HILLSIDE, NJ — The generosity of strangers has, time after time, stunned Hillside resident Tina Thomas in the fourteen months since she founded The Loving Arms Foundation, a Newark-based nonprofit which helps homeless people in the form of food, quarterly health fairs and more.
Before the dawn of the foundation, said Thomas, she’d seen a lot of homeless people on the streets in her 18 years working in downtown Newark. So Thomas started addressing the issue on a small scale, at first helping one person she sometimes passed on a park bench, and then launching The Loving Arms Foundation in October 2014.
Not long afterwards, during a now-annual toy drive for children in Newark, Thomas was seeing the love pour in.
“One person came with a big truck and backed it up to the side of the building. There were so many toys that were donated, we didn’t have enough kids for all the toys, and they were so excited I can’t even tell you,” said Thomas. “They were nudging each other, pointing out individual toys that they wanted. We’re doing the same thing this year. We’re doing a toy drive right now, and we’ll be feeding them breakfast and that’ll be followed with the toys.”
Those are the kinds of experiences Thomas hopes to replicate this holiday season, which has proven the busiest time of the year for The Loving Arms Foundation. During the Thanksgiving holiday, for example, Thomas and a set of volunteers cooked and distributed meals for more than 340 people in Hillside and Newark, including volunteers from Herb’s Luncheonette.
And people often want to volunteer for the cause, said Thomas, in any way that they can. During one stop on Thanksgiving week at a nearby church, a local high school football team and their coaches helped deliver food to the homeless, a gesture that went a long way.
“A lot of people really want to volunteer their time, but don’t know how to. I’m doing something for Christmas and I’ve already gotten calls about folks wanting to volunteer,” said Thomas, adding that becoming a volunteer is as simple as giving the foundation a call. “I would share with you the next volunteer opportunity I have coming up, see if you’re available during that time, and let you know exactly what I need volunteers to do — whether it’s setting up, serving, cleaning up, whatever.”
Helping the cause can also come in the form of donations, such as the time Robert Wood Johnson Hospital gave 10,000 bands to Thomas after a friend in Hillside, Yolanda Mallard-Burchett, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. Thomas sold almost all of the bands to local residents at $1 a pop, and forwarding the proceeds to Mallard-Burchett’s family during a turbulent time.
“My goal was actually to sell 5,000 of them,” said Thomas. “I did not expect to raise that kind of money. That was a really good thing that I’m happy about, and I did not expect to raise so much money for the family.”
Thomas anticipates doing much more fundraising to accomplish her long-term vision, which is to move the foundation into a two-story building in Newark. With that kind of space, said Thomas, The Loving Arms Foundation would be able to offer shelter and other services to people who need it, especially young adults between the ages 21 and 30.
When people hit that part of their lives, said Thomas, they stop receiving help from social services. Yet in many cases they still need guidance such as substance abuse counseling and career or employment readiness. A permanent home for The Loving Arms Foundation would allow Thomas to offer services that, in many cases, are vital to the lives of young people who haven’t known a home of any kind for too much of their lives, she said.
“I’d be able to provide a lot of things with a building. And I’m targeting the ages 21 through 30, because kids age out of different agencies and end up being homeless,” said Thomas. “At 21-years-old I know for certain I’m not able to take care of myself, I still need a lot of guidance, and that’s where a lot of kids fall through the cracks. So I’m hoping to get a building, help the homeless and provide a lot of different types of services for them.”