HomeFront’s Family Campus, which is home to its Family Preservation Center, has been renamed the Connie Mercer Family Campus in honor of HomeFront’s founder and longtime chief executive officer.
The HomeFront Family Campus was officially renamed for Mercer, who founded the nonprofit group in 1991, at a ceremony at its campus on Scotch Road in Ewing Township Sept. 22.
The Family Preservation Center, which is the focal point at the campus, provides short-term housing and wraparound support services to mothers and their children who are experiencing homelessness.
The re-naming of the campus coincides with the 20th anniversary of the creation of the Family Preservation Center, which first opened its doors in a vacant dormitory at the state-owned Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf in 2003.
HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center moved to its Scotch Road campus in 2015.
Mercer thanked HomeFront’s board of directors for “this amazing honor.”
“It’s a wonderful, strange thing to see my name (on the building). Most of all, I am proud and honored,” she said.
Mercer said that when her son, Michael Myers, drives his children past the building, they will see her name. They will know that their grandmother is not “just an old lady who makes great pancakes,” she said.
There have been “many hands” involved in making the Family Preservation Center a reality and in continuing its mission of helping families find their footing, said Mercer, who retired as the CEO of the Lawrence Township-based nonprofit last year.
“HomeFront is about giving families a shot at a decent future. It tries hard to change the trajectory of their lives. It is a place of transformation. That’s what this campus is all about,” she said.
Mercer credited HomeFront’s board of directors for being “bold” to agree to her vision of providing temporary housing and wraparound services to its clients.
Those services include counseling, education, acquiring up-to-date job skills, learning how to cook healthy meals, how to set up a budget and how to raise young children – all under one roof.
HomeFront officials “fought long and hard” to create the Family Preservation Center. It has set the standard across New Jersey for what is expected of a shelter, Mercer said.
Mercer said one of the happiest moments in her life occurred when a new client walked into the Family Preservation Center, looked around and thanked Mercer for thinking that she was worthwhile.
“That got to my heart,” Mercer said.
Sarah Steward, who succeeded Mercer as HomeFront’s CEO, said “it’s a long journey” for clients before they arrive at HomeFront. Their arrival at the Family Preservation Center marks a turning point in their lives, she said.
While it has been a long journey to the Family Preservation Center for the families, it had been an equally long journey for HomeFront – from envisioning the center to making it come true.
HomeFront’s mission from the day of its founding more than 30 years ago was to help mothers and their children who had been placed in motels along Route 1 in Lawrence Township by welfare officials.
Mercer realized the families were facing many challenges and needed more than a warm, dry bed for a night or two. They needed help – earning a high school degree, acquiring job skills and learning how to raise young children.
Those services could not be provided to mothers and their children living in a motel room, so HomeFront officials began discussions with Mercer County and local officials about opening a family shelter.
Finding a place to open a family shelter was not easy. HomeFront officials faced issues of NIMBY-ism, Mercer said, explaining neighbors did not want a shelter to be opened near them.
Mercer noticed that many of the dormitories at the former state-owned Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Ewing Township were empty.
It occurred to Mercer that an empty dormitory could be transformed into housing for the families while HomeFront helped them to take their next step.
After lengthy negotiations, state officials agreed to rent a dormitory at the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf to HomeFront for its Family Preservation Center.
In March 2003, the first families moved into HomeFront’s new Family Preservation Center. It marked a milestone for the Lawrence Township-based nonprofit group.
But after several years, the State of New Jersey put the campus of the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf on the market for sale, so the search for a new home for the Family Preservation Center began again.
HomeFront officials zeroed in on the U.S. Marine Corps’ former Marine Reserve Center at 361 Scotch Road in Ewing Township as a potential site for the Family Preservation Center.
It took seven years, much wrangling and significant fund-raising for HomeFront to acquire the drab, industrial-looking building in 2014. Renovations took several months to complete.
Mercer credited Celia Bernstein, HomeFront’s former chief financial officer, with turning the bunkers into attractive, uplifting housing. She is now the CEO of Homes by TLC, which partners with HomeFront to provide housing for clients.
“Celia was truly responsible,” Mercer said.