PLAINFIELD, NJ — The Star Fish Food Pantry, which receives donations from the St. Bart's and St. John's Baptist Church pantries in Scotch Plains, has been serving the Plainfield area for 50 years, and Executive Director Patricia Bixel, a longtime volunteer for Star Fish, reflects on the non-profit's history.

STAR FISH BEGINNINGS:
In the early 1960s, Plainfield experienced a traumatic period of civil unrest as a result of racial and economic discrimination that was felt in every urban center in the United States.  Jack O’Malley, one of the first volunteers to seek to address the hardship caused by this and other factors in town, recalls that St. Mary’s Catholic Church and its parishioners assumed a leadership role in helping to form and guide Mobilization of Churches, a citywide organization of clergy and laypeople of different faiths.  Their purpose was to bring understanding, peace, and harmony among all peoples, and in that spirit they named their new venture “Star Fish”; the “Star” represents the Star of David, while the “Fish” represents Christianity.

FOUNDING OUR ORGANIZATION:
Four dedicated women joined together to achieve the Star Fish goal.  Through the efforts of Eileen Cunniff, Mary Nischwitz, Mrs. Peter Webb and Sheila O’Malley, volunteers were recruited, donations were requested, and things moved quickly.  The first food pantries were located in the United Methodist Church, administered by Mary Nischwitz, and in the basement of the Cunniff home, handled by Eileen and her family.  It was such a part of the Cunniff family life that the children thought everyone’s basements held shelves of food for other people.

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GROWING THROUGH THE YEARS:
From its early inception through 1971, nearly 250 people from all walks of life and all faiths volunteered with Star Fish, performing many acts of kindness.  As Mrs. Webb observed, “Star Fish” is essentially a person-to-person operation.  Its volunteers just stand ready to help.”
In 1971, Star Fish was officially incorporated as a non-profit organization.  Many volunteers have been with Star Fish since its inception, all bringing their own unique skills to work.  Among them are our founders and their families as well as volunteers Michael and Janet Townley and their children, Sarah Townley Mazzarese, our statistician.

The second and third generations of the Cunniff family have followed their mother’s tradition of service into the fifth decade at Star Fish. Eileen, a former nurse at Muhlenberg hospital, was very well known to folks she met in town who had received food from the pantry, and her children often heard her referred to as the “Fish Lady.” Her daughter, Kathleen Cunniff Nitchze, became the treasurer of Star Fish and now Kathleen’s children are volunteering with the program.  Star Fish has grown from lines of people outside the Cunniff home to lines of people seen waiting for food at distributions about town.  Longtime volunteer Cathy Renga, whose grandson Patrick is a steady volunteer, has noted how the need for food has increased and been met by the generosity of many area churches as well as that of caring organizations and individuals, especially during the COVID-19 year of 2020.

REFLECTING ON VOLUNTEERING WITH STAR FISH:
Michael Townley, Star Fish Secretary, Assistant Treasurer and Website Administrator, notes, “The sign of a good organization is its evolution to meet the needs of its constituents.  Over the years, Star Fish has evolved into an organized system that can respond to emergent needs, like the current COVID-19 pandemic.  My wife Janet and I enjoy being part of this special group of people — volunteers all — who have given generously of their time, treasure and talents over the years.  These are people who genuinely care for their neighbors.  That is a constant that has not changed: empathy and caring for people in need.”  Patricia Bixel, Executive Director, has volunteered for Star Fish for many years.  She instituted the Mount Saint Mary Academy cereal collection for Star Fish corresponding to the February Super Bowl beginning in 2008. Pat started volunteering weekly after her retirement from the Mount in 2013.   She states, “Star Fish impresses me with its volunteers, several who have served for 50 years, as they show fidelity to an organization which provides the most basic and essential need for nutrition.  Star Fish’s mission is ongoing, ‘Serving emergency food to those in need in Plainfield'."

BECOMING A PART OF STAR FISH:
Star Fish is a 501(C)(3) non-profit providing food for Plainfield people in need.  We welcome donations, all of which are tax-deductible as permitted by the IRS Code.  We also look forward to welcoming new, caring and dedicated volunteers to our program once COVID restrictions have been lifted.

For more information about Star Fish, please visit www.starfishplainfield.org. We invite you to contact us by phone or email if you are interested in joining our Star Fish community by donation or volunteering with our program at 908-755-8888 and secretary@starfishplainfield.org.