By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer
Mandy Holanda knows what it is like to live in a motel, and it is not fun.
There is no bedroom that you can call your own, or a living room or a kitchen.
“Growing up, there were times when my parents were going through hard times and we were getting help from the government. Losing a home and having to live in a motel is scary,” said Holanda, who lives in Montgomery Township.
Holanda has vivid memories of those days, and that’s why she volunteers at HomeFront. The Lawrence Township-based nonprofit organization helps the homeless and the working poor.
In the two years that Holanda has been volunteering at HomeFront, she has helped to set up a medical clinic. She also helped to create an exercise program for the clients who live at HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center in Hopewell Township.
The Family Preservation Center, which is located near the Mercer County Airport, provides housing for 38 families. It gives them access to childcare, job training and other services to help them get back on their feet.
Holanda worked as a nurse in an outpatient facility, but stopped working to raise a family. After her daughters grew older – ages 24, 23 and 17 – she decided she wanted to find a way to contribute to society.
“I was trying to find somewhere that I could help make a difference,” Holanda said. She began by volunteering at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. While making sure that no one was going hungry was personally satisfying, she felt the need to do something more.
But it was only after making several trips to HomeFront’s warehouse in Lawrence Township to donate unneeded household items that Holanda discovered HomeFront – and a way for her to meet the need to contribute.
The Montgomery Township resident toured HomeFront’s headquarters, and was shown the warehouse chock full of furniture and household goods. She also toured the food pantry, whose shelves are not always full.
Since it was around Thanksgiving, Holanda put out a call to her friends to fill baskets for the holiday – and to her surprise, she was able to fill 28 Thanksgiving baskets so 28 families could enjoy a holiday meal.
“I thought that was fantastic,” Holanda said. The next step was to ask her friends to help provide toys and games for HomeFront clients’ Christmas celebration – which they did.
Holanda was hooked.
Using her nursing background, Holanda helped to start the health clinic at the Family Preservation Center. She soon began to talk to the women about nutrition – which foods are good and which ones are not – and nutrition’s impact on health.
“Then I thought, ‘What if I start an exercise class?’ I thought they needed to learn how the body works,” Holanda said. And HomeFront’s weekly exercise class was born.
The exercise routine varies, according to the participants’ age, she said. They do a little stretching and then work out with weights to the best of their ability. They also do some dancing, and wrap up the session with meditation.
“At first, they were a little embarrassed. I joke with them, and we do fun things in a group. I absolutely love it. I seem them smiling, and it takes them away from their struggles. They can have some laughter for an hour,” Holanda said.
Drawing on her own family’s struggle when she was young, Holanda said, she can relate to the women. They seem to sense that they have someone they can trust in “Miss Mandy,” as they refer to her.
Holanda said she sees the women making progress – from the day they arrive at the Family Preservation Center to the day that they leave it. Sometimes, they come in broken, but they leave with a sense of hope and faith that everything is going to be okay, she said.
“I tell them it will get better. If you put in as much as you can to change your situation, it will happen. There are people out there willing to help them, and that’s what HomeFront is all about,” Holanda said.
For more information about HomeFront, visit www.homefrontnj.org.
By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer