Jane Latini, executive director of Interfaith Caregivers of Greater Mercer County, has a solemn recollection of the moment she realized that her organization’s work and its volunteers could make the difference between life and death for those in need.
“I got a call from a social worker about a woman, Gloria, who lived in an area where we didn’t have any volunteers or group leaders. I could have said ’sorry, we don’t have anyone out there,’” she said.
But Interfaith Caregivers, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that helps meet the concerns and special needs of the homebound elderly and people with disabilities in Mercer County, NJ, has a policy: Never say no.
“We are the safety net for many, many people. So I decided to go out and do this myself,” Latini recalled.
Latini and her organization’s network of 300 volunteers are ready to be dispatched at any moment, but a recent $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation provided unrestricted support to ensure that gaps in Interfaith Caregiver’s service are few and far between.
The grant was part of a total of $460,000 in competitive grants awarded through the Community Foundation’s signature program, Greater Mercer Grants. The competitive grants go to local nonprofit organizations to help build social capital and provide opportunities to low-income individuals and families.
“We see organizations like Jane’s as not only important, but absolutely essential to the health and well-being of hundreds of people throughout Mercer County,” said Nancy Kieling, Community Foundation president. “What we can do as a Community Foundation is support her work and know that this support is an investment in saving lives,” she said.
As it turned out in Gloria’s case, a life was saved. When she arrived at Gloria’s house, Latini was greeted by “this tall, thin, frail woman” who had just finished eating the hamburger her son bought her earlier that week.
She had cut it into quarters to make sure the meal would last several days. Latini recalled how the only thing Gloria had left was her faith:
“When I arrived, she told me that she had been sitting there, saying her prayers. She told me: ‘Look, you walked in.’”
“I went to her refrigerator and there was a half glass of cold water, so I went shopping, made her a sandwich and we sat and just talked,” Latini said. “But I can’t begin to tell you how much Gloria changed me. It reminded me that, in the volunteer world, there is a sacred relationship between the giver and the receiver.”
Since then, Gloria has built a new relationship with a new caregiver, Coleen Mejas, a nutritionist who visits Gloria regularly, bringing her to family outings and treating her with the dignity and respect everyone deserves. In December, Mejas brought her two sons and Gloria to see The Nutcracker.
“Gloria’s alive and it’s amazing the difference a volunteer can make,” Latini said. “There’s a life saved and she’s so happy now.”
“The Community Foundation’s Greater Mercer Grants are not possible without the support of generous individuals, corporations and foundations from throughout Mercer County,” said Kieling. “They come together to support the well being of our region and its most vulnerable citizens.”
Greater Mercer Grants Support Low-Income People and the Organizations That Serve Them
Greater Mercer Grants focus on programs and organizations working to make a sustainable difference in the lives of community members. “We support specific programs in food, shelter, education, youth development and offer unrestricted support for well-run, robust organizations that focus on the needs of Mercer County residents,” Kieling said.
The New Jersey Agricultural Society received a $20,000 Greater Mercer Grant under this category for its Farmers Against Hunger (FAH) program. FAH collects excess fruits and vegetables from New Jersey’s farms and delivers to organizations dedicated to feeding people. FAH directly helps to raise awareness by mobilizing over 1200 volunteers to help harvest at local farms.
Kristina Guttadora, New Jersey Agricultural Society executive director, credits her organization’s vast volunteer reserve and the generosity of the farmers, who welcome volunteers onto their land, for FAH’s success. In fact, in 2012, FAH recovered over 1.2 million pounds of fresh food, which would otherwise have been plowed under, discarded, or fed to animals.
“So many things factor in to our success and how we can effectively support our communities, and the Community Foundation plays an enormous role in that success,” said Guttadora.
Building Social Capital
Another category helps build the region’s social capital through increasing the strength and cohesiveness of communities, in line with the Community Foundation’s objective to bridge the divide across geographic and cultural boundaries.
Artworks Trenton, a nonprofit visual arts center, received a $35,000 Greater Mercer Grant under this category.
“I have a community organizing background, so I understand working with community stakeholders with a goal of making a community-wide impact,” said Lynn Lemyre, Artworks Trenton executive director. “We need to work together to make the biggest impact, and the Community Foundation understands that,” she said.
Artworks promotes artistic diversity by fostering creativity, learning, and appreciation of the arts. Its classes, exhibitions, and events aim to make art accessible to the entire community. Although the gallery has a “staff of one” in Lemyre, she relies on dozens of volunteers to keep things afloat.
Operating out of a vast, raw, open space with exposed brick walls and steel roof trusses, the entire space—once a storage facility owned by the New Jersey State Highway Department)—is filled with natural light that completely reveals just how much happens under the roof. It’s here where the gallery’s adult and youth programs, exhibits and open studios take place. Art All Night, a 24-hour visual and performing arts festival staged at the old Roebling Wire Rope factory, has become the premier public visual arts event in the region every June.
On this particular day, Lemyre admires the space, notably bare, as Artworks prepares for a new group show, The False Mirror: Surrealism Forward and Back. “This space is perfect for what we do,” Lemyre said: “It’s right downtown, it’s accessible, and it’s recognizable. It perfectly suits the work we do.”
“We wouldn’t be here without the support of the Community Foundation,” she said. “They are so vital. If they disappeared, we wouldn’t be able to build a community of artists or have the scope of exhibits. The work we do is intensive and to have that help is invaluable.”
“We believe that building communities with strong, diverse relationships will help us begin to solve the big problems we share,” Kieling said. “As neighborhoods are strengthened, we gain the power to tackle the big issues of unmet needs and imbalances of opportunity. As people and groups develop real, sustainable relationships across towns and cultural/economic barriers, we can share our strengths and resources and collaborate on our region’s shared promise.”
For the full list of recipients click here.