By David Karas | Correspondent
“Nobody said it would be easy out here, but nobody said it would be like this,” said Kimyata Thompson. “It’s hard out here.”
Thompson was one of many standing in line on a cold Monday morning in the parking lot of the Mount Carmel Guild of Trenton, waiting to receive the fixings for a Thanksgiving dinner that will give her family the opportunity to forget about their dire financial challenges, at least for one day.
“It’s a blessing,” she said as a smile came to her face.
The guild, a diocesan nonprofit located in the heart of Trenton, embarks on a Thanksgiving meal distribution project each year, with the goal of ensuring that even those most in need have the opportunity to celebrate a holiday that, at its core, is meant to celebrate an abundance of food; a holiday that is all too often taken for granted. Each meal package includes everything from a turkey to stuffing, dessert to fresh produce. It’s estimated that some 1,800 families received Thanksgiving meals this year.
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“Especially with food costs going up, it’s an extra expense that we can cover for them,” said guild caseworker Emily Kettner. “They can say, ‘We do Thanksgiving like anyone else.’ There is dignity in that.”
While the guild prepared roughly 1,000 Thanksgiving meal bags last year, the increased need created in the economic downturn prompted organizers to increase that same number to close to 1,800.
“We’re at about a 50 percent increase,” she said, discussing the number of clients who visit Mount Carmel Guild daily for food and other emergency assistance. “We’ve seen an increase.”
Kettner said that hikes in the cost of living, unaccompanied by increases in public support programming, essentially equates to a perennial pay cut for patrons who are already “one check away” from winding up on the streets.
And the increased need has come with an added dilemma that has long confronted those in the nonprofit industry – making sure to evenly distribute resources to all of the agency’s clients.
“You want to just be able to open the pantry door (to clients with severe need),” she said. “But you know in five minutes there will be someone else who had an equal or greater need. It’s tough.”
Marie Gladney, Mount Carmel Guild’s executive director, said that the agency’s caseload has been steadily increasing. While the agency served 15,700 individuals last year, including some repeat clients who come once per month, her projections indicate that the same figure will likely reach 17,000 by January.
“We are just servicing a need, and that need is extremely critical,” she said.
She said that in all likelihood, it will take between three and five years for the current clients most in need to bounce back from the economic recession, especially as job growth continues at a slow pace.
Daughter of Charity Sister Joanne Dress, diocesan executive director for Catholic Social Services, said that agencies like the guild have been hard hit by the recession.
“Shelves are empty in many places throughout the diocese,” she said. “It’s a year-round issue.”
And while competition for grants is getting tighter and government funding is being cut left and right, Sister Joanne says that the generosity of individuals has helped the agencies pull through.
“I think when they sit down for their Thanksgiving dinner they want to be sure they have given to others,” she said. “We just continue to do what we can.”
Dominican Sister Loretta Maggio, director of the emergency assistance program at the guild, said that a new type of clientele is also beginning to appear.
“What we have seen is people who really had not had to come to food pantries are now coming,” she said.
Take Marre Morose for instance. With the evaporation of her successful career in Florida, she moved to the Trenton area. She now visits the guild on a regular basis for emergency assistance.
“We all need help, especially these days,” she said. “They help me a lot.”
Trustee and caseworker Anne Casale, who works with clients to evaluate need and dispense emergency and food assistance, said that times have been tough for the small nonprofit.
“Based on the economy, the need has increased,” she said. “There are times when our shelves do run a little low on food, but we have been blessed at the guild to have so many generous supporters.”
Gladney echoed her sentiments, citing the dedicated and continuing support from Catholic parishes and other faith-based communities across the diocese.
“If we didn’t have those individuals going to their respective houses of worship…in these lean times we would not be able to serve,” she said. “Without the churches’ support, we would be in serious trouble.”
The day before the distribution, well over 75 volunteers from local parishes, colleges and community organizations arrived en masse to take on the daunting task of organizing several months’ worth of donations and assembling the meal packages.
Kayla Simpkins, a sophomore at The College of New Jersey, Ewing, was one of those volunteers. She is also a member of the TCNJ Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement, and was helping to lead a group of just over 15 first-year students to assist in the project.
“I came last year and I had a really great time,” she said. “I definitely wanted to come back.”
As a Bonner Community Scholar, Simpkins completes 300 hours of service work each academic year in exchange for scholarship support. While her typical service work revolves around building homes for the needy and tutoring at a local high school and inside of a local prison, she enjoyed the chance to address the local issue of hunger.
“Especially since it is the holiday season, you want to help out a little more,” she said.
There was also a large contingent from the TCNJ, Rider and Princeton Catholic campus ministries, whose members turned out on the Sunday morning to help those most in need.
For TCNJ freshman Amanda Banas, service was a staple in her high school career, and so visiting the Guild was a natural fit.
Also among the volunteers was Brian Duff, a trustee of the Guild, who brought along his wife and children for the fifth year straight.
His wife, Judy, said that exposing their children to the issues of hunger and poverty – especially at a young age – is important for them.
“I think it makes the kids realize how blessed they are,” she said. “It helps them realize how good they have it.”
Their son, Nate, who is seven, was working on a large pile of green beans after tackling some canned goods.
“We’re helping the people who do not have food for themselves,” he said. “Some people don’t have enough money to put food on the table, so they come here. I feel like staying and helping.”
Duff said that the close proximity of extreme poverty to their Lawrence home is a notable thing. He also said that the turnout of so many young, local volunteers was heartwarming.
“Some students probably had the opportunity to get out of town, but they chose to be here on a Sunday morning,” he said.
And their efforts on Sunday left a lasting impression among those who needed their help.
Thompson, while standing in line for her turkey dinner, spoke about the need to further educate and inform citizens on the great social concerns of their very own communities, not the least of which is hunger and poverty.
“There are so many people who really don’t understand,” she said.
She was standing with a friend and fellow Trenton resident, Jacqueline McRae.
McRae said that financial constraints have diminished even educational offerings in city public schools, even lessening the bents of pricey after school programs. Mount Carmel Guild, she said, is a beam of light on an otherwise bleak horizon.
“If it weren’t for programs like this,” she said, “there would be a lot of starving people.”
For Ewing resident Leon Foster, finding a job is by far one of the most difficult challenges around these days. In the past, he said, being low on funding would typically lead to another member of the family getting a job, or perhaps even a second job.
But in the current economy, there are simply no jobs available. While the Thanksgiving dinner from the Guild will not be the panacea for his household income troubles, Foster said it still means a lot.
“If it wasn’t for this we wouldn’t have a great meal,” he said. “We will have a good Thanksgiving this year, and hopefully next year things get better.”
For more information on the Mount Carmel Guild of Trenton, and to seek assistance or offer support, contact (609) 392-5159 or visit www.mcgtrenton.org.