MADISON, NJ – Many would say Newark takes a lot of love. In Madison, one person felt that they might need a ton of sandwiches too.
Since November last year, Madison’s Sun Ju Valenta has teamed up with dozen of volunteers of all ages to travel to Newark on Sunday to distribute groceries and other supplies to the homeless.
“I’ve helped several organizations over and over in the past, but this is the first time I’ve been leading the group of people and coordinating our group work,” said Valenta. “I’ve found that people in general like to give. They just need to know who and how to focus their energies. I often say that my role is the easiest of them all. The volunteers all make sandwiches and I’m organizing it. I found that a lot of the people in Madison are very generous. “
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Originally from South Korea, Valenta came to the United States in 1995 to pursue her education and career, and to escape the oppression of the country’s male-dominated society. Although difficult in the early years, Valenta managed to complete her degree and gain entry to the Pratt Institute, where she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1999. She then began her first job as an interior designer at Gensler Associates (the largest interior design company in the United States) based in Rockefeller Center.
Valenta has been married to her husband, the architect David Valenta, since 2003. The couple now live in Madison with their two teenage daughters, Jenna and Ava. Today she works as a senior interior designer at the architecture and engineering office LAN Associates in Midland Park. She manages a wide variety of projects, from commercial and institutional projects to projects for private customers in the three-state area. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Valenta recently started a small online shopping company called KATbySun.
But her main focus these days is feeding the needy in Newark. Her inspiration to give back goes back to her childhood in her home country.
“I grew up at a time when Korea came by itself after the war,” said Valenta. “Many people thrived in the 1970s, but many others didn’t, and I often saw homelessness in our city.” My parents would do anything to help the less fortunate, and experiencing this at a young age became part of who I am today. In November 2020, I read a Facebook post from someone looking for blankets for the homeless in Newark. I knew a group of women who make quilted blankets for donations in Pompton Plains. I responded immediately and contacted them to help bridge the gap between supply and demand. My daughters and I brought the blankets to Newark that first Sunday and quickly discovered that the homeless needed more than blankets. The provision of sandwiches and other food and drink, along with warm clothing and shoes, has become a major concern of many donors and volunteers who willingly joined the fight from Madison, Chatham and Pequannock. “
A year ago, a community group called The Study Group on the Light of the Gospel in Newark initiated this outreach in the city. Valenta had reached out to the group, bringing new supplies from the Madison area every week. To their surprise, many more Madison residents followed suit and took the opportunity to give something back to the city’s homeless. Despite the dark and cold hours of the morning, Valenta and her volunteers, who were once around 65 for a week, stand up and deliver their sandwiches to the crowds.
“There are many adults involved, but there are also some high school students working to do their best for the good of society, many elementary school students and Boy Scout troops who continually donate personal hygiene kits and decorate brown packed lunches with happy messages of hope and love,” said Valenta.
“Some local companies got involved to donate their services. Occasionally, upon special request, I will receive monetary donations for the purchase of certain supplies or items of clothing. It’s a truly cross-community effort that is both amazing and inspiring to all of us. “
Since November, Valenta’s Sandwich Army has grown to support many other initiatives and organizations in Madison and beyond. This includes The Bridges Outreach from Summit, Mt. Kemble Senior Center from Morristown, Little Sisters of the Poor from Totowa and individual families in need upon request.
Much supplies are provided and consumed by Newark’s homeless people. Most of Valenta’s crew handed out during a week in February, including 700 sandwiches, 120 hard-boiled eggs, 10 gallons of juice, 150 canned foods, and 62 single meals. Although the total number of deliveries distributed is unknown, the thought always counts.
“It was my main focus next to family and job,” said Valenta. “Overall, I find it extremely satisfying, but it’s often the smaller, more personal touches that really give you the heartfelt experience that comes from giving.” Serving others in need is something everyone should do at one point or another in their life. I enjoy hearing their stories and then trying to comfort or help them with anything I have on hand and if I don’t have it right there I promise to have it in the next week. This gives them hope that they will have another day or week to live. The odds for her out there are very different than for you and me. “
Valenta regularly posts updates and reports on her Facebook account while keeping in touch with my homeless people. New ideas come up every day to give something back to more people in need. The future seems to be getting better for those struggling through these troubled times.
“I often wonder if more virtual volunteer groups like ours have emerged and how much can be achieved in the US,” said Valenta.
“With that kind of mindset, forming a nonprofit to grow the fruits of our labor would take you to the next level and empower more people to give back.”
To learn more about Sun Ju Valenta’s community project and how you can get involved, visit her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100009858422633 or on Instagram at https: //www.instagram .com / katbysun /.