared. Hourly wage workers have lost their jobs and for families who often have trouble putting food on their tables, the concept of having two weeks worth of groceries is not fathomable,” Brady said.

“People are so enormously grateful to have somewhere to go for hot meals and food bags, plus diapers, masks and baby food. The need is incredible and seems to be growing every day.”


Mental Health Struggles Are A Concern

Lower income communities, such as Paterson, are more likely to be adversely impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak when compared to wealthier areas. Residents tend to have less access to quality medical care, and workers in lower paying jobs are less likely to have health insurance or be able to work from home during the pandemic.

As people struggle, the need for adequate mental health support will grow, non-profits said, and they hope to be able to connect them with the necessary resources.

“Mental health services are so critical during this crisis – for people who are already diagnosed with mental health disorders and enrolled in treatment, but also for front-line workers in healthcare, first responders and for the general public,” Thompson said. “These are unprecedented times and the traumatic effects are likely to be significant.”

Eva’s Village has continued its outpatient services via phone and video calls with its clients and is working to make sure its residents have the extra counseling and mental health support they need, Thompson added.

“We recognize that so many people with substance use disorders and mental health issues are experiencing extremely high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, etc. right now. So continuing treatment and therapeutic services is extremely important,” she said.

The organization also set up a peer support hotline (973-754-6784) open to anyone who wants to speak with a recovery mentor. The hotline is available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

New Jersey, now in its second month of a near-lockdown state, is battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the country, with more than 105,000 cases and 5,800 deaths already counted. In Paterson, as of Saturday, there are 3,966 confirmed cases and 129 virus-related fatalities. 

“The pandemic is still so new and as we settle in to this new reality, there will be a huge need for addressing anxiety and mental health issues,” Brady said.

Oasis has three social workers on site every day, ready to help. Staff is also conducting virtual check-ins with children enrolled in the non-profits after school and teen programs, and teachers are giving virtual instruction for kids at home, learning remotely. 

“One major impediment to providing online counseling is that many of our families lack both technology and/or access to wifi in their homes,” she said. “We know that as we return to ‘normal’ our counseling and educational programs will be more important than ever.” 

At the Boys & Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic, social workers have been fielding concerns from families spurred by the public health emergency.

“Whether it is because the strangeness of not going to school or the inability to go outside and interact with friends, or the loss of a friend or family member due to the virus, our staff is able to provide families with access to the resources they need to work through these challenges,” McGuire said.

On the Boys and Girls Club website, the organization has posted weekly activities for kids, ranging from craft projects to board games to at-home exercises and encouraged families to share on the non-profit’s social media accounts. 

“We know that the family struggles that our Club Kids face have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. By providing academic resources, food distribution and consistent communication with our Club families, we can provide them with a sense of safety and steadiness in the face of so much uncertainty,” she said.


Many Non-Profits See Dip In Donations

Many organizations are struggling themselves as donations have plummeted. Some have even cancelled – or postponed - crucial annual fundraising events, such as marathons, galas and walkathons, slated for the warm weather months.

A recent survey of 700 charitable organizations in New Jerseypdf found that 96% anticipated “significant or moderate disruption” to their operations moving forward. And 87% reported that their programs were already suspended or cancelled due to funding. 

The survey, completed by the Center for Non-Profits and the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, also emphasized that marginalized and disenfranchised communities – and the organizations serving them – were likely to be disproportionately affected by the crisis.

It also noted that nearly 65% of New Jersey’s non-profit community has staff who cannot work from home due to the nature of their job of the organization’s mission. These non-profits include nursing homes, domestic violence shelters, healthcare, food pantries, animal rescue and childcare. Other organizations serve clients who do not have access to the internet or phones.

In a media release, Linda Czipo, president and CEO of the Center for Non-Profits, said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has already begun to test our health care, service delivery systems, democratic and societal norms in new ways.”

“The need for community and mutual support has never been greater, and it’s times like these that underscore the importance of mission-driven organizations – and the dedicated people who work for and support them,” she said.

Locally, non-profits say they’ll be able to continue their work, which is growing more important by the day. They are also partnering with other groups and encouraging donations.

“This is an extremely challenging time for Eva’s – but we’re also very inspired by the resilience we have seen in both our clients and our staff,” Thompson said.

“We have both clients and staff members who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. We are experiencing staff shortages, and many of our staff have worked very long hours to cover shifts, and been temporarily re-deployed to other roles, to ensure our clients get the care they need. The courage and strength we have witnessed in our team, and our clients, is simply remarkable,” she said.

Acknowledging that the crisis has put "a significant financial strain on Eva’s Village," including not just lost revenue to missed events, but also to billable revenue they will not be able to capture at this time, the organization is raising emergency funds. They remain “very encouraged” by those who have committed resources “to help sustain our operations throughout the crisis,” she said. 

“So many individuals, corporate and foundation partners have made contributions; sent personal care and entertainment items for our residents; delivered food for our community; and let us know, in so many ways, that the men, women and children of Eva’s Village truly matter to them."

McGuire said the Boys & Girls Club of Paterson and Passaic will continue to serve the community throughout the crisis and is planning for post-pandemic operations.

“What is sure is that we will reopen. What is still to be determined is when and how the program will have charged once we do reopen,” she said. “We are working with our colleagues at other Boys & Girls Clubs in NJ, 4C’s, the School Districts, the Department of Health and the State to understand the new guidelines for childcare and how we can make sure our Club is ready, willing and able to serve the community.”

As part of those efforts, they are partnering with corporations and individuals who want to help families in Paterson and Passaic, she said.

“Whether it is food, activity kits for kids, on-line tutoring, assistance with mental health referrals or general outreach, the Club will continue to help children and parents navigate these most difficult and challenging times,” McGuire said.

Brady said, “As long as we continue to receive support – we are 96 percent privately funded – we can continue.”

“We are committed to serving the people of Paterson and our staff is dedicated to that end,” she said. “We will be here.”

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