One by one, residents of Cape May County lined up outside of Catholic Charities’ Rio Grande office on May 10. They had come to collect food provided by the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s mobile food pantry, which parks at the Catholic Charities location twice a month.
Distributing this food was a group of sophomores and juniors from Wildwood Catholic High School. Although they already completed their required service hours for the year, they had voluntarily returned for a second time to lend their hands to feed the hungry.
The students interacted comfortably with the diverse assembly of county residents, greeting each individual warmly and asking them how many family members they had in their household.
Answers varied greatly. “A 6-month-old, two children and my mother,” said one woman, shyly with her head bowed.
“It’s just me. No family members,” was a common answer among many of the recipients.
“Can I please just have one bag of egg noodles? They go with everything?” asked an elderly woman who limped her way down the line of tables. When a student encouraged her to take another couple of items, she smiled and replied, “No, no, give it to the lady behind me. She has children.”
No matter what the response, the students were eager to help. Said one of the sophomore students, “I can tell that a lot of these people feel embarrassed or bad for asking for food. I am trying to make them feel comfortable.”
Remarked Tonya Smith, the Mobile Food Pantry coordinator, “The students … they have been outstanding. As a Catholic and as a mother myself, I believe it’s important for them to engage first-hand with these individuals. They need to recognize them as their neighbors and as members of their community,” she said, watching one of the male students help an elderly man carry his bag of food.
Katie McCann, the religion teacher and director of Wildwood Catholic’s community outreach program, agreed. The students learn the importance of service and giving, she said, but it’s putting that faith and learning into action that is most important.
“We try to offer service opportunities like this, where the students can encounter and interact with people from many different backgrounds who are facing hardships that are likely foreign to these teens,” she said. “And it’s my hope that they carry their sense of compassion with them into adulthood.”
In a county ranked worst in the state for unemployment rates, and near worst for home foreclosures, the face of hunger in Cape May has many expressions.
According to Tonya Smith, “We see people from all walks of life. Some are homeless — living in the woods or living in hotels. Others are working three jobs but still struggling to get by and feed their children.”
One of the biggest barriers, she explained, is the lack of steady and consistent employment in the shore communities. Many people make significantly more money in the summer than the rest of the year, and making four months of income last year-round can be challenging, especially when they are faced with unexpected expenses like medical emergencies.
Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden uses events like food and clothing drives, that address immediate needs, to offer services that focus on long term stability and a path to self-sufficiency.
Explains Melissa Hruska, Catholic Charities’ Regional Coordinator of Atlantic, Cape May, and Gloucester Counties, “Steady work and secure housing are essentials for anyone trying to make their way through life. Catholic Charities helps people toward those bigger goals. Our aim is to get them to the point where they don’t need to come to events like this to put food on their tables, but we are happy to assist them along the way.”Catholic Charities’ Atlantic City Employment and Assistance Program will be hosting an Employment and Resource Fair on May 21 at 10 a.m. at Quaremba Hall, 9 N. Georgia Avenue, Atlantic City. Employers looking to hire will be there as well as a number of resource providers. The event is free and open to all. For more information, visit: https://catholiccharitiescamden.org