NEWARK, NJ – As unemployment rates and COVID-19 cases catapulted Newark in the early stages of the pandemic, a local woman tried to keep up her community engagement despite her illness.
In February 2020, Maria Torres was named director of the Champion House of the United Community Corporation’s Newark-based pantry on South 17th St. However, Torres found that she was diagnosed with lupus before the pandemic broke out. But even when Torres faced an autoimmune disease that she described as “high risk” for contracting COVID, she pushed forward to give back to the people of Brick City.
After talks began between UCC Executive Director Craig Mainor, Torres, and their staff, the group decided to keep the pantry open to help out with Newark residents. To this day, the doors have not closed.
“I kept thinking, what if my mother or I found ourselves in a situation where we had no food? We want an agency like UCC to be there to help, ”said Torres. “I can’t believe what we can do with this tiny house. I think there is something magical about this house or something like that because we were able to feed so many people. After everything we’ve achieved here, I almost wish I could live in this house. “
This South 17th Street home has provided food to more than 150,000 people since then, along with donations from the Community Food Bank and the MEND Hunger Relief Network.
After serving nearly 14,400 people in 2019, UCC officials said the number of customers served with Torres on top in the pantry has increased 1,084% since then.
With the aim of helping the community, she and the pantry staff host daily distributions, attend mass distribution events, work with over 40 UCC partners, and personally hand out food to those unable to leave their homes.
Currently, the UCC home operates the only pantry in Newark supplying families 14 days worth of groceries quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure and / or infection. This service, which uses contactless delivery, was used by the city’s Department of Health, District Public Schools, and Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services.
Even as a high-risk person, an autoimmune disease and pandemic didn’t stop the UCC pantry leader.
“I don’t let my condition stop me from working with my great people and helping people,” she said. “When I found out I had lupus, I said, ‘This won’t cripple me. That will make me stronger. ‘I know people need us now, that’s my motivation to keep going.
“As soon as the coronavirus hit, we started delivering the COVID family and began building partnerships with local churches and organizations. I always tell my co-workers that Maria cannot do this alone. My people work so hard to take care of our community. This is a team and this is a family, ”she added.
Richard Greco, UCC’s director of community engagement, praised Torres’ commitment to serving local residents in the face of their illness.
“Maria is a superhero,” said Greco. “There are so many times that I’m nervous about going to work, but Maria fearlessly asserts herself every day despite being at high risk. The number of people her department has served is incredible.” and truly evidence of Mary’s willingness to serve the community selflessly during a pandemic. She is a phenomenal ambassador for our agency. “
Mainor also expressed appreciation for Torres’ efforts.
“Maria’s story tells exactly what our agency’s purpose and mission is all about,” he said. “She is from the church we serve. It represents the promise that our mission should be for everyone in our region. Maria and her family have goals that they have set for themselves and they have allowed us to support them along the way to achieve those goals. We will continue to support her and others like Maria in achieving these goals and achieving their own defined success. ”
Torres joined the UCC team in 2013 and began volunteering at the agency’s Fulton Street Emergency Shelter. He was hired later that year. Before working in the Newark building of the UCC, she gained early experience in running a pantry in the animal shelter, which led through various departments.
Given the success of the program, UCC recently announced that a second pantry is expected to arrive on Ann Street in Newark’s East Ward in March.
Although the company’s pantry efforts have earned it a second location, Torres wants to make sure their customers know that their building on South 17th Street will remain an important resource in the community.
“Everyone who comes here, we’re trying to help,” she said. “We try to treat customers like family so that when they leave, they feel like they are getting something other than food out of their visit. We can’t let customers go depressed. We’ll stop, talk to you and try to get to know you. You will become part of our family. “