Meaningful ways to give back: Volunteer Center of South Jersey, Jersey Cares power through pandemic

Healthcare workers at Jefferson Hospital in Washington Township pose with Project Appreciation thank you bags delivered from the Volunteer Center of South Jersey last spring. (Special to The Sun)

No matter where you are in New Jersey, there’s a need to help others.

Thanks to a partnership between nonprofits Volunteer Center of South Jersey and Jersey Cares, those charitable opportunities are now easier to find.

“We aligned so closely in each of our missions that we just found ways to collaborate and complement what each other’s doing,” said Michele Francesconi. “We’re able to cover all 21 counties in New Jersey now.”

Francesconi serves as the vice president of programs for both the Volunteer Center of South Jersey (VCSJ), based at Rowan College of South Jersey’s Gloucester County campus, and Jersey Cares, located up north in Livingston. The Mantua resident was previously the VCSJ executive director, taking the helm with both organizations in December of 2019.

Francesconi likens VCSJ and Jersey Cares to catalysts, connectors for people who want to  serve or do volunteer work with the nonprofit community. Between the two organizations, their network reaches upwards of 125 nonprofits.

“We help people find meaningful ways to give back,” Francesconi said.

The partnership between VCSJ and Jersey Cares does not just build upon their nonprofit networks and volunteer reach. The two want to learn from one another as well, and become  synchronous forces in charitable efforts. 

For instance, the Volunteer Center empowers nonprofits through education. Launched last year, the VCSJ Nonprofit Institute provides education in volunteer management and recruitment, guidance in building initiatives and more.

On the Jersey Care side, there is much more of a focus on service projects, of which the nonprofit did about 350 a month prior to COVID-19, and becoming the internal volunteer organization in the corporate sphere, organizing service ventures for large companies.

“That’s what we’re kind of sharing,” Francesconi said. “We want to bring some of what VCSJ is doing up there, and vice versa.”

Powering through the pandemic

Of course, just when VCSJ and Jersey Cares were starting to find their collaborative footing, COVID-19 arrived and the statewide quarantine shut down everything nonessential. Volunteer opportunities were put on hiatus. Corporate dollars dried up. Many efforts were not permitted to continue, such as the VCSJ Taste of Community event, traditionally held in April and its biggest fundraiser of the year.

Volunteer Center of South Jersey and Jersey Cares Vice President Programs Michele Francesconi holds a box of masks made by volunteers for donation. (Special to The Sun)

Like virtually everyone else, VCSJ and Jersey Cares had to become innovative to stay afloat through the pandemic. Francesconi said they are working closely with Gov. Phil Murphy’s Office of Volunteerism and the Department of State, and listened since the beginning to see what’s needed.

Food distribution and mask making were immediate needs. The groups helped organize volunteers for both efforts, even joining Million Mask Mayday to sew and donate that essential item.

“We’ve donated probably 6,000 to 7,000 masks. We had sewers who actually joined our initiative and made masks,” Francesconi noted. “That’s a big initiative that still continues and we’ll probably do that for a long time to come.”

Another thing Francesconi developed was a Senior Shoppers Program, piloted in Ocean County and now also established in Gloucester, Somerset and Morris counties.

“We’re mobilizing volunteers who want to just go out and do grocery shopping for a senior who shouldn’t be out and about, or who are afraid to go out,” Francesconi explained. “We’re working with the Department of Aging or Senior Services in each of these counties.”

Francesconi said more virtual opportunities are being sought, too, such as storytimes and online games with senior homes, or homework helper programs for students.

A volunteer with the Senior Shopper program gives a thumbs up after making a delivery. (Special to The Sun)

Still volunteering

Typically, a nonprofit partner is charged a nominal membership fee to publicize its efforts and needs through the VCSJ and Jersey Care websites and social media channels. In order to support the partners, those fees have been waived this year and will be looked at again in 2021.

“We support any nonprofit that wants to work with us. We like to promote their mission and what they’re doing,” Francesconi said.

“It’s definitely about helping each other. We’ve always been that way. It’s gotten even more important now that we do that.”

In addition to helping these nonprofit partners, Francesconi said VCSJ and Jersey Cares have both recently strived to educate the public on ways to volunteer safely during COVID, whether that means volunteering at home or in the community. If someone wants to volunteer, VCSJ and Jersey Cares will find a venture that fits.

What’s next

As organizations that empower nonprofits, it’s sometimes easy to forget that VCSJ and Jersey Cares are nonprofits themselves. And with the financial hit of COVID, both could use a helping hand.

“Our greatest need as an organization is definitely donations or some kind of sponsorships,” Francesconi explained, “because we’ve lost so much and we’re really running on a shoestring.”

The nonprofits are considering Trivia Nights, which could afford them a chance for sponsorships, and some way to turn the spring’s Taste of Community into a virtual event.

Of course, they also want to keep mobilizing volunteers. 

The VCSJ Crocheting for a Cause, Senior Shoppers program and mask-making groups are always taking volunteers. The website portals also promote other volunteer opportunities every day.

“We’re finding meaningful ways for people to give back through volunteering,” Francesconi said. “That’s basically what we do.”

To learn more, find volunteer opportunities and see how you can support Volunteer Center of South Jersey and Jersey Cares, visit SJVolunteers.org and JerseyCares.org.