This article was originally published in the February 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
Armstead G. Johnson, executive director of Mercer Street Friends, discovered the nonprofit world soon after college and never looked back.
“I thought I was going to do government work,” says Johnson. Equipped with a master’s degree in public administration from Rutgers (and an undergraduate degree in political science from Howard University), he envisioned working as a township administrator. Then he saw an ad for a small nonprofit youth program in Plainfield, New Jersey. He got that job and soon learned what he believes to this day: “I thought government was the way to help people. But nonprofits are the better way to help people.”
He found his niche helping people move from poverty to self-sufficiency. In fact, when he saw the ad for the opening at Mercer Street Friends, he said, “I do that.” He has been executive director for a little over a year, succeeding Shannon Mason.
Johnson then tells two stories to show what the organization is about:
“During our home visiting session, one of the many things our family workers do with family members is practicing stress releasing skills. One time during a visit a single parent was becoming stressed during the discussions. The family worker noticed it and her young daughter, approximately 4 or 5 years old, noticed it. The child said to the mother, ‘mommy breathe,’ and then proceeded to show her mom how to take deep breaths. This was one of the techniques the family worker had demonstrated on many occasions.” The home visit educated the whole family.
Another shows how staff members go beyond their basic jobs. “A parent had developed a close bond with our preschool director. The director encouraged her to obtain her high school equivalency so she would have better employment options. The parent did this and found a better paying job. During the summer months the parent needed preschool and Mercer Street Friends found a donor to cover her childcare costs for the summer.”
Johnson says helping families break the cycle of poverty is why he came to the Quaker-affiliated Mercer Street Friends in June, 2016, and to do that he focuses on education.
His move to Trenton follows his work with several other anti-poverty projects. He was executive director of United Community Corporation (UCC) in Newark and All Saints Community Service and Development Corporation, which serves at-risk youth in Hoboken and Union City. He worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs, Urban League, and DIAL Inc. – Center for Independent Living, an organization providing services for individuals with disabilities.
From those experiences Johnson has learned collaboration between agencies works best. And what makes Mercer Street Friends distinctive is that “we know we cannot do it by ourselves. We actively seek collaboration with other nonprofits. We will get the family to the services they need. Some other organizations use the word ‘collaboratively’ loosely. We are dedicated to forming collaborations. Not one organization can do it all.”
The model for Mercer Street Friends is the community school model. Getting an education has a lot to do with people getting out of poverty, he says.
A community school is a public school that combines best educational practices with expanded learning opportunities for students and families (after school, weekends, and summer) and also provides health, mental health, and social services so that children are prepared to learn.
‘We send 2.7 million pounds of food and groceries annually to a network of 80 local food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and meal sites.’
The first school to adopt the model in association with Mercer Street Friends is the Luis Munoz Rivera Community Middle School, where Mercer Street Friends is embedded, bringing in services and programs for students and families that address non-academic barriers to learning.
Johnson sees a continuum of service as necessary. Young parents who are learning parenting skills can take advantage of the Mercer Street pre-school program, segue to the community school models at Gregory Elementary School and Rivera Middle School, and eventually explore adult education and career services.
“The continuum of care model means we can refer to one of our programs, or somewhere else. We ask, what are the needs? What is keeping them in poverty?”
Johnson found his passion for service while growing up in East Orange. His parents were his mentors. His dad was a U.S. Postal Service worker and his mother was a cafeteria worker in the East Orange school district. “Any and everything good about me is from my parents,” he says. In college he was a music major playing trumpet and piano, and then switched to political science, which seemed a better match. For relaxation now he hits the gym instead of musical notes.
Since his arrival at Mercer Street Friends, which has its main office on Mercer Street, Johnson says he learned that a loyal donor base and collaboration between agencies are both essential.
“There are limited dollars out there. Sometimes you only get a percentage of the money. Let’s figure out how to share it,” he says.
He found a loyal and dedicated staff, many of whom could leave the nonprofit world and make more money if they were so inclined, he says. “One of my frustrations is what I could do more to help employees. I want to reasonably reward the existing staff,” and he has not yet figured out non-monetary ways of doing that.
In addition to a recently launched office for volunteers, Johnson has created a marketing office to increase donors and address the constant need for funding. He says before he arrived at Mercer Street Friends, an outside fundraising consultant advised seeking funds from “the people who know you and love you.” And then added, “But more people have to love you.”
The more than 1,200 clients are referred from other government agencies. Sometimes, he says, depending on the office location, “people walk in and ask for help.”
To best provide help, Johnson emphasizes working with partner agencies. For example, Mercer Street administers a food bank but collaborates with partner agencies. The food bank on Silvia Street in Ewing Township just celebrated its 30th anniversary.
The food bank is known for its Send Hunger Packing program that gives children a package from which to make meals on weekends. This program is available in Trenton, Princeton, West Windsor, Ewing, Plainsboro, and Hamilton.
While Mercer Street Friends in general helps people move to self-sufficiency, “if people are hungry, nothing much else matters,” Johnson says. “Food and shelter: essential. We send 2.7 million pounds of food and groceries annually to a network of 80 local food pantries, shelters, soup kitchens, and meal sites.”
Another program Johnson is particularly proud of is the Mercer Street Friends Preschool on State Street in West Trenton, which provides quality early childhood education to 90 Trenton children, ages 3 to 5, at no cost to the families. The facility, formerly a community center, houses six classrooms, each designed around interest areas such as library, discovery, music, art, dramatic play, and computers. The center is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and runs year-round.
Mercer Street Friends provides adult education, career guidance, a teen initiative, and a host of other programs. Funding for the $5.2 million budget comes from a variety of government sources, private foundations, and individual giving.
“Nonprofits have to view themselves as a business,” he says. “Sometimes people think all you need is a good heart and that is part of it, but you need sound business practices, too.”
But leave the management to him. What he really wants people to know is this: “For those in need, reach out to us. We will try to help.”
Mercer Street Friends, 151 Mercer Street, Trenton. 609-396-1506. mercerstreetfriends.org.