NEWARK, NJ — On any given Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday afternoon, the volunteer staff of Franciscan Charities can be found greeting their “friends,” or the individuals who rely on them for meals, outside the basement of St. Anne’s Catholic Church on South 6th Street.
One of the few soup kitchens still operating in Newark, the organization has established itself as a mainstay since it was established by Brother Paul Miller in 2004. Now, with so many in Newark falling on hard times due to COVID-19, Franciscan Charities is going full steam ahead despite its own financial obstacles.
“In March, [my staff] called me and said we were going to have to close. I said, ‘I don’t care if I have to put peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the back of my car. We’re not closing.,” Miller told TAPinto Newark.
For that, the organization even received a nod from the Obama Foundation as a “Story of Hope.” Miller and his loyal cadre of volunteers have served over a million meals over the past 16 years, transforming what was once a St. Anne’s storage space into a fully functional dining hall and industrial kitchen.
Chef Ron Jacob, who was once a client of Franciscan Charities when he found himself out of work and homeless, can prepare up to 30,000 meals a month at the facility. Newark maintains one of the highest rates of hunger and homelessness in the state, meaning the organization has certainly had its hands full over the years.
While the soup kitchen has had to scale back to three days a week from five, Miller and his staff have powered through that, too — they send folks on their way with a hot meal and pantry items for in between visits. In fact, Franciscan Charities has been so relentless in its efforts to continue serving its friends, it temporarily relocated its operations to Martinsville and paid local restaurants to prepare meals from March to June 2020 while St. Anne’s was shut down.
“They would wear hazmat suits when it first started. But we haven’t stopped because our friends that live here depend on us,” Miller said.
But that determination to do good for Newark’s Central Ward community comes at a cost. The increase in need and downturn in individual donations, which the organization relies on, have resulted in a projected $250,000 budget deficit for Franciscan Charities. An uptick in mothers of infants and young children needing diapers has proved a particular strain.
Board members and volunteer Melissa Hillier said many of the new faces coming to St. Anne’s for help have never stood in line at a soup kitchen. Day laborers, restaurant workers and many more are finding themselves out of work indefinitely, and the desperation to meet their basic needs shows.
“There are days when I would be driving here in the sprinter van, and it would feel like all of Newark would be converging on us,” Hillier said. “Clientele that typically would not be walking here because they were a little farther out were walking here because we were their only source.”
Food is not all that those in need come to Franciscan Charities to find. Coats, winter clothing, school supplies, baby items, sanitary products, links to resources as well as birth certificates and photo IDs are all part of serving the people with dignity, according to Miller.
“There are people who if we’re not here today, won’t eat,” he said. “We see more and more of the pandemic poor needing our services.”
While the monetary shortfall Franciscan Charities faces may be daunting, Miller said he has faith that his organization will get back what it puts out.
Franciscan Charities is asking for donations of diapers, particular sizes five and six, baby formula, coats, toiletries, clothing, bottled water and fresh food like desserts, fruit and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Volunteers are appreciated. Monetary donations to Franciscan Charities are appreciated.
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