In March, Va’Lorie James’ phone rang with a message that she was half anticipating and one that she had been dreading.
James, a social worker at Barringer High School in Newark’s North Ward, was informed that one of her students contracted COVID-19.
Despite an overwhelming sense of panic and fear spreading across the country, James knew that she needed to do whatever she could to help her student and his family.
She started dialing local agencies to inquire about getting food delivered to a family that was forced to quarantine for at least 14 days and was without access to a car. The responses she received were surprising at first, but then became all too common: “Nobody wanted to do food drop-offs.”
As feelings of discouragement started intensifying inside the Newark native’s mind, James was referred to Maria Torres, who manages United Community Corporation’s Champion House food pantry, by her colleague Tammy Davis. Their conversation was brief and the next day, 14 days worth of food was delivered to the infected family’s home.
“I developed a deep appreciation for Maria and the work that her and this organization does,” James said. “The families are so grateful to me for helping them and I’m so grateful for Ms. Torres because she is the one making it all happen.”
United Community Corporation is one of the very few agencies that James encountered that offered contactless food delivery to families throughout Newark and Essex County that have been forced to quarantine due to COVID-19 contraction or exposure. Torres and her staff make sure they deliver enough food to feed entire families for however long their quarantine lasts.
“We are doing something that nobody else is really willing to do,” Torres said. “When we hear about a family exposed to COVID, we stop whatever we are doing and start putting together food packages to deliver to them.”
Since the pandemic began in March, Torres and her staff have served over 150-thousand individuals through deliveries, daily food distributions at the Champion House food pantry, mass monthly distribution events (serving over 23-thousand individuals at each), smaller distribution events (serving over 1,000 individuals at each) and with the help of UCC’s 40-plus partners (local churches and fellow non-profit organizations).
United Community Corporation was inspired to help anyone and everyone in need during the pandemic and Torres took that mission to heart. She and her staff listens to each family’s story and develop a special connection with each one – often providing them with a personal phone number so clients can reach them any time of the day.
They’ve seen photos of empty refrigerators, babies in need of diapers and heard horror stories of people battling COVID-19.
Through it all, Torres and her staff keep pushing onward and keep serving those in need.
“I can’t do this by myself,” Torres said. “This is all because of the work done by my staff. I call them the girls and all of this is because of the girls’ work. Helping people that desperately need food keeps us motivated and keeps us going.”
United Community Corporation receives food donations from Community Food Bank and MEND Hunger Relief Network. The community action agency, which has served Newark since 1964, is getting set to distribute even more food for Thanksgiving.
Anyone interested in donating food can email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact Torres at email@example.com. Those in need of food can email Torres as well.
“Our agency has always looked at people stricken by poverty and tried to find ways to help them out of it,” United Community Corporation executive director Craig Mainor said.
“During this pandemic, we’ve had to develop a new kind of motive saying that we will find a way to help you put food on your table – no matter what. It may be different than how we did it in the past, but we will find a way.”