East Brunswick Human Relations Council highlights residents’ volunteer work during COVID-19 crisis

VASHTI HARRIS/STAFF

EAST BRUNSWICK–Showcasing stories of volunteerism throughout the township, the East Brunswick Human Relations Council (EBHRC) held a “Unity in the Community” event via Facebook Live.

As part of the EBHRC’s Coffee and Conversation series, four panelists shared their stories on April 14 about how they are helping the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Panelists included Aldersgate Outreach Community Center Executive Director Diane Hutchins, Brunswick Memorial Home co-owner Michael Kulbacki, EBHRC member Frank Shen and Islamic Center of East Brunswick member Mohammed Hashmi.

Handing the virtual microphone over to Hutchins, EBHRC member Hollie Cerame said even before the COVID-19 crisis, the community center’s food pantry was one of the few pantries that served the community on a weekly basis.

“Unlike most other pantries now they had to completely adapt how it serves the community in order to remain open,” Cerame said.

In light of the ongoing crisis, Hutchins said the center closed its thrift shop and clothing area but wanted to keep the pantry open.

“Some of our board members got together. The overall consensus was that we need to continue to meet the food needs of East Brunswick and the surrounding communities. So how did we do it?” Hutchins said. “Staffing, of course, was our first concern. We are an all-volunteer ministry of Aldersgate United Methodist Church, but our volunteers are from not only Aldersgate, but a number of other churches, and then from the community at large.”

Hutchins said the center decided to have two sets of volunteers. One would be its frontline volunteers who would be actually interacting with the clients. Its secondary volunteers do the work like packing bags, picking up food from Shoprite or Stop and Shop, and/or making food.

The secondary volunteer group does not have any direct interrelationships with the clients on the days the pantry is open, Hutchins said.

Taking certain health risks by interacting with locals all over the county, Hutchins said the center asks its volunteers to be safe and stay healthy.

“We do take lots of precautions. We have masks, we have gloves, we disinfect our work areas and we try to make sure that everything is clean. We have a very small pantry. It’s very cramped,” Hutchins said. “So one of our first objectives was, this is not going to work, because we would just be on top of each other and that would be dangerous for the clients and for us. So we decided that we would move outside and so we have erected a couple of canopies. We have put all of the food items that we don’t put in the bags.”

Hutchins said the pantry is open every week on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday from 1-3 p.m. at 562 Ryders Lane.

“We have, I guess you want to call, a sneeze guard that we’ve put in place where clients check in,” Hutchins said. “Then they can select certain choice items, but from a distance, and our volunteers put them in a bag and then they put the bag on a separate bench that the folks can then pick the bags up to be able to take them in to leave. So that’s been working very well.”

Having partnered with Hall’s Corner Senior Housing, Hutchins said the pantry is going to continue the monthly distribution; however, volunteers will rarely have contact with the residents, but the pantry will be able to continue to provide food to them.

Hutchins said they were expecting to provide food to approximately 90 residents as of April 20.

“Another question is what can you do for us? You can simply pray that our volunteers and our clients that we serve remain healthy and that we can continue to provide the services that we do provide. You can make food or monetary donations,” Hutchins said.

Kulbacki said at this time, the funeral home has set up a group of volunteers who are willing to go shopping and do errands for the people who are at risk.

“Yeah, as you can imagine, it’s an interesting time for us at the funeral home, trying to provide some semblance of normalcy, especially to families that haven’t been able to see their loved ones in several weeks,” Kulbacki said. “You know, with hospitals being on lockdown, nursing homes being on lockdown, who never got a chance to say goodbye, we’re trying to provide that opportunity.”

When lunchtime rolls around, Kulbacki said he and his staff make a point to order food from the local restaurants in town to show their support.

One of the biggest things that his company has done, Kulbacki said, is it has put together a volunteer matching program.

“We created a website that has been posted to Facebook where people are able to sign up within the township that are able to offer services, whether it’s a ride to the grocery store, whether it’s going to pick up groceries or going to the drugstore,” Kulbacki said. “As this drags on where people don’t have access to the normal facilities … or for those that just don’t feel comfortable going outside because they’re high risk, they’re able to go in there and sit and say exactly what they need.”

At the same time, Kulbacki said other members of the community are able to go the website and volunteer to help, whether they’re able to offer a ride or pick up groceries, and they’ve had people who are spiritual advisors who are willing to pick up the phone and chat with people who need it.

“One of the really nice things is we have about 40 to 50 responses so far people all around town,” Kulbacki said. “So as people have filled out the form and requested help, in most cases we’ve been able to pair them with somebody that may only live two or three blocks away.”

After learning about COVID-19’s impact on local medical facilities and residents, East Brunswick Chinese American community member Frank Shen said in mid-March several residents from the Chinese American community started a fundraiser to raise money to buy medical supplies for medical professionals and gift cards to help those in need of groceries.

“We had the same vision, basically strongly believe the East Brunswick Chinese American community, how to contribute as much as we can and we had the very first conference call on the night of March 16. After that, we quickly established a separate PayPal account and posted our petition in several chat groups and asked the Chinese community to stand up and help our own town, East Brunswick.”

From March 17 to April 14, Shen said the group was able to raise $18,755, which was used to purchase gift cards and medical masks that include: 16,000 surgical masks; 80 3M medical N95 masks; 1,000 medical KN95; and $2,500 in Shop Rite, Stop and Shop, Aldi gift cards.

Shen said the group also delivered 400 travel-sized hand sanitizers and gift cards to residents.

Islamic Center of East Brunswick member Mohammed Hashmi said the center has put together a team of volunteers who help residents who are in need, whether with their personal needs, picking up prescriptions or medicine, getting a ride, or getting help with groceries.

Once a resident emails the center for assistance, Hashmi said he or she will be put in touch with a volunteer based on their location.

Hashmi said the center also started a GoFundMe page where donations will be distributed to the township, local registered charities, and/or families from the community in need of financial assistance.

“We are trying to cater to all those needs. We are reaching out actively to our neighbors … myself included and all the community members in [the] Muslim organization have been advised to reach out to the neighbors proactively and see if they are in need of any of the services that we are happy to provide,” Hashmi said.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermeidagroup.com.