At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic certain concerns began to arise concerning students and their classes, as well as those who relied on their schools for meals.
While free and reduced lunch programs have continued for many school districts, food insecurity needs still surfaced in the community.
For Patrick Jones, a special education teacher for the Ewing Public Schools, a single text message was all it took for him to jump into action.
On April 24, Patrick received a forwarded message from a fellow teacher that made him realize the needs in his community.
A parent of a student in the district had reluctantly explained how her child had not been able to participate in online classes due to the family’s financial hardships that the pandemic had created. With no internet access for a period of time and difficulty getting food, the parent shared that it was troublesome for the student to focus on schoolwork.
Patrick showed the message to his mother, Deborah, who shares a residence in Ewing with him.
“When I heard this that night, it literally broke me and brought me to tears to think someone was struggling that badly, and someone local, with children,” said Deborah, who is a member of the Ewing Township Board of Education.
Patrick formed a connection with his students even though he has only been at Fisher Middle School for a year. He was worried about what would happen to students’ families enduring difficulties like the loss of a job.
That night Patrick posted a general call for help on Facebook to raise funds and collect food donations for struggling families in Ewing.
Patrick offered to pick up any donations to orchestrate helping these families.
Deborah in turn reached out to a local friend and fellow school board member, Deborah Delutis, who helped put together seven bags of food for the family in need that night.
Delutis recruited help from Roomana Khan, a friend who lives in the area, to raise awareness for this issue in Ewing.
Just two days later Khan helped start up the Facebook group Ewing Helping Hands to combine and help organize the Jones’ efforts.
Within a week, the group was helping about 10 families. Currently, the effort has grown to nearly 40 local families a week.
“It’s been amazing how many people in the community have just reached out with support and just kind of to help everyone, their neighbors,” Patrick said.
The confidential food delivery service was run out of the Jones’ home until the end of June. At that point they were offered the cafeteria at Fisher Middle School to store their collected donations.
All families in need and donations are funneled through the Facebook group or firstname.lastname@example.org. Confidentiality has been of the highest importance since the beginning.
Families are only asked their address, size of the family, children and their ages and any medical conditions or known allergies. The four admins on the Facebook group—the Jones’, Delutis and Khan—are the only ones managing the weekly list.
Deliveries were managed strictly by Patrick in the beginning due to COVID-19 health concerns. They wanted to limit contact and keep families’ anonymity. They have now enlisted the help of two entrusted Ewing locals, and family friends, Scott Franks and Scott Rogers. Patrick refers to the two volunteers as his “team of Scotts.”
Those three are the only ones delivering five days a week, five to 10 families a day, to ensure everyone on their list receives the help they need.
“He [Patrick] inspires me and if we can help and encourage anybody else to step forward, just reach out, check on your neighbors… offer anything,” Deborah said.
The members of Ewing Helping Hands thank the community for the abundance of help that drives its efforts. The founders look only to shine the light on the hundreds of individuals who have continuously helped.
“We wouldn’t be able to do it without everyone’s help,” Khan said. “I mean, that’s the bottom line.”
Ewing Helping Hands asks for donations of perishables, non-perishables and store gift cards for places such as Halo Farms, Aldi and ShopRite. Deborah has created an Amazon wishlist detailing which items are in demand. The delivery persons know her house very well, she said.
Other donations are left on the front stoops of the founders’ homes. Patrick manages picking them up regularly, bringing them to Fisher Middle School, organizing them and delivering them accordingly.
“It’s really been the community stepping up and making this possible,” Patrick said.
Not only have Ewing community members and organizations continually helped, but so have bordering communities. Pennington Mayor Joe Lawver and the Hopewell Valley Mobile Food Pantry have consistently donated about 40 boxes of produce a week to Ewing Helping Hands.
Donations have been received from local establishments including Howell Living History Farm, Trenton Elks Lodge #105, Ewing Knights of Columbus, Women Who Move Mercer, The Debbie Marks Lake Foundation, Coryell Tree Service, the 7-Eleven in West Trenton, Back-In-Action Chiropractor and the Ewing Teachers Education Association.
“I take pure joy in knowing that we’re able to help these families,” Delutis said. “I cannot even imagine as a parent going to bed at night and not knowing where the food is going to come from to feed your children. It’s such a basic need and not being able to provide that, the stress of it I can’t even imagine.”
“So just us being able to take that load off of those families,” she added. “It’s just so touching and the way the community has really embraced it and jumped on…I come outside and there’s just food on my porch, half of the time I don’t even know who’s dropping it off anymore.”
The response from the families being helped has been very positive, the Jones’ said.
With the school year coming up, the Ewing Helping Hands team is gearing to move their operations back to their homes. They intend to continue filling this need for as long as they can.
“I have been approached and asked if we are going to continue doing this through the summer and into the fall season? My response is quite simply, how can we not?” Deborah said.
She added: “While the pandemic greatly impacted many residents’ financial situation, what I am seeing is people, families—our Ewing children—they need our help now, they needed it before the pandemic, and we will do everything we can to continue to assist them together with help from many friends in the Ewing community and our surrounding friends as well, together as a Ewing Strong community.”