Volunteer group marks 10th year of donation program

Photos by Rebecca Panico
Volunteers met at Kean University on March 3 to pack over 1,200 sandwiches that were distributed throughout locations in New Jersey and New York.

UNION, NJ — Not even a nor’easter that slammed the area on March 2 could stop Kean-based volunteers from gathering over a thousand peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to disperse to those in need across the state.

Be the Change, a community service group that was created by a Kean health professor, has been distributing sandwiches to the homeless for a decade. The group teamed up with several organizations to mark the 10th anniversary of the program with a blowout donation drive on March 3.
“I felt like it was Christmas morning today when I got up,” said Norma Bowe, the health professor and a founder of Be the Change. “This is incredible. With all the bad in the world right now, I think people are really eager to do something good and something outside of themselves.”

The program, known as Operation PB&J, began after Be the Change hosted a donation drive in Paterson 10 years ago. Restaurants donated food, and the group administered the leftovers to those at Newark Penn Station afterward.

“That’s when we discovered and realized how many people live in the train station,” said Bowe while she was coordinating the drive in Kean’s Hennings Hall. “That was 10 years ago and then we just started doing it every week.”

Volunteers went to Newark, Manhattan, New Brunswick, Trenton, Camden, Burlington, Elizabeth, Plainfield, Montclair and Paterson to distribute over 1,200 sandwiches, fruit, water, toiletries and notes of encouragement.

Over 8,530 people in the state were experiencing homelessness on Jan. 24, 2017, according to New Jersey’s Point-In-Time Count through Monarch Housing Associates.

“At Newark Penn, there are many in wheelchairs or with walkers and canes,” Bowe said after the drive.
“These are some of the most vulnerable in shelters. At least two that I know are getting chemo treatments and then transported back to the train station.”

Be the Change already has a strong network of volunteers, which consists of Kean students, alumni and about 1,350 members who collaborate in a Facebook group. About 100 volunteers showed up on campus to make sandwiches and divvy up into groups to deliver the food to 10 locations.
Union County Freeholder Chairman Sergio Granados, who is a Kean alum, was at the campus with 15 other county employees to package sandwiches. He also presented Be the Change with a resolution recognizing its work.

“Be the Change is something the County of Union will continue partnering with on new ventures, new projects,” Granados said. “Life is all about giving back to your community and never forgetting where you come from…everybody comes together as a community and really just wants to give back.”

The group is also getting a boost from the newly established county Office of Community Engagement and Diversity, which is coordinated by Nathalie Hernandez, a Kean University alum and member of Be the Change. The office operates under the Department of Economic Development and has created a directory to connect people interested in volunteering with local nonprofits and and other community groups.

“When we do go out, there’s tons of times when the homeless do thank us because they haven’t eaten in two or three days,” Hernandez said of her experience volunteering with Be the Change. “They’re just appreciative. It’s a meal for them. We do hope to at least make their day in doing that.”

Nu Sigma Phi, a fraternity that has a chapter at Kean, said they’ve helped out at Newark Penn Station in the past and decided to volunteer at the 10th anniversary event too.

“It’s good to really help out and give back,” said Todd Blackburn, a fraternity brother. “It’s one of our philosophies to really help out and give back to the community. So I think this is a great event to really do it for the homeless people that don’t have the opportunity to get the food that we can provide for ourselves.”

Plainfield and Elizabeth schools, Verizon Wireless, Access Self Storage, Trinitas, the Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless and Signature Realty helped in the donation drive effort too.

Visit BethechangeNJ.org to learn more about the group. To learn more about volunteering opportunities throughout Union County, visit ucnj.org/office-of- community-engagement- diversity/groups.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The previous version incorrectly identified the subject that Norma Bowe was an instructor of at Kean.