Helping out at the Community Food Bank of New Jersey

Building homes, volunteering at a food bank and reflecting on the Freedom Summer of 1964.

January 2017 – At Drew University, the national holiday celebrating the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a time to discuss civil rights and a new community action effort. The next day, however, was all about service.

Students, professors and staffers helped build homes, boxed groceries at a food bank, prepared soup packages at a food pantry, tidied a thrift store and packaged toiletries for the needy. They also created mini-books and decorated pillowcases for children. In short, they helped others on the last day before the start of the spring semester, getting a real-world education in public service.

As Amy Koritz, director of Drew’s Center for Civic Engagement saw it, the volunteer work on and off campus was the “perfect way to recognize and celebrate the legacy of Dr. King.”

Also, going forward, a series of Drew Freedom School workshops—as unveiled on Martin Luther King Jr. Day during the civil rights discussion and a screening of the documentary Freedom Summer—will train students, professors and staffers in the finer points of activism.

unnamedHome construction

In Dover, nine students and a staffer did interior work on a handful of homes that Morris Habitat for Humanity is building for low- and middle-income families. Some painted staircases, while others checked beams to make sure they were properly installed. Still others swept clean a home for a fire safety inspection.

Construction of the two-story houses began last spring and is expected to be completed in June, with the help of contractors, volunteers and the families that will live in them, according to John Martin, a project manager at Morris Habitat. The “sweat equity” of each family amounts to 300 to 400 hours of work.

One house is for a single mother with two teenage daughters who wanted to stay in the local school district. More broadly, Martin described the preselected homeowners as “working families that are struggling to make it,” adding, “It’s not a handout, it’s a hand up.”

foodbankFeeding food pantries

At the Community Food Bank of New Jersey in Hillside, 35 volunteers from Drew sorted and boxed groceries bound for food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters. The groceries included canned foods, pasta, cereal, baby food and cleaning products. Students also bundled bottles of toiletries for distribution to individuals.

Community is the largest food bank in the state, distributing some 44 million pounds of groceries annually to 1,400 organizations in 17 counties.

Some of the work seemed tedious, but students nonetheless embraced the opportunity to “freely give,” as Drew’s motto states.

Senior Marley Crank was a ringer of sorts, having previously volunteered at the Interfaith Food Pantry in Morris Plains and pantries in Washington, D.C. during winter break. She’s also part of the University’s Anti-Hunger Action Team. “The day of service is a really incredible thing,” said Crank, a Civic Scholar majoring in international relations and Spanish. “I was really eager to participate.”

Another Civic Scholar, sophomore João Pedro Pinheiro, described the two hours of work as a “win-win situation: I’m helping others, and helping others makes me feel good in return.”

LD_011717_MLK_MarketStreetMission_0143Re-sale anyone?

In Morristown, a dozen students sorted and displayed shoes and ceramics and tidied the aisles at the Market Street Mission Thrift Store. The store sells everything from clothes and furniture to dishes and small appliances, offering bargains on otherwise expensive goods.

Back on campus, students knitted scarves for the homeless and stuffed socks with toiletries for the Community Soup Kitchen and Outreach Center of Morristown. The scene at the Ehringer Center was busy but convivial, with participants chatting animatedly while they worked. Other tasks included making backpacks for refugee families and gathering books for at-risk youth. The work was sponsored by the Center for Civic Engagement, Volunteer Resource Center, President’s Office, Drew Staff Association, Drew Student Government and the Center for Religion, Culture and Conflict.

The EC activity came a day after nearly 100 attended a screening of Freedom Summer, a PBS documentary about the 1964 drive to register voters and educate children in Mississippi. Afterward, they broke into smaller groups to discuss the prominent role of students in that drive. One of the organizers, Associate Professor of Sociology Kesha Moore, hopes that history will inspire the future.

Ideally, she said, students will “reflect on the significance of the thousands of college students and community organizers who courageously fought to protect the rights of the most marginalized in our society and bring our country to a more just and democratic nation and honor that legacy by committing ourselves to continue the work through the Drew Freedom School initiative.”

The initiative will explore larger societal issues in a workshop setting. With help from outside facilitators, participants will learn how to turn knowledge into community action. It starts Jan. 26 with Candace Simpson of the Concord Freedom School in Brooklyn. The session will take place at Craig Chapel, beginning at 6 p.m.

Here’s a closer look at the two days honoring King: