Like father, like son? For Pepper Evans and her daughter, Nelle Evans, it’s more like mother, like daughter, for both feel compelled to help other people – in this case, through HomeFront.
Nelle Evans has just completed a summer job working with HomeFront, delivering meals to homeless families in motels from Lawrence Township to Bordentown Township. The Lawrence Township-based nonprofit group helps the homeless and the working poor.
Her mother, Pepper Evans, has been involved with HomeFront since its earliest days nearly 30 years ago. It was known as the Exchange Club of Greater Princeton, and also delivered meals to homeless families in the motels.
Nelle initially became involved with meal delivery in the spring when she came home from Moravian College because of the COVID-19 pandemic. She began distributing food to eligible Trenton Public Schools families through the Capital Area YMCA, but when school lunches were no longer being provided and there was no need for deliveries, she turned her attention to HomeFront.
“I spoke to our family friend, Connie Mercer (the executive director of HomeFront). She explained that new families, many affected financially by COVID-19, were living in motels in my community of Lawrence. I drove past the motels regularly and I wanted to help. My summer jobs dried up and I needed summer work to pay for college,” Nelle said.
Meanwhile, Pepper Evans had worked alongside Mercer when the fledgling nonprofit group was getting under way. She had her own business, Pepper’s Pantry, in which she would prepare a week’s worth of dinners for two-career families, mostly of whom lived in Princeton.
Pepper’s Pantry flourished, but it left its owner feeling unfulfilled. She said she wanted to find a way to connect with people less fortunate than herself. Someone suggested that she should seek out Mercer, who was looking for volunteers to help her address the needs of the homeless families living in the motels along Route 1.
“I immediately admired Connie, and the thought of feeding the rich by day and the poor by night appealed to me. We were grassroots and all volunteer. We incorporated as the Exchange Club of Greater Princeton, with Connie as the executive director and me as the president,” Pepper Evans said.
The Exchange Club of Greater Princeton transitioned into HomeFront, which grew into a nonprofit group that offers an array of services aimed at helping the homeless – mostly single mothers – to get back on their feet.
“In the beginning, I organized and delivered meals. Working with the organization gave me the feeling that I was involved in a mission whose impact was great and most certainly was going to grow. Of course, that was all Connie. She always had the big picture – the vision,” Pepper Evans said.
So it was not a stretch for Nelle to be the type of person who wants to help others, following in her mother’s footsteps. Nevertheless, delivering meals to the homeless initially was not what she had in mind for a summer job.
“I never went to the motels, so I didn’t know what to expect delivering dinners to the motels, often after dark, in all kinds of weather. We started by loading up the van with meals prepared by local restaurants that needed to keep the staff working. We hit the motels from the Quaker Bridge Mall (in Lawrence) to Bordentown,” Nelle said.
“My mother has shared stories of her time with the Exchange Club – HomeFront – at its beginning, but it was definitely not what I was expecting,” she said of her own experiences delivering meals to homeless families.
While Nelle said she never imagined herself delivering meals, she said she can “absolutely” see herself working in communities with many needs. She said she hopes to help people find the resources to alleviate poverty, hunger and health and education issues.
Nelle, who is majoring in public health and Latin American studies at Moravian College, said she gets satisfaction from helping and working with others. She has made mission trips to Honduras to work alongside the Hondurans, pouring concrete and helping to build schools in impoverished, rural communities.
The desire to help grew out of the compassion in action that Nelle and her sister saw when their mother invited Fresh Air Fund children to spend the summer with them. The Evans family later accepted responsibility for a troubled teenager who lived with them for awhile.
“My daughters understood that through no fault of her own, this girl had no options,” Pepper Evans said.
Nelle said she has studied the impact of poverty, both in the United States and on a global scale. She has observed extreme poverty in her work and travels to Central America and South America. She would like to join the Peace Corps after college graduation so she can help others.
Sustainable changes will only come after changes in policy, Nelle said, but she felt fortunate this summer to be able to offer a hot meal and a smile to someone in unfortunate circumstances.
“My mother says no one can pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they have no boots,” Nelle said.
It is hard to comprehend the lack of a safety net for working parents in the United States, Nelle said. After a couple of weeks of unemployment, a hard-working family can find themselves out on the street. It should not be so challenging for families to recover, but many are vulnerable and lack support to regroup, she said.
“HomeFront is there to help,” Nelle said.
It’s a lesson the Evans family learned themselves when their husband and father died, leaving them with piles of medical bills and resultant hard times. They turned to Connie Mercer and HomeFront for help.
“Connie was one of the people there to help us. Even in dark days, I knew things could always be worse,” Pepper Evans said.
“Being a volunteer for a cause you believe in is the greatest way I know to remain grateful,” said Pepper Evans, who has stayed active with the HomeFront mission through serving on a board at the Lawrence Community Center.