DOING THEIR PART: Masks were one adjustment volunteers and staff members with Family Promise of Southern Ocean County dealt with, as the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way the nonprofit functioned from week to week. (Supplied Photo)
Editor’s Note: During the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted many aspects of our community. Throughout March, staff writers Gina G. Scala, Monique Demopoulos and David Biggy explore the depths of those changes within Southern Ocean County and what the future may hold for the area.
Some may believe there’s not much of a homelessness or hunger crisis in Southern Ocean County. Unfortunately, it’s a well-kept secret.
“Nobody would think, driving through Manahawkin or on Long Beach Island, that hunger is a problem around here,” said Peg Reynolds, president of the Hunger Foundation of Southern Ocean, which supports local food pantries from Lacey Township southward to Tuckerton. “To a lot of people, it’s a secret, but the need is not going down. We’re seeing more people who had never considered going to a food bank show up for food and basic necessities, people who a few months ago had a job, and now they don’t.”
Tent cities aren’t popping up anywhere visible, but Elizabeth Golla knows there’s little separating what isn’t and what could be soon enough.
“We’re serving hundreds right now who soon, maybe within a couple of months, could be homeless or facing a serious housing crisis,” said Golla, executive director of Family Promise of Southern Ocean County, which assists families in homelessness situations return to a place of stability and sustainability through its program. “Nobody knew at this time last year how bad this could get, but we’re almost at the point where we’re going to see a lot of people, who have been struggling the past year, with nowhere to go – and, unfortunately, we won’t be able to help all of them.”
Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic has rocked many worlds during the past year. Residents who had good jobs no longer have them because their workplaces are shut down until further notice. Parents who were working are out of a job now because they chose to keep a child with health concerns at home for schooling. Older individuals who sometimes relied on others to get them places don’t have those resources anymore, perhaps because somebody died or it’s too much of a risk to that individual to be around others on a regular basis. The list goes on and on.
Southern Ocean County is filled with nonprofit agencies and entities, as well as church community services, that are all too willing to help those in need of assistance; many of them spend vast amounts of donated or granted funds to provide their services. But the truth is, with few exceptions, the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on their operations and hindered their ability to help others in so many ways.
“Keeping up with the demand is becoming more difficult,” said Kayla Ahle, administrative assistant of Family Support Services for St. Francis Community Center. “Overall, a lot of people are out of work and still waiting for unemployment benefits, or some are working, but their hours were cut. The pandemic has caused a lot of job loss, and we have a lot of new people calling us every week. It’s hard to say when this is going to end.”
Facing Multi-faceted Problems
FEW REMAIN: Prior to the pandemic, Family Promise of Southern Ocean County’s volunteers numbered in the hundreds, but that is not the case a year later. (Supplied Photo)
During a typical year, most nonprofits take in money and goods and do their best to provide the communities they serve in an efficient, prudent manner. They often operate within a tight budget and on the backs of mostly volunteers rather than paid staff.
Family Promise of Southern Ocean County has a similar model – up until recent years, the executive director position was the only paid one on staff – but it’s unique in that it relies mainly on the help of outside volunteers through its network of churches and congregational support organizations to house families in homelessness situations on a weekly basis for several months at a time.
Under normal circumstances, up to four families comprised of 14 individuals are provided overnight accommodations at a local church building, fed hot meals and snacks on a nightly basis, and given space for their children to play or do schoolwork while parents, who must have transportation and a job or be actively seeking employment, get to rest a little. A family could remain within the Family Promise program for three or four months, depending on the amount of time it takes for the family to have a sustained basis for independent living again.
When the coronavirus pandemic took hold last March, some 90% of FPSOC’s congregational network and support system disappeared within two weeks’ time as churches closed their doors, at least temporarily, to follow executive orders handed down by Gov. Phil Murphy.
“Into April last year, we still had families in our program, but volunteers were steering away because churches were closing and a lot of people were afraid to either contract or transmit the coronavirus,” Golla said. “A lot of the volunteers in our network are well over 60 and in lot of instances over 70, and most of them weren’t going to put themselves at risk. We had a couple churches willing to be static sites, but the volunteers all but disappeared. We had to make adjustments really fast.”
Such adjustments included setting up cameras within buildings to monitor the families – they sign agreements with Family Promise to abide by its policies and are held accountable to them by Golla and her staff – and to make sure things were going well while somebody from Family Promise couldn’t be on site for any direct needs, as well as to supply families with ready-made meals or groceries to make their own.
