UNION, NJ – A pop-up Community Table on Stuyvesant Avenue has been the scene of much activity since the pandemic hit this area as residents from Union and surrounding neighborhoods stop by to drop off or pick up much-needed pantry items.
Holly Schneider said the Community Table began as a ‘Clappy Hour’, where she stood outside and encouraged drivers to honk their horns as they drove down Stuyvesant Avenue at 7:00 each night to honor essential workers.
“I saw how much ‘Clappy Hour’ made everyone smile and remain positive,” she said. “As a couple of weeks passed, I heard so many stories of people struggling and of long food pantry lines and I wanted to help.”
Schneider said she was furloughed from her job as Director of Front Office Operations at Valor Hospitality in March. “Being hospitable is not only my career, it’s in my blood.” She said she has always had a passion for helping people – friends, family, an acquaintance, or a stranger. “I thought we needed somewhere people can just pull over, stop and grab something they may need, with no questions asked, no judgement. A simple hospitality table.”
Schneider said she calls the space a Community Table instead of a food pantry because she wants people to feel it’s more than a food giveaway; it’s a community resource. She said every day she creates a welcoming display on the table full of everything from fresh produce, hygiene/safety products, canned goods, baked goods, board games, kids toys, books and more. “People feel more like they are coming to shop, where they can take what they like. No one is choosing for them,” she said.
Schneider said she primarily runs the Community Table herself, but gets help from other residents who stop by from time to time to offer assistance. She said her son, Union High School senior and Farmers quarterback Andrew Sanborn, and her significant other Keir Brooks provide tremendous help. “They set it up every morning and condense it into a smaller grouping at the end of the day.” Schneider said Union resident and retired Livingston School teacher Maryann D’Agostino also assists frequently.
“I stopped by the Pop Up Pantry on Stuyvesant last week to make a donation,” said Union High School interim principal Mark Hoyt. “I was so impressed with the amount of time and care that Andrew and Holly have put into it. While speaking with Holly for a brief time, I witnessed at least 8 people come up to either make donations of food, bags, or money as well as to take things that they needed. Holly's generosity and gratitude were clearly evident. It is so clear to me as to why Andrew has grown into the fine young man that he is. Students and parents like Andrew and Holly are what make Union the amazing town that it is and Andrew exemplifies the values that we hope to see in all of our students.”
Schneider said community reaction has been amazing, from the positive feedback from the individuals and small businesses who have donated to those families who are able to take what they need during this unprecedented time. “I have met such amazing individuals who really have been having a hard time, not just financially but mentally, emotionally and more.
"I am in awe of Holly's generous spirit, compassion and enthusiasm," said D'Agostino. "She is an angel in our community. The pantry is open 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, and you can see her there every day encouraging people and spreading her cheer. Just by seeing her, people have stopped to donate food or monetary donations. She always makes sure she has nutritious food and fresh produce to offer people who are experiencing tough times."
“My favorite quote through this time is ‘we are all in the same storm, but very different boats’,” said Schneider. “I think it’s truly important for us to pay forward kindness in any way now, whether it be just a smile, a reassuring conversation or giving whatever help to someone who may need to find some encouragement.”
About the community coming together during these extraordinary times, Schneider said, “Union is that community where no matter what happens we are all in this together and it truly shows.” She said she has begun home deliveries to needy families who live outside of Union but work in town and has provided support in helping find clothing and necessities for them. “We are also giving out boxed/bagged lunches with little messages on them to spread the smiles for those in need.”
To stay organized, Schneider said donated items go to the table outside and when the table is full she stocks the extra in storage bins categorized by pasta, rice, beans, soups, hygiene items, paper products, and more. She said when they run out of something outside, it’s easy to locate and replace it. Schneider said as monetary donations come in she tracks them and purchases fresh items such as bread, fruits, vegetables and items they run out of, usually hygiene items, cases of water, and fresh produce. She added that some monetary donations have been given directly for items not available at the Table, such as diapers, wipes, baby cereal and formula.
Schneider said her hospitality management experience has come in handy when dealing with some who may take more than they should. "I want people to feel this is to help them, but I want it to be fair for everyone so they get the things they need." About these few challenges, Schneider says, “it all works out every time.”