It all started on a beautiful fall day, September 11, 2001. I was getting off the train from Brooklyn, heading to work when the events of 9/11 occurred. Many years have passed, but there are still no words to convey what transpired in the hours, days, month and years that followed. The one thing that will be forever in my memory was the willingness of every New Yorker to do whatever needed to be done to help those in need. Whether it was food, water, shelter or a shoulder to cry on, everyone did their part to help heal the wounds of so many. Fast forward to a young Senator who reminded us about the importance of getting involved in our local communities. There it was, the seeds had been planted, the nagging feeling like I wanted to do more to help those in need, but what could I do? Fast forward again and we’re in the middle of the great recession. Families without food, parents without jobs, people without hope. What to do? The nagging persisted……
In November of 2009, as I was waiting to get my daughter off the school bus, I checked the mail and on the cover of the local newspaper there was an article that the food pantries were bare. I went back to my desk and I thought, “I shop with coupons and I know that you can get many things for free or just pennies on the dollar. What would happen if you got a group of people together to shop, but rather than bringing those things home we would donate them. I immediately called the local food pantry and told them my idea. They said it sounded good and that’s all I needed to hear. I came up with a name Connect for Community | Coupons for Community, designed a quick logo, wrote a press release with the idea and sent it to the editor of the local newspaper. That week the story ran on the front cover and within 24 hours I had my first 6 volunteers! We are still working together today! We really didn’t know what the program would be about but agreed to meet once a week. We all shared the same desire to help those in need in our community. Friends and family would donate spare change and our bank existed in a plastic bag. That Christmas we had a table at a local Christmas Market and shook a can to raise money for the local food pantry and from there we were up and running. In our first year we donated over $100k in food and toiletries to the local food pantry for less than $20,000. The basic premise is that for every dollar we spend, we can get $8 worth of food and toiletries. The products that are provided from the Coupons for Community program are name-brand, non-expired goods that are often not available to food pantries from state run food banks.
Connect for Community strives to provide goods that we ourselves would like to receive, while also maintaining the standard of delivering healthy food. Volunteers customize their deliveries to food pantries based on their own individual needs which results in less waste.
We soon learned a little bit about the people that were at the food pantries for help. It wasn’t what we expected. It was many people that had lost their jobs during the recession and had gone through their savings and had nowhere else to go. It was senior citizens, it was people that were now working two and three jobs and were still not getting by. It was people that used to donate to the food pantry, but were now clients themselves.
In addition to food, we are also delivering personal hygiene products to the pantry, items that most people don’t think to donate and they just flew off the shelves, especially the laundry detergent. We also came to learn that people on food stamps could not buy personal hygiene products. This just didn’t seem to make sense. It didn’t consider the needs of the person as a whole or acknowledge that these items are necessities in life.
By this time we started the New Year, it was January 2010. We now had several volunteers that were teachers and they brought up that we were coming up on the 100th Day of School. Typically on the 100th Day, students will bring in 100 paper clips, 100 Cheerios, anything to mark the day. We thought what if we put a different spin on the day and suggested to the schools, that why don’t we show the students what 100 pennies can buy and we came up with a list of personal hygiene products like toothbrushes, toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, dish soap, bar soap, toilet paper, tissues and paper towels. We encouraged students to buy these things with a coupon. In the first year 7 schools came on board and we collected over 3,000 items. The program continues to grow every year and to date we have nearly 50 schools participating across 8 counties in northern NJ and Harlem, NY and we have collected nearly 40,000 items. There are really no words to express the joy on food pantry client’s faces when they have access to these items. Products are also distributed to domestic abuse agencies and homeless shelters and are so welcomed from people who show up at these doorsteps with literally not much more than the clothes on their backs. The dream for this program is to make it a National student event. At little to no cost, elementary school students could solve the problem that so many Americans face when having to choose between buying food or household products that are also so desperately needed. The 100th Day of School as one Principal put it is such a valuable lesson. “School is not just about academics, but also a place to learn life lessons”.
As we continued to grow our volunteer base and approached the summer of 2010, we learned another statistic that children who receive assisted lunch during the school year were now susceptible to hunger during the summer months. We decided to adopt the pantries “Summer Lunch” program and that year we shopped for, bagged and distributed food and toiletries to over 1,000 children in a town that is regarded as “affluent”. Yet another case of the story of poverty and faces of food stamps are not what one might expect. We have seen women cry to receive rolls of toilet paper. A mom with twins upon receiving a bottle of laundry detergent told her two young boys how happy she was that she could now wash both of their clothes.
