CRANFORD, NJ — Cranford student Daniel Serna, 15, was recently recognized for working to alleviate the pressures of homelessness in Union County by Homefirst Interfaith Housing and Family Services Inc.
Serna received the 2017 HomeFirst Hero Award from the homeless shelter and nonprofit organization at the organization’s Evening of Thanks dinner at the Shackamaxon Country Club on Nov. 1. For his project, which began as a bar mitzvah initiative and is now in its fifth year, Serna collects thousands of school supplies each year.
The HomeFirst Hero Award is for individuals who have exhibited exemplary service to Homefirst and its clients, spokeswoman Karla Spivey told LocalSource in a Dec. 6 email.
“I feel honored to be recognized by Homefirst for helping other kids get the supplies they need to start the school year off right,” Serna told LocalSource in an email Dec. 7. “Receiving this award helps me realize the difference I can make in the community.”
Serna’s partnership with the nonprofit organization started as a community service project while making preparations for his bar mitzvah.
“I thought of Homefirst because my temple, Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains, had worked with Homefirst on other projects in the past,” the teen said. “I came up with the idea of collecting school supplies because school is hard, and supplies are expensive. Having the right supplies to begin the year helps kids start the year off right.”
Every summer, Serna sets up a donation bin at the Cranford Community Center, at PrimeTime summer camp in Cranford and at Temple Sholom in Scotch Plains.
“The first year I collected about 1,000 items and by the second year it was more than 2,000 new school supplies,” Serna said. “Next year will be my fifth year, and I’ve already had some people give me donations in September, when they found school supplies on sale and wanted to help start the collection for next year.”
The Homefirst Family Success Center in Plainfield hosts an annual back-to-school day in August, when families can pick up their supplies, Serna said.
“I like that Homefirst works directly with families in our local community, and I’ve volunteered at Homefirst so I know that they make a direct impact in people’s lives,” he said.
Through a variety of programs, the organization works to tackle homelessness. Spivey noted that programs include everything from transitional housing for individuals and families for 12 to 18 months, to emergency cash assistance for rent, mortgages and transportation.
There are two support centers located in Plainfield and one in Hillside, Spivey said,
According to Spivey, Homefirst give support to more than 2,000 men, women and children throughout Union County. In noting the importance of the organization’s work, she underscored a report in the 2017 NJ Point In Time Count citing there were about 8,532 homeless men, women and children living in New Jersey.