Still, without ongoing help from volunteers, the makeshift setup was short-lived. Once the remaining families had left the program for their own housing, no new families were accepted, and hosting had been placed on hold. Even when Murphy began allowing churches to reopen with capacity limits, none of them had the volunteers or comfort level to resume hosting operations, Golla said.
“We’ve learned a lot more about what we can do and can’t do within the coronavirus pandemic, but we haven’t been able to get churches back on board,” she said. “Most of them are barely open and don’t have the volunteers right now. We started bringing families back into the program, but we had to house them in a motel, and that costs us a lot of money. We have more families ready to come into the program, but we don’t have a lot of places to put them.”
Unfortunately, the dilemma for Golla and her staff doesn’t hinge on one or two particular problems. It’s a multi-faceted one. Not only has volunteerism dried up for the time being and available shelter is limited, fundraising – no doubt the lifeblood for most nonprofits – has dropped dramatically during the past year.
“Personal donations were down roughly 80% through November,” Golla said. “We lost our two biggest fundraising events because of government gathering restrictions, and those took in more than $45,000 the year before, so that really hurt us. Fortunately, we were able to recoup some of that in December because we made a really big push for our new prevention program, and a lot of people wanted to help out with that.”
During the latter half of last year, FPSOC acquired a matching grant to develop a program designed to help families facing a potential crisis before it actually became one, through which Family Promise (familypromisesoc.org) could provide financial assistance with utility and rent bills. However, the need kept growing.
EVERY BIT HELPS: At the outset of the pandemic, donations to St. Francis Community Center’s food pantry poured in. A year later, the need remains significant. (Supplied Photo)
“Through the support of the community for our prevention program later in the year, we prevented a lot of people from becoming homeless, and many people noticed,” Golla said. “But as we helped people, word got around, and now we have about 400 people we’re helping through our program. Of course, we’re happy to help however we can, but once the eviction moratorium is lifted, we’re going to face a booming crisis. We only have enough money to pay for a limited number of families’ bills.”
Without immediate available shelter – Golla hopes some landlords with apartments and other rental spaces step up to meet the demand that is coming – and more donations coming in, Family Promise will have to turn a lot of people away.
But almost as important as increased funding and available shelter are volunteers to help.
“Everything is so multi-faceted, and nothing in particular is anybody’s fault, but a real crisis is coming, and we need to come together as a community to be there for people, or at least be a resource for people. We need the community to rally around us to help make a difference for people in homelessness situations.”
Of Helping Others
As need throughout Southern Ocean County grows, nonprofits of all kinds are continually trying to find new ways to be a source of assistance, but it’s not easy. Many nonprofits have to get around restrictions of varying kinds to continue serving those they had helped before, as well as new clients.
“We couldn’t keep doing our Thursday community meal due to capacity limits,” said Ro Donato, who alongside her husband, John, helps coordinate the Ken’s Kitchen ministry with St. Mary’s Parish, which operates out of St. Mary’s Parish Center in Manahawkin. “With the number of volunteers we had, which was 85 to 100, it didn’t give us the ability to bring in too many people for it.”
Instead, Ken’s Kitchen now delivers, utilizing about 25 volunteers to bring 170 meals every Thursday to those on the recipient list, which also has grown during the past year. The meals typically consist of a meat, vegetable, bread and dessert.
“We try to help as many people as we can, but the biggest thing they miss is the socialization,” Donato said. “The virus has affected so many people, but mostly the social aspect of simple things, like being able to talk to somebody during a meal. It’s sad.”
At St. Francis (stfranciscenterlbi.org), Ahle said the need for food hasn’t been the only thing to increase – hygiene supplies are in high demand as well.
“I’d say they’re in equally high demand as food,” she said, noting St. Francis provides food and hygiene items to some 60 families each week and currently operates by appointment only. “Personal hygiene products and toiletries are expensive for a lot of people. We received a lot of generous donations when the pandemic started last year, but the donations have slowed down in recent months.”
Friends of the Southern Ocean Animal Shelter (fosocas.org), which distributes pet food and pet care items to those in need of assistance and pays some clients’ food bills through online marketplaces such as chewy.com, also has been hit hard by the pandemic.
“We haven’t been able to have most of our fundraisers, and we’re not getting as much in donations,” said Treasurer Judy Healey. “We’re trying something new this year by selling some of our excess items at a flea market at Allaire State Park, but everything we normally would do in a year has been affected. We sent out a mailing before Christmas and that worked out well, but it’s been tough the past year.”
The Hunger Foundation (hfoso.org) also is trying new things to bolster the funding coffers, such as its online Taste Dinner raffle, and increase awareness
NOT RIGHT NOW: The Hunger Foundation of Southern Ocean’s annual Taste Dinner was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and this year the organization is doing a Taste Dinner raffle instead. (File Photo by Jack Reynolds)
by way of the “Bridge the Gap” community food drive, which began March 22 and ends April 30.
“At the beginning of all this, people were very generous, thinking this would be a short-term thing, but as we see now, the effects are becoming greater,” Reynolds said. “Our hands are tied because of the restrictions on gatherings and such, so we’re really having to reach out the community in different ways. We can’t have 250 people in one place, so we have to shift to some smaller or online events, which aren’t as effective.”
Fortunately, the Hunger Foundation also operates the community garden along Route 72 in Manahawkin – a “great, discreet way to get people some food, maybe a few tomatoes and cucumbers to go with dinner here and there,” Reynolds said.
“We know people are being as generous as possible,” she said. “We’re all in this together, and somehow we’ll get through it. We all just need to keep in mind that it’s always better, too, when many can give a little because it all adds up to something great.”
Interestingly, the Toy Run Foundation, also connected to St. Mary’s Parish, had little trouble with taking in donations for the annual Toy Run, despite multiple changes to the October event that serves as the foundation’s largest function of the year and brings its greatest number of donations.
“A lot of nonprofits have struggled, but the opposite has been true for us,” said Dennis Jarin, who along with his wife, Christina, has coordinated the Toy Run Foundation’s efforts for 21 years and annually provides gifts for hundreds of youngsters every Christmas. “We did three events, and all of them were great. I think, because of the pandemic, more people understood the need and were willing to be more generous last year. The number of toys and other gifts donated fulfilled the need, and we had a little left over that we can deliver to hospitals, once we’re allowed to do that.”
Jarin believes this year’s Toy Run events will bring in enough to fulfill whatever the need is this Christmas as well.
“I’m a man of faith, and I believe God gives us what we need,” he said. “God’s going to bring us through this pandemic stuff and give us exactly what’s needed to make everybody happy. I’m just going to be the steward to help gather and dispense those gifts.”
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
Almost from the beginning of the pandemic, the Joint Council of Taxpayers’ Associations of Long Beach Island established a fund to help those in need within their communities through individual donations as well as contributions from other taxpayer associations and the business community.
Recently, the JCTA unanimously approved an additional $1,500 contribution to the St. Francis Human Concerns Food Pantry for families impacted by the pandemic, according to its officials.
THE BEAT GOES ON: Despite the challenges of gathering during a pandemic, Alliance for a Living Ocean volunteers continued to execute beach cleanups on Long Beach Island last summer. (Supplied Photo)
“The St. Francis food pantry is currently feeding 60 families per week, and the need continues to grow,” JCTA officials said, noting to date the organization has been able to provide the pantry with 400 gift cards from a variety of grocery stores for a total of $10,000.
Helping others through food has been a common theme through the pandemic, and despite having to close its doors to its traditional fundraising ways in 2020, the Manahawkin Elks haven’t missed a beat supporting their community.
“All I had to do was send out an email and I got a response,” Bruno Czerwonka, exalted ruler of the lodge, said in a recent telephone interview about how the pandemic impacted nonprofits and fundraising efforts. “It was a beautiful thing to see. We had a lot of cooperation from other lodges.”
Individual members of the lodge donated 800 pounds of food for different organizations in the LBI region, including Ken’s Kitchen and St. Francis, he said. The Elks also worked with the Southern Regional School District and donated $10,000 while adjusting to the pandemic.
To keep social during the early days of COVID-19, lodge members shifted weekly dinners from in-person to drive-through.
“We were like McDonald’s,” Czerwonka said. “Most of the time, we sold out.”
The Elks are continuing with the take-out theme for their annual Fish Fry on April 2. The event, which funds the lodge’s summer camp for children with special needs, is funded solely through the donations of the community. “Capt. Pete keeps us pretty well supplied,” he said.
Last year, the annual event, held on Good Friday, was canceled. More than 1,000 dinners are generally served.
“It’s been a tough experience – a very humbling experience,” Czerwonka said.
Still Giving Back
In Tough Times
From a lack of qualified candidates to canceled fundraisers, it’s no secret 2020 was a hard year for volunteer emergency services personnel. Still, they have answered the call.