As reported by Feeding America, 21.5 million children receive free or reduced lunch during the school year. Only 3 million children receive meals through summer lunch programs.
We also came to learn from the clients of the food pantries, that the majority of them run out of their food stamp allotments by mid-month and often go without or seek out the local pantry for assistance. Once again we saw a need and thought what if we came up with a program that taught food pantry clients or the homeless how to shop with coupons as we do on a regular basis. We also learned that it was hard for many families to make healthy choices on limited resources and processed foods that they often received. What if we tied all of this together into a program called “Cooking with Coupons”, which we did in November of 2010.
The Cooking with Coupons program teaches homeless families living in a local shelter learn how to shop with coupons and cook healthy meals. The goal is to show a family of four how they can eat for $50 or less a week. Many of these families are on food stamps and with the cost of groceries rising nearly 22%, they often cannot make it to the end of the month before running out of money and wind up at overwhelmed and under-stocked local food pantries for additional support. Again what may people didn’t know about food stamps is that they do not cover what are called, “non-edible” essentials. These range from toothpaste, toilet paper, shampoo, deodorant, laundry detergent etc., all items that we would all agree are necessities in life. Shopping with coupons often allow shoppers to purchase these items for pennies. Cooking with Coupons teaches families how to help themselves. The overall long term goal is to teach a life skill of cooking and budgeting so when these families are once again employed or no longer have the need of food stamp support that they will be able feed themselves and their families.
The program has been such a rewarding experience. Young mothers who had never used a coupon before, now not only are they making it until the end of the month with their food stamp dollars, but they now have money left over to buy diapers and other essential items. These families are so excited at the prospect of gaining some control over their finances as well as their daily meals, dignity and self-respect.
It is our belief that since no food bank provides enough provisions to get through the month, it is good problem solving to utilize several sources. In June 2012, we expanded the Cooking with Coupons program to also include going to ShopRite as a group to have hands on coupon training. There were three families that attended this first event. Each client saved more than 50% on their orders. Clients stated they did not realize they could do this and were amazed at their accomplishments. As clients feel they are moving forward and becoming more successful their self-esteem increases. Clients are taught how a family of four is able to live by purchasing $200.00 worth of groceries, but paying only $50.00 each week.
On average a Cooking with Coupons event will provide quarterly instruction for 12 families with a total of approximately 50 men, women and children. Dinner is provided and no less than 500 items, all of which were purchased with coupons are set up in a mock grocery store setting for the families to take home. All of this is done on a $250 budget. Over the last three years hundreds of families have gained the life skill to budget their limited income, cook healthier meals and shop with coupons.
One of my favorite success stories is about a single mom named Sarah. Sarah was part of the Samaritan Inn shelter program beginning January 20 through June 4, 2012. Sarah complied with the program rules and really wanted to improve upon her lifestyle. Sarah understood success would come as long as she was willing to work the program, attend trainings and meetings.
Sarah attended her first Cooking with Coupons activity however did not readily apply the skills and information learned that night as she was new to the Samaritan Inn shelter program and was developing a sense of stability that was of importance to Sarah at that time. At the next Cooking with Coupons event Sarah took an active stance, asking questions and seemed very interested. Over the course of the next few weeks Sarah would report to the Samaritan Inn Case Manager that she used coupons and was able to save money that she understood would be important when she starts maintaining a household of her own. Sarah stated, “I truly enjoyed it.”
Sarah was successfully discharged June 4, 2012. After participating in a Cooking with Coupons class and shopping trip, Sarah saved more than 50% of her total bill only paying $10 on over 12 food items such as waffles, popcorn, chicken, cheese, potatoes, and other items. Since her stay, Sarah has acquired a car and she will now be able to budget her grocery bills along with her other bills. Upon her discharge, she stated she learned a lot just from our program. She learned life skills that she will have forever to never be homeless with her 3 month old baby ever again. She is very grateful for the work that makes this program have true outcomes with life long lasting effects.
