Soon after Michael Perice became the rabbi for Cinnaminson’s Temple Sinai this summer, he vowed his new home would be an asset to the Burlington County community.
With help from Assemblywoman Carol Murphy, her office and more than 20 organizations, services and departments that offer countywide support, a resource fair hosted Oct. 18 in the synagogue’s parking lot demonstrated all the ways a community comes together in difficult times.
“There’s a lot of pervasive hopelessness in the world right now,” Perice said. “People feel like the problems of today are simply too much for any one person to fix. But … we all have the opportunity to make this world a better place.”
County-specific services were represented with the likes of the Burlington County Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Burlington County Library System, Rowan College at Burlington County, and the Burlington County Department of Human Services all offering insight into how they can benefit residents.
According to Malikah Morris, division director for the human service department’s Community Outreach and Special Projects branch, its entire staff has pivoted to become “a lot more hands on” to answer the call for increased support throughout the county during COVID-19.
“We started doing monthly food distributions and creating these packets that are rich in resources, with more than just human-services information, like a lot of nonprofit services that include mental-health support,” she said.
Morris added that she often tells others, “If you can’t use our resources, then you know someone who can,” as the human services department continues reaching out to those in need, especially seniors and veterans.
“The county is here to meet people’s needs,” she said. “There’s been a huge collaboration: If we get a phone call looking for something we can’t provide, we’ll reach out to someone else who can.”
Morris’ co-worker Peter Taylor added that staying focused on others has been key in delivering the help residents seek.
“A lot of people need the services we provide, which are essential,” he explained. “You can’t really stop and think about how things are for you when we’re here to make things better for others.”
Other regional services like the Food Bank of South Jersey (FBSJ) have come to the aid of people not just in Burlington County, but also Camden, Gloucester and Salem counties.
To meet 2020’s uptick in demand, the food bank’s Strategic Partnerships and Special Events Manager Lisa Sherwin said the team has been dedicated to ensuring that no one in the four counties it serves goes hungry. New avenues for assistance, like pop-up pantries six days a week, are among the ways FBSJ has adapted to increased needs.
“Since COVID, we have had to work really hard, but we are keeping up due to the generosity of donors, financially and food wise,” she explained. “A lot of individual donors and larger corporations have just jumped in to help us, which has been absolutely amazing.”
With a number of families finding themselves food insecure for the first time, Sherwin said it’s important to eliminate the stigma of asking for help.
“People can be really shy about admitting they’re in need of food,” she noted. “Resources like our website (foodbankSJ.org) can help them get over that hurdle to find the help they need.”
Sherwin finds there is hope in seeing the difference the food bank can make, one family at a time.
“The stories we hear when we’re out at food distribution events, people crying with tears in their eyes, saying they never thought they’d be in a food line,” she said. “We tell them we understand, that things will get better and that we’re here to feed you until then,” she said.
Mental-health services have similarly seen increased demand, as well as a shift in how they offer help, according to Cacey Batushansky of Oaks Integrated Care, a behavioral health nonprofit that offers assistance in south and central New Jersey.
“We have such a wide array of services: We work with children, families and adults. We offer things like mental-health services and substance-use services,” she said. “Everybody’s feeling isolated and out of control. People don’t know where their next meal is coming from or how they’ll pay rent, and all of that can trigger self-medicating or issues with depression and anxiety.”
Batushansky said Oaks operates with the goal of ensuring everyone gets the help and support they need, whether they have insurance or not.
“We have state funding, county funding — you do not even need Medicaid to come to agencies like us,” she offered. “We don’t just treat the insured: We treat everybody.”
Meanwhile, the YMCA has adapted its operations to remain COVID-compliant since reopening in September, much to the relief of patrons eager to get out of their homes or participate in a program.
“Just to have some normalcy through all of this, it’s really a big part of it,” said Mary Gagliardi. “To have our community come in and see each other again and feel like they’re doing something, it means a lot to them — and us.”
Assemblywoman Murphy was thrilled to be a part of an event that brought awareness to all services and assistance available in Burlington County and beyond, and wants to bring more resource fairs to the public.
“It’s a great initiative, and the rabbi and I hope to do this on a yearly basis,” she said. “People don’t always know what’s available in their neighborhoods to help them, let alone in the county. So why not bring those resources to them?”
Murphy said it was important to make sure as many people as possible are aware of the safety nets in place for them, which helps contribute to a thriving, connected county.
“This is about safety, this is about community, this is about being a family,” she said. “It’s about providing for our county and bringing everyone together to make sure that they know that we’re here to provide as much as we can.”
Rabbi Perice echoed the assemblywomen’s sentiments during a brief speech the afternoon of the fair, emphasizing the importance of a community coming together in hard times.
“Every interaction is an opportunity to heal the world,” he said. “When I look around this parking lot, I see that work being done.”
He closed his comments with a blessing: “May God give us the strength to be a solid community where we can be reaching out to one another in times of distress so that we can be coming together for hope, for joy and for courage.”