To say that RISE has risen to the occasion, as the social service agency’s name suggests, would be an understatement – whether it is giving out more backpacks to students, or more food to their families.
Much of the increase in demand for help from RISE has predictably been driven by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to RISE officials. The nonprofit social services agency helps people in Hightstown Borough and East Windsor Township.
RISE has always provided backpacks full of school supplies for schoolchildren, but the demand for those backpacks more than quadrupled, from 388 backpacks in 2020 to nearly 1,300 backpacks this year, said Leslie Koppel, the executive director of RISE.
More than 1,000 children took part in RISE’s holiday gift program, as compared to 811 children who received gifts through the agency in 2020, Koppel said.
But perhaps one of the most significant changes at RISE has been the demand for food assistance over the past year, she said. The RISE pantry has experienced a 350% increase in the number of clients who need food assistance.
RISE distributed more than 160,000 bags of food in 2021, Koppel said. Each week, about 400 families visited the RISE pantry – and nearly half of those families included people who had jobs, but who still needed pantry supplies to provide for their families, she said.
And since April 2020, RISE has staged a dozen drive-through food pantry events that averaged about 1,200 participants each, Koppel said. Fresh food is expensive, and often beyond the budget of workers who hold lower-wage jobs, she said.
“Families who never needed help before have turned to RISE for support with essential services for the first time because of COVID, and many continue to need help. We are assisting people who used to be donors and who are now clients,” Koppel said.
“We are seeing increased needs of working families who need help with basic supplies of fresh produce, diapers, cleaning supplies and personal care items to help them make ends meet,” she said.
But RISE isn’t just about backpacks and holiday gifts for children, or the food pantry for their parents. It’s also about helping new resident to learn to speak English and providing the traditional social services that are needed by the community.
One of the most popular programs is the English Language Learner classes for adults, Koppel said. The ELL classes are offered at two levels of proficiency, and both have waiting lists to attend, she said.
The program, which was started in 2019, has graduated 70 people, and 135 students are currently attending night classes.
In addition to expanding its pantry, RISE also launched a new initiative in 2021 – “uRise, Your Local Connection to Learning, Community and Care.” The online initiative, which is available at urise.njrise.org, has a jobs posting board and can link visitors with academic enrichment and tutoring and other resources.
With all of that said, according to Koppel, RISE anticipates that the community will continue to turn to it for help in 2022 – even more so than in 2020 and 2021, because of the new COVID variant and economic uncertainty.
“Thankfully, with local generosity and hardy and hearty volunteers, RISE will be here to continue to meet the growing needs of our neighbors and work to build a more supportive environment for all,” Koppel said.