That same summer, being in the Garden State, we reached out to local farmers to see if they might be willing to donate any surplus produce to the food pantries and soup kitchens we support. We had also learned that fresh produce was really never an option for food pantry clients. “Harvest for Community” program had begun. Since 2010, literally tons of fresh produce that would have otherwise been discarded has been harvested and distributed.
As we approached the holiday season in 2010 Connect for Community started the “Seasonal Events” program. Volunteers shop for items for over 1,000 Thanksgiving baskets and host an annual “Toy Giveaway” that distributes over 200 gifts to children in need. Connect for Community volunteers also host an annual “Good Friday” luncheon that serves lunch and provides Easter baskets to over 100 families.
In 2013 Connect for Community added another layer to the Summer Lunch and Cooking with Coupons programs with “Cuts for Community”. We partnered with local hair stylists to provide free haircuts to children and their parents, once again taking the well-being of the person as a whole into consideration. In the first year alone several hundred haircuts from professional stylists were provided. The director of the local homeless shelter commented at a recent Cooking with Coupons event where homeless families were receiving their haircuts, about how when she looked around the room at the faces of her clients, she could see how happy they were and she felt that they actually looked like they had forgotten that they were homeless!
The second layer to the Summer Lunch program was “Backpacks for Community”. Connect for Community partnered with two food pantries to provide school children with backpacks filled with school supplies. We learned when with schools during the 100th Day of School event that many students arrive at school without the necessary supplies for learning. How can we expect a student to be successful when perhaps they were not fed properly over the summer, did not have access to personal hygiene products, have not had a haircut and now might not even have a pencil or notebook? It’s all incomprehensible. Since the Cuts for Community program started over 500 hundred haircuts have been donated and an average of 500+ backpacks are distributed each August. Through couponing and private and corporate donations, brand new fully-stocked backpacks are provided at a cost of just $5 each! Imagine that it only takes $5 to send a child to school with the supplies that they need to be successful and the self-esteem from being well-groomed.
Ultimately, our mission is to recognize the needs in any community and create and or adapt programs to help fulfill those needs. Connect for Community’s volunteers and programs make connections in communities where there is disconnect. We connect the dots, connect people to one another, connect; businesses with the community; connect ideas with action and it is a call to all citizens to make connections in their own communities.
We have seen through our programs and donations that we are able to create an environment where there is less domestic violence, less addiction, less child abuse and less divorce. Connect for Community donations can make the difference between a child being ridiculed at school because of poor hygiene, due to lack of toiletries in the home or a parent getting a job or not. When people are able to practice good hygiene and eating habits, the result is also fewer long-term health and dental issues. The benefits are endless. Perhaps most importantly, is that the goods received enable a family to exist in an atmosphere of dignity and self-respect.
Connect for Community’s programs also create self-reliance and its volunteers demonstrate to those in our local communities that no donation or amount of support is too small to make a difference. Connect for Community’s programs provide a way to “repair the net” – to hold the line between hope and hopelessness, by becoming an active part of the solution. The power of the programs are that they engage everyone from the youngest of students to seniors cutting coupons at a local assisted living facility. Local businesses, churches, schools, farms, corporations, various industries, social organizations all tied together by one common thread. We all share a “singleness of purpose” that transcends all superficial differences.
We know that it can take just one moment or act of kindness to change the trajectory of someone’s life”. What started 5 years ago with just one food pantry and six volunteers, we see as a NJ state-wide run program in 5 years that will address the needs of each community one at a time and will engage all citizens to do their part, no matter how small. We will work daily to raise awareness and promote the realities of food insecurity.
Over the last 5 years and using 1000’s of coupons, Connect for Community has purchased over $500,000 worth of food and toiletries for barely $100,000. An additional $500,000 worth of goods, services and volunteer hours have been donated, collected and distributed.
Connect for Community incorporated as a nonprofit agency in October of 2010 and in 2011 became an official 501(c)(3) charity. In December of 2014, Connect for Community opened its first Connect for Community Center in Sparta, NJ!
It’s amazing what can happen from a little inspiration and some spare change in a plastic bag! When I think back to the events of 9/11 I am always reminded of the love of my country and what our citizens can accomplish when we work together in the face of adversity. Connect for Community will always be a conduit for people to come together, to help those in need, making our country stronger one community at a time!
Thank you Mr. President for being a part of my inspiration.
Connect for Community