The Mission of Interfaith Neighbors
Interfaith Neighbors (IFN) is a non-profit organization founded in May 1988 when local faith communities came together to address the growing problem of homelessness. Their mission is to assist those less fortunate among us to meet life’s basic necessities, while seeking to improve the quality of life for individuals and families and the communities in which they live. Through the years, their services have grown to include distinct programs for Monmouth County residents, including: Rental & Mortgage Assistance, Nutrition and Meals on Wheels, Affordable Housing, Neighborhood Revitalization, the Business Development Center, Kula Urban Farms, MacroBites @ Kula, and SOAR.
The Impact of COVID
Executive Director Paul McEvily, remembers the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic like it was yesterday. He watched as the world started to make changes, shutting down airports and other travel. It was St. Patrick’s Day of 2020 when Paul noticed that New Jersey started to become concerned and there were rumors of travel restriction within the United States. Shortly thereafter, everything shutdown.
The first plan of action was to figure out how to keep running one of Interfaith Neighbors’ largest programs, Meals on Wheels of Monmouth County. The priority was how to continue getting food to homebound residents given the growing social restrictions. Thinking ahead to combat any roadblocks, the team proactively worked with Monmouth County officials to get volunteers the credentials needed to continue the food delivery program. Meals on Wheels would become even more vital as COVID took hold and senior centers closed, taking away the communal aspect of sharing a meal at six sites across Monmouth County. Interfaith Neighbors was able to quickly pivot to not only continue daily delivery of over 1,100 meals to seniors’ doorsteps, but added those who could no longer receive meals at the senior centers to existing routes.
Because IFN utilizes a hub-and-spoke delivery network that relies on volunteers, concerns increased on how to keep these volunteers safe; many who are seniors that were forced to take a step back to focus their own health during the pandemic. At the same time, IFN was receiving an influx of volunteer opportunity inquiries, including from college students who were temporarily unemployed. McEvily repositioned his staff to address the on-boarding of new volunteers and to plug in gaps where needed. The team doubled their drivers and never missed a day of delivery!
Another initiative heavily impacted by the pandemic was IFN’s homelessness prevention program. While the Rental & Mortgage Assistance team normally assists 300-350 families annually, the COVID shutdowns resulted in 25 to 30 daily calls from families with emergent needs. This equated to more than 400 households over a period of just six months, partly because the local economy is heavily reliant on the hospitality industry, which shut down overnight. With jobs lost and the financial need growing for so many, McEvily and the Interfaith Neighbors team did all they could to counsel clients on where to focus the money, ie for prescriptions, food, utility bills, etc. IFN was able to provide emergent rental assistance to those who qualified, with the help of local funders who stepped forward and asked how they could help. The 33 year old nonprofit quickly established a COVID-19 Emergency Financial Assistance Fund to provide support to individuals and families experiencing financial distress due to the pandemic. In all, over $500,000 was contributed to the fund by individuals, corporations and foundations. The fund continues to help families as the effects of the pandemic linger.
MacroBites @ Kula
Another part of the Interfaith Neighbors Network is MacroBites @ Kula, formerly Kula Café. In addition to being a community café and gathering place in Asbury Park’s underserved southwest neighborhood, Kula Café operated as a hospitality training and job placement program. With its shutdown due to COVID, it could no long be a viable conduit for the area’s young people entering the workforce. What seemed like a sad ending to a program that found stable employment for over 150 local youth since its 2013 inception, became a reimagining exercise that led to a worthy successor to the Café.
Childhood friends Fritz, Jarrette, and David are the founders of MacroBites @Kula, which is a ready-to-eat meal prep company. MacroBites preps, packs and ships healthy meals in the correct proportions. Fritz, Jarrette and David still had other jobs when they began this business and when they lost access to the kitchen they were using due to COVID, Paul reached out to them to talk about their goals. From that discussion, Paul knew this would be a great fit for not only the former Kula Café, but for the Asbury community. From there, MacroBites @Kula was born.
Fritz, Jarrette and David agreed to work with the young adults who were part of the Kula Café’s innovative workforce development program and are proud to be serving the community in which they grew up. In addition to shipping healthy meals, they opened up a small portion of the building for people to sit and be served meals. They’ve also contributed to the overall health of the community in other ways like hosting yoga in the park across the street from the café.
The Kula Farm
The Kula Farm is a social enterprise that provides on-site job training, educational programs, farm to table dinners and free fresh produce to neighbors in need, and has been in the community since 2015. Prior to the pandemic, the farm yield was sold to local restaurants and made available to those who were food insecure. The Asbury Park School District also collaborated with Kula Farm to provide meals to students. Any extra meals were given to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Monmouth County to distribute to the community.
While the farm lost revenue generating capability from the restaurant shutdowns during COVID, it set up a commerce site so people could order fresh produce for pickup or delivery. This was a great way to ensure the farm yield didn’t go to waste and to fundraise. During the pandemic, Kula Farm collaborated with the AP Dinner Table Project, operated by local restaurant and provide fresh produce for the preparation and distribution to families in need due to the pandemic.
While the pandemic has caused so much loss around the world, there have been some silver lining moments. The drive for people to help has been stronger than ever, even if their own situations weren’t optimal. Funders proactively reached out to see how they could help families in need. Grassroots efforts were spontaneously born that helped keep revenue flowing and services continuing. And, collaboration was stronger than ever, with many individuals, businesses and nonprofit organizations coming together to make a bigger impact. A great example of this is Gwen Love, Executive Director of Lunch Break, providing her Red Bank location as a pickup and drop off area for meals that Interfaith Neighbors could distribute to their clients.
Interfaith Neighbors Today
Today, Interfaith Neighbors is nearly back to full speed. The workforce development program is up and running again at the farm. And while some senior centers are still not open, Interfaith Neighbors is working to find where the gaps are and how to fill them. They have many people who are volunteering and donating to help their neighbors and the community.
To stay up-to-date with Interfaith Neighbors’ programs and how they are helping our community, visit http://www.interfaithneighbors.org.