Volunteering During A Pandemic: How to Help Your Community Safely

Geralyn Fraggetta-Drury, Director of Freehold Area Open Door, works in the pantry. (Photo courtesy Freehold Area Open Door)

  JERSEY SHORE – During the holiday season, many people strive to donate to others less fortunate or volunteer at pantries where you can help serve a Christmas meal to someone. Yet, with the ongoing pandemic due to COVID-19, there has been a higher need of donations across the board. So how can one volunteer and help donate in a safe manner?

  Fulfill, the FoodBank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, has been seeing the demand for food rising during the coronavirus crisis as soup kitchens and schools are closing. According to Fulfill, they have seen a 40 percent increase in the demand for food since the start of the pandemic. The increase remains steady.

  Feeding America estimates the number of New Jersey residents struggling to put food on the table will climb to 56 percent within the coming months and the number of food-insecure children is expected to grow even more, by 75 percent.

  “The cost of food has gone up exponentially since the start of the pandemic. A year ago, we paid $22,000 for a tractor trailer load of canned vegetables. Today, we’re paying $69,000,” Fulfill CEO and President Kim Guadagno stated. “Pre-pandemic, Fulfill was feeding 136,000 people, including 50,000 children. Today, we are feeding 215,000 people, including 70,000 children.”

  Fulfill is partnered with over 250 food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, day programs, group homes, and more. They’ve served 2.8 million more meals this year than they did the same period last year due to COVID-19.

Volunteers sort and deliver bags of groceries and other necessities for those in need at the Jersey Shore. (Photo courtesy Freehold Area Open Door)

  The Freehold Area Open Door is a non-profit associated with Fulfill that provides emergency food, emergency funding, mentoring, and scholarships to those in need. They offer four different programs: a Food Pantry Program, an Emergency Funding/Advocacy Program, an After School Program, and a Scholarship Program.

  “Because of the pandemic, we have seen a continuous stream of more people on our line,” said Geralyn Fraggetta-Drury, the Director of Freehold Area Open Door. “We did have a small drop before Thanksgiving and it is now picking up again. If we face another closure, we can expect to serve 250 to 300 people in under two hours.”

  In 2019, they served 363 families for Thanksgiving with dinner boxes and turkeys or hams and this year they served 539 families. Each month they are seeing well over 1,000 people.

  With the overwhelming number of people increasing, volunteers are highly needed during this time.

  “Volunteering is hard. We have been operating with a skeleton crew with safety measures in place,” Geralyn said. “There are lots of things that volunteers can do to help us while remaining safe. We need drivers to pick up our area store donations, we offer no contact delivery for our seniors and homebound clients.”

  “If individuals don’t want to volunteer in-person, there is always a ‘most needed’ list for the pantry and that will help us fill in the holes in our pantry.”

  Amanda Mehrman from Just Believe Inc. expressed the struggles the organization went through during the pandemic.

  “In the beginning we took quick action to bring food and basic essentials to not only the homeless community, but those in motel settings and our elderly community,” Amanda said. “When the state first shut down… churches and pantries, many had nowhere to go to receive food.”

Erika Woods, Director of the Advocacy Program of Freehold Area Open Door, works with Director Geralyn Fraggetta-Drury. (Photo courtesy Freehold Area Open Door)

  Just Believe Inc., a non-profit based in Toms River but helps across the county, is dedicated to supplying basic and immediate needs to the local disenfranchised and homeless community. Their mission is to help individual progress from homelessness to contributing members of society. They do so through outreach warming centers, affordable housing advocacy, and working with local programs and organizations that assist people in leading self-sustaining lives. Just Believe Inc. provides the proper supporting resources needed to bring hope and success to those in helpless situations.

  “We collaborated with a group of volunteers to go out into the community with bagged meals, delivered to motels in the area and went shopping for the elderly so they could stay home,” Mehrman said. “We were the first responders so to say. The community has since developed a system of getting people food with Peoples Pantry open five days a week, the schools handing out free lunch, and food distribution locations spread in the area.”

  Mehrman stated if anyone is looking to volunteer they can email her at: amanda@justbelieveinc.org and fill out one of their volunteer packets. Due to COVID-19 and CDC guidelines, they are limited to how many volunteers they can have in their Riverwood code blue center and boutique, but they do still have a need.

  If anyone wishes to donate monetarily they can go to their website at justbelieveinc.org. Individuals can also drop off donations for the Thrift store at the Boutique located at 734 Route 37 West suite #5, Toms River, NJ 08755. There are beige bins located at Riverwood Park Recreation Center; 250 Riverwood Dr, Toms River where you can leave clothing donations for them to hand out to their guests at the Code Blue Warming Center.

  “We understand there are many who still feel that it is unsafe to volunteer in public places and we have several dedicated volunteers who are “sitting out” this year due to various health issues that leave them among the most vulnerable during this pandemic,” Amanda said. “However, the need to help the homeless and disenfranchised is still an issue in our community and the problem is growing larger each day with layoffs, shutdowns, and families being affected by the strain of our current world circumstances. One thing that is always needed in all circumstances is money. Whether it’s for security deposits, car insurance, phone cards, food, etc it all takes monetary donations to help others get over the hump and out of the hole they are in.”

Volunteers from Just Believe Inc. are visited by Congressman Andy Kim (D-3rd) at the shelter. (Photo courtesy Amanda Mehrman)

  The Human Concerns Food Pantry, located in the St. Francis Community Center in Long Beach Township, is another local pantry that is partnered with Fulfill. The organization uses their donation funds to purchase non-perishables, fresh produce, and meat from local grocery stores to give out to individuals in need. 

  “We believe the increase we’ve seen can be attributed to our reduced hours of availability, other food pantries have closed or reduced their hours, food pantries have struggled to receive food donations, and the increase in the unemployment rate in Ocean County,” Breanne (Gesicki) La Marco, the Program Director of Family Support Services at St. Francis said. 

  With the increase in visitors, the pantry is needing more donations. Donations can be dropped off at the Community Center in the Human Concerns Food Pantry any time Monday through Friday during regular business hours. If you have a large donation and need assistance, you can call to schedule a time to drop off at 609-494-8861 ext. 197.

  “If someone wants to help out in a safe manner, we always have an Amazon Wishlist where people can donate items we need like personal hygiene products and nonperishable food items,” Breanne stated.

  Anyone interested in donating can visit their website stfranciscenterlbi.org for the Amazon Wishlist link. You can also send a monetary donation via Paypal on their website or by mailing in cash or checks to: Human Concerns Food Pantry, 4700 Long Beach Blvd., Long Beach Twp., NJ 08008.