“We lost a sizable amount,” said Rick McDonough, president of the Ship Bottom Volunteer Fire Co. “There was a massive period of uncertainty. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Upward of 60% of the fire company’s operating budget comes from fundraising, he said. Donations from fundraising events, like the Summer Block Party
ALIVE AND KICKIN’: During a year in which it had to cancel many of its fundraising events, the Ship Bottom Volunteer Fire Co. managed to salvage 2020 by raising some money during its Christmas tree sale. (File Photo by Jack Reynolds)
and selling T-shirts at the Thursday night summer concert series, declined by 42% in the spring of last year, he said. In total, the 2020 fundraising was down by about 60%.
“There were Thursday nights when we made a couple of hundred dollars, but it adds up,” McDonough said, adding the loss was more than just financial. “We lost our connection with the community because we weren’t out there (selling shirts).”
Nonetheless, the fire company found new ways to stay connected with the community, including a stronger online presence and offering its spring fundraising event online. Anyone can contribute through the fire company website. Fire officials are also working out fulfillment details to sell T-shirts on its website. The biggest obstacle is the cost of shipping.
Luckily, the fire company was able to hold its annual Christmas tree sale. In less than a week, the trees were sold out.
“We had a very strong tree sale, really strong,” he said, noting the tree sale and donations from some key donors, not related to the pandemic, helped the fire company recover.
McDonough said the fire company was also reimbursed for expenses sustained as a result of Superstorm Sandy.
“2013 until spring 2021, that’s a long time,” he said, explaining there was no net gain because the fire company had to borrow money after Sandy, but it was able to pay back loans and save some money on interest. “The money was due to us anyway.”
As of now, the fire company is having its summer block party, according to McDonough.
“With modification. We’ll wait and see what the guidelines are,” he said, “and we will know more once things get closer to the event. We will have fun and connect with the community.”
For the second consecutive year, the pandemic has prompted the cancellation of the Get LBI Running 5K event, which benefits the Surf City Volunteer Fire Co. and EMS.
“We made this decision in the best interest for the health and well-being of our participants,” event organizers said. “This event was a major fundraiser for the SCFD. As most fundraisers have been canceled, the SCFD has seen reduced revenues. These revenues provide for the equipment and supplies needed to respond to emergencies.”
In the early days of the pandemic, the goal was to make it through to the summer when being outdoors was almost a given to anyone looking to escape the confines of being home-bound. What better place than a barrier island? There would be changes, of this there was no doubt.
PEACEFUL PLACE: While many stayed away from public places last year, historic Tuckerton Seaport welcomed visitors for safe, self-guided walking tours and socially distanced boat tours. (Supplied photo)
“It was a learning experience,” Kyle Gronostajski, executive director of Alliance for a Living Ocean, said during a recent Zoom interview. “We came out better” and will keep some of the things learned during the year of the pandemic.
Things like registering for events ahead of time, instead of individuals just showing up to participate. It helped set expectations for everyone, and volunteers ended up with more one-on-one time, he said. They also donated online for the event, which wasn’t always the case when it was general admission to an event.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Gronostajski said of improving donor management. “We needed to do it anyway, and we’re going to keep doing it.”
Finances aside, the pandemic also drew new people to ALO throughout the year because something that was almost exclusively geared for summer participants suddenly was virtual.
“Meetings were unattainable” because of the restrictions of the pandemic, according to Casey Deacon, ALO president. “This moved us to a virtual space.”
In that space, the organization, founded in 1987 to combat ocean dumping, breathed fresh air into ideas and goals. It came with new members, some local and some from farther away, who were able to participate all year because of the online presence.
“We reached more people through social media. It expanded our reach,” Deacon said, “and broadened our connection with the community.”
Throughout 2020, people were looking for things to do that would take them outside. So, the virtual beach cleanup was a great way for them to be outdoors, as a family or even individuals, and be part of something that benefited the environment, she said.
The ALO LBI Longboard Classic, the organization’s largest fundraising event, benefited from the pandemic with new ideas from new members.
“We had to strike a balance with pleasing people so their children could be included (in events),” Deacon said of making volunteers comfortable to participate.
About half of the participants were scared, even though all of the events were outdoors, and the other side didn’t believe in wearing masks.
“The real challenge was how to make it work for everybody. Toward the end, we got it right,” Deacon said. “We were adjusting to the moment. No one had ever done this before.”
Complicating matters a little was the suddenness of a summer season.
“There was a real possibility we were not going to have summer,” Gronostajski said, recalling last spring when COVID cases were peaking. “We were planning not to have anything, but summer rolled around, and it was relatively normal, especially on LBI.”
In the end, though, the pandemic “gave us time to slow down. This is the time of year we would start planning for summer and before we would know it, summer was over. We’ve had time to look at our priorities and see where we need to work on, internally,” he said. “Most nonprofits didn’t have the same experience as ours.”
The Art of Reinvention
When the first stay-at-home order was issued last March, “all operations came to an immediate halt,” said Brooke Salvanto, Tuckerton Seaport and Baymen’s Museum executive director. “For the first two weeks, we sat tight while we hoped this nearly unprecedented public health emergency would pass quickly.”
The same week, David Caldarella of David’s Dream and Believe Cancer Foundation was at a meet-and-greet event in Bergen County. “I told Dani (Corso) and Michelle (Phillip), our office manager, not to come up,” he said. “We had 40 people, and we expected about 100.”
A week later, an event which expected as many as 200 people was canceled. “It came for us right at the peak of a lot of things going on,” he said, adding the last major event for the foundation was the 2019 LBI Summer Soirée.
Shifting to survival mode, the board placed Caldarella on unemployment to make sure there would still be funds for patients. Phillip’s hours were reduced, but she continued to answer phone calls from home, he said.
Equity Prime Mortgage donated $25 of every closed loan, but when the pandemic hit, the company quadrupled the donation to $100. “If you qualify it out over the year, it ends up being around a quarter of a million dollars, just from them, this year alone,” Caldarella said.
Even with the amount of giving through its partnerships, the foundation still experienced a 50% decline. Fortunately, in April 2020, the foundation qualified for the Paycheck Protection Program loan.
If not for the federal loan, and Equity quadrupling its donation, “the doors would be closed,” Caldarella said. “We wouldn’t be talking to you. We wouldn’t be helping patients.”
Corso said at the end of the day it comes down to the foundation being able to answer patient applications. “Answering those was a much greater priority.”
Caldarella said the foundation helped about 240 people “with around a quarter of a million dollars – without a major event!”
“That’s our community stepping up to help each other in the worst of times,” Corso said. “People who have invested themselves to help us make the difference of a lifetime for those who are not only facing the pandemic, but a cancer diagnosis.”
The only in-person event to be held since 2019 was Jetty’s Coquina Jam. Jetty has always been a major contributor to the foundation.
“It was both of our 10-year anniversaries, and we split those funds,” Corso said. “Half went to us and half went to Jetty Rock Foundation,” but most importantly, “all went to cancer patients.”
While the cancer foundation is hopeful small-scale events for summer or fall can go ahead, Caldarella said, “It’s still very much a wait-and-see.”
Still, they were able to safely engage with the community via Sing for Hope, a livestream concert which highlighted a different local musician each week. All the money went directly to cancer patients.
“Sing for Hope was more to provide an outlet and to highlight some of our amazing talent,” Corso said. “Not huge as far as money is concerned, but every dollar counts, and it allowed us to engage our community in a way we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. It brought a different sense of normalcy.”
That sense of normalcy extended to local artists, many of whom have struggled throughout the pandemic.
“If we can give them a platform, that means something for us,” Corso said. “And we are super appreciative that they are willing and able to donate their time. It’s not easy for them to do right now, and that investment, for us, is invaluable.”
Sing for Hope is likely to continue post-pandemic.
Local musicians also made a difference at the Tuckerton Seaport, organizing a livestream benefit concert that brought in much-needed funds.
In 2020, 724 families renewed their membership without knowing when the museum would fully open again. When quarantine periods were lifted, the Seaport was the first place many individuals and families felt safe visiting, according to Salvanto.
In addition to monetary support, she said donations often show up on the doorstep in the form of paint, tools and cleaning supplies. “We put all of those to good use.”
Without the ability to host large-scale fundraisers, the Seaport saw a 25% drop in funds last year, she added. What it gained was the knowledge to design programs that are “cancel-proof” so the community has something to reliably look forward to attending.
“We designed a socially distanced Easter egg hunt, so that it will not need to be canceled regardless of the curve,” she explained. “Participants will stay in their cars at all times.”
The event booked out within 24 hours. “Our approach from here on out will be playing it extra safe,” she said, adding there are plenty of cancel-proof events happening all year, including Tuckerton Creek tours, which launch Mother’s Day weekend and continue through the fall with a capacity limit of 10 guests. The LBI ferry will run from July 4th weekend through Labor Day.
“Tuckerton Seaport began as, and continues to thrive as, a grassroots effort. While the pandemic has changed how we do things, it has not changed the value of what we do,” Salvanto said on how the pandemic presented an opportunity for the Seaport to continue to connect its neighbors. “When you are ready to return, we will be ready to welcome you back.”
— Gina Scala, Monique Demopoulos and David Biggy