Local group continues CommUNITY service amid pandemic

Despite cancelled events in last three months, nonprofit continues outreach.

In mid-May, five volunteers from CommUNITY SJPsplit up 1,000 care packages for
migrant workers and completed 200 packs each at home From left to right: Medeeha
Khan and her mother Zaheda Khan (sitting on sofa) set up a clean workspace in their
family room and laid out all of the items for 200 packs.

When the best way to stay safe is to stay at least 6 feet apart, how do you continue to help others without putting them or yourselves at risk? 

That was the question volunteers with the nonprofit organization CommUNITY SJP dealt with when the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading.

While forced to cancel its events, the group is not idle. The entirely volunteer nonprofit has brainstormed creative ways to continue serving communities in South Jersey and Philadelphia.

With founding members from across Moorestown, Cherry Hill and Mount Laurel, the group hosts service projects and social events in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties, as well as Philadelphia. At those events, members of all ages work on projects that run the gamut: from assembling no-sew fleece blankets for local shelters and families in need, providing meals for the hungry, making welcome bags for newly arrived refugees and assembling care packages for migrant workers.

One of the group’s founding members, Medeeha Khan said when the pandemic struck, the nonprofit initially put everything on hold, cancelling all  events scheduled for March, April and May. The group had already committed to packing 1,000 care packages for migrant workers and had plans to do so at an event scheduled for May. But the pandemic left it  uncertain whether the workers would be allowed to enter the country.

“In the beginning, we were just still trying to figure out what was going on,” Khan said. 

But when migrants were deemed essential workers, the nonprofit knew now, more than ever, they would be in need of care packages. So  members divided the supplies among five volunteers and each packed 200 care packages at their homes during the span of two days.

Founded in 2010, Migrant Worker Outreach & Haitian Migrant Worker Outreach (MWO) is a group of volunteers with the mission of welcoming migrant workers and their families to New Jersey during the blueberry harvest. They organize English classes, field trips and other activities. 

Dory Dickson, co-founder and director of Migrant Worker Outreach, said the gift bags have been an especially successful effort over the years. Each one includes a personal welcome to the worker and items like a washcloth,   a colorful cotton bandana, socks, toiletries, clothespins and other items that may come in handy. 

Dickson said during a normal summer, church groups go to several  migrant camps to visit, bring a meal or share a worship service. She said given the current guidelines, that probably won’t happen this summer, and in addition, migrant education classes are closed. 

“Every connection the surrounding communities can make with farmworkers helps balance the isolation they are experiencing,” Dickson explained. “The gift bag project and other projects local groups participate in help show the workers and their families that we are glad they are here. We’re thinking about them.” 

But once CommUNITY was up and running again, it didn’t stop there. Typically, the group hosts a meal train project around Memorial Day where members assemble meals for local shelters. Toward the end of May, CommUNITY SJP members began discussing how  they could still pack meals without hosting an in-person gathering. So members from Mount Laurel, Moorestown, Delran, Cherry Hill and Voorhees volunteered to serve as collection hubs.

Since the end of May, CommUNITY volunteers have packed meals and toiletries and taken them to one of the designated hubs. Then, two or three members take the meals and toiletries to area shelters. To date, they’ve assembled enough meals to serve roughly 1,900 people and continue their efforts on a weekly basis. 

The group has also been assembling goodie bags for students at McGraw Elementary School in Camden. Last year, CommUNITY partnered with the school to provide the supplies for monthly birthday parties for students. Khan said some families don’t have the means for a birthday celebration and rely on schools to help make their child’s day special. For that reason, CommUNITY partnered with Dominos’ Pizza to provide monthly pizza parties for students. 

When school stopped, the organization didn’t want families to be left in the lurch. So volunteers packed around 400 goodie bags for the school to distribute to students on their birthdays throughout the shutdown. 

As the pandemic continues, CommUNITY is not slowing down its efforts. The plan is to continue the meal train for the foreseeable future, and anyone who is interested in helping out can get involved. 

CommUNITY plans to have at least one collection point every week. To sign up to get involved, visit https://forms.gle/NjrrgbZN88X9Tb1q8. Anyone with questions can contact the group at CommUNITYSJP@gmail.com