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Clergy Council Of Cranford's Martin Luther King Award Winner Officially Announced

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Credits: Kathy Monahan
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​The Clergy Council of Cranford has officially announced that Catherine Felegi, organizer of Operation Warm Heart - First Presbyterian Church of Cranford (FPCC)​​ chapter will be the recipient of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Award. The award is given to someone who has made contributions to the cause of improving the community in such areas as civil and human rights, social justice, social action or demonstrated concern for the welfare of others. The commemorative service and award presentation will be held Thurs, Jan 12 at 7PM at the First Baptist Church of Cranford, 100 High St, Cranford. Light refreshments will be served following the event.

Felegi has always been deeply involved with helping those less fortunate, whether it was sleeping over as a volunteer for the FPCC's other sleepover program for those suffering from homelessness, FISH Hospitality Program Inc​; serving at the Cranford-Elmora Soup Kitchen​ since 2005; or spending time at the Community FoodBank of New Jersey​. She started Operation Warm Heart - FPCC chapter in Dec 2013, working closely with the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless​ to establish a chapter in Cranford after reading an article​ about a man in Bridgeton, NJ who was suffering from homelessness and passed away from hypothermia after seeking warmth on a frigid night. That event combined with other personal stories drove Felegi to want to start a program to help those suffering such dire straits.

"It's frightening to think about how some people are just a fire away, an unemployment away, only a few dollars away from homelessness," states Felegi. "We as a community should feel empowered to do something to end the cycle of homelessness and to assist these people to help them rise above their current trials and be self-sufficient again." At the 2016 New Jersey Point-In-Time Count​, on the night of Jan 26, 2016, 8,941 persons were experiencing homelessness with 46% reporting some sort of disability. 513 of the total individuals who were homeless were in Union County.

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Felegi's chapter of Operation Warm Heart works with the greater community to help empower both the volunteers, as well as the guests who sleep at the church. All volunteers find a place. Some volunteers help with basic sewing repairs, such as fixing hems and sewing buttons. Others play games with the guests to help them feel more welcome at the church. Lawyer Harry McDevitt offers legal counsel to guests in need. Social worker Mary McTernan gives helpful advice. Nurses work on a rotating schedule to give blood pressure readings. Linden resident Camilo Castillo assists with translating Spanish for anyone in need. Cranford-Elmora Soup Kitchen coordinator Jean Wands dedicates time to give out socks and other materials that might be needed. Hair stylists Lauren Curley of Styles Streetand Lynne Fitzpatrick of Guillotine Salon and Spa alternate cutting hair and trimming beards. A multitude of clothing sits on the stage of the gym where guests can search and take at their leisure. Guests are also welcome to take showers and do laundry. Various houses of worship, such as St. Mark's AME Church - Cranford​, First Baptist Church - Cranford​, Osceola Presbyterian Church​ in Clark and the Calvary Lutheran Church​ Confirmation class cook meals for the guests to enjoy. Every once in a while, volunteers will offer their special talents, such as Cranford-local piano instructor Mel Freda in conjunction with singer Joe Conboy, who regaled everyone with Christmas carols at the Dec 20th hosting.

Not only do people volunteer their time and energy, they also volunteer their materials. Support the Girls​ in Springfield donated feminine hygiene products this year for the guests to take as they need. Emily's Hats for Hope Initiative​ gave a large collection of hats, scarves, and gloves, all hand-made. The award-winning Vanilla Bean Creamery​ gave lots of ice cream for the eager guests.

"I never thought that my chapter of Warm Heart would end up being this big," states Felegi. "It's really exciting to watch the guests and volunteers interact, watch the volunteers take this program and make it into something that is more beautiful than I could ever imagine, and see those who are benefiting from this program rise out of their current circumstances."

Felegi hopes to keep expanding and improving the program as time moves on, with the goals of making her chapter more environmentally friendly for the 2017-2018 hosting year, citing​ that rising sea levels could drive more than 100 million people into extreme poverty and submerge the homes of over half a billion.

"The goal is constant improvement," states Felegi. "The program will keep working to being better and better serve the homeless community."

Operation Warm Heart is a program developed by the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, which has helped find emergency housing for more than 10,000 households. Through the program, 14-20 individuals are housed in various houses of worship throughout Union County from December to March. The First Presbyterian Church of Cranford (FPCC) is continuing their commitment for its third year to aid this worthy cause.

To learn more about the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, call (908) 355-2060, or email info@theelizabethcoalition.org. To learn more about Operation Warm Heart - FPCC chapter, call Catherine Felegi at (908) 578-8500 or email Catherine.Felegi@gmail.com. To learn more about The Clergy Council of Cranford, call Cindy Hannen at (908) 272-9133 or email her at cindy@patwin.com.

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