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Last holiday season, Ewing residents Kelly and Chris Stevens had extra reasons to be thankful.
They had moved into a new apartment with their two sons, age 15 and 8, thanks to a security deposit from Lawrence-based nonprofit HomeFront. This ended a period of homelessness for their family, during which they stayed in a low-budget hotel and their oldest son tried to run away.
They said the move was a fresh start. Kelly and Chris had jobs they liked at local restaurants. Their children benefited from the stability of having a home of their own.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. Slowly, everything unraveled.
Chris and Kelly lost their jobs and got several months behind on rent. Chris got a new position at a shipping company and worked night shifts at a restaurant, but it wasn’t enough. Afraid, they called HomeFront, and received help with back rent and groceries. Their boys were placed on a list to be sponsored so that they might receive presents this Christmas.
HomeFront has provided these kinds of services to local families for 30 years. But it has found surging demand during the pandemic. The nonprofit has distributed more than double the number of groceries and other basic essentials in 2020 than in a normal year, and six times the number of diapers and baby wipes.
The pandemic also hasn’t lessened the need for other services provided by HomeFront, such as emergency shelter for 38 families at its Family Campus in Ewing, managing 115 low-cost apartments and helping families with education, job training and placement and life skills.
Each holiday season, it also puts on its Christmas Wishes program, where individuals, churches and businesses purchase gifts for children. Homefront supplies the child’s gender, age and a wish list so that each child will have presents to open on Christmas Day. In 2019, the community supported 3,300 homeless or formerly homeless children through Homefront.
The nonprofit always has relied on help from the community in order to provide relief to local people. This remains true as it attempts to meet the increased need in the area.
Much of this support comes in the form of volunteering. More than 3,000 people volunteer at Homefront every year. Volunteers, in conjunction with in-kind donations and financial support from the community, have allowed Homefront to help 32,000 local people just this year.
“When I first got involved in public service,” says Keith Hamilton, HomeFront’s longtime volunteer Santa, “I saw HomeFront was meeting the needs of the family unit where they were at. I was so impressed with the CEO’s and staff’s tenacity to provide these services I decided I needed to help wherever I could, whenever I could.”
Robbinsville resident Lisa Landry was volunteering in HomeFront’s Atkinson Childhood Development Center daycare prior to the pandemic. She switched to helping HomeFront prepare and distribute groceries and essentials during COVID-19, to address the spike in community need.
“When COVID hit, I wanted to still find a way to contribute…and to take some of the greatly increased workload off of the staff,” she said.
In May, Lawrence residents Alexander and Eric Xia dropped off some donations for the food pantry at HomeFront’s main office on Princeton Avenue. They were shocked by the long lines of people needing help.
A month later, in June, the Xias organized a GoFundMe campaign they called “Lawrenceville HomeFront Donation.” They are still receiving donations, and have raised nearly $1,200 to date.
With the money, they purchased non-perishable foods and some personal hygiene products.
“I wanted to help those in the Lawrenceville community, most of whom have only recently been struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Alexander Xia said. “I always want to help those who do not have the privileges or resources as I do…When I wanted to help the families of the local Lawrenceville community, I knew where to go.”
Rick Lazarick from Ewing brings flowers to brighten HomeFront’s Family Campus every week and has helped arrange a Rotary Club financial grant to help HomeFront during the pandemic.
“I got to know the great work they do when the Rotary Club built a playground at HomeFront’s Campus,” he said. “The flowers I bring weekly not only decorate the dining hall, but were given to graduates during HomeFront’s [high school equivalency] graduation ceremony this July during COVID, and are used weekly for still life paintings in HomeFront’s therapeutic ArtSpace program.”
“HomeFront helps families to feel better, get educated, learn about parenting, and stand on their own two feet,” says HomeFront volunteer Madeline Lightman from West Windsor. “Coming here gives me a purpose to get up in the morning.”
Hamilton resident Donna Famoso said she’s supported Homefront for many years. Once she retired, she started helping in Homefront’s childcare office and with the infants. During the pandemic, she has been sorting food and donated items, wrapping diapers and hanging coats.
“I like that HomeFront is local,” Famoso said. “Just seeing the Family Campus and the families there versus being out on the street. In COVID times, you could go crazy sitting home, so it’s as much for me as it is for them.”
“I’m grateful HomeFront is here and I can do something,” says volunteer Alisa Hoffman, a Princeton resident. She got involved with the nonprofit after retiring from her full time job at Princeton Hospital. “I didn’t know about all of HomeFront’s services until I started volunteering. During the pandemic, I was dying to continue to find ways to help. I’m grateful this is here and I can do something.”
“Three years ago I took a bus trip with HomeFront [to see their headquarters and Family Campus],” says HomeFront employee Sue Zaveloff. “I was amazed about what is getting accomplished every day so I became a volunteer. Now I am an employee and help register families for food and organize clothing and household goods. I feel like I get more than I give. Families coming here are so appreciative for everything HomeFront provides. Our grocery bags, for example, have 27 pounds of food in one bag!”