NEWARK, NJ – It was March, at the start of the New Jersey coronavirus pandemic, when Va’Lorie James received the phone call she feared: One of her students had the virus.

James, a social worker at Barringer High School in Newark, said like many other people in the state at the time, she felt an “overwhelming sense of panic and fear”. But James also knew that she had to do everything possible to help her student and his loved ones.

What came next provided insight into an issue that the United Community Corporation (UCC) says affects many other families in Newark.

James started calling local agencies to inquire about the delivery of groceries to a family who had to be quarantined for at least 14 days and had no access to a car. The answers she received quickly became all too frequent: “We cannot give away any groceries.”

Eventually, however, James received a tip to contact the UCC, which operates a pantry that has been stepped up to help people who have left without reliable private transportation in the pandemic. And after a short conversation, groceries were delivered home just in time for two weeks.

“We’re doing something that no one is really ready to do,” said Maria Torres, who manages the pantry of the United Community Corporation’s Champion House.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Torres and her staff have served more than 150,000 people through deliveries, daily food distributions in the Champion House pantry, and distribution events, some of which have reached truly gigantic proportions.

Torres and her staff have taken the mission to heart. But it was also hard on the spirit, she reported. They’ve seen photos of empty refrigerators and babies in need of diapers, and heard “horror stories” from people battling COVID-19.

Fortunately, they can lean on each other, she added.

“I can’t do this alone,” said Torres. “It’s all because of the work of my employees. I call them the girls and it’s all because of the work of the girls. Helping people who urgently need food motivates us and keeps us going.”

The UCC has also received a huge boost from dozens of local partners, including churches and other social service groups in Newark. It also receives food donations from the Community Food Bank and the MEND Hunger Relief Network.

Food donations are just one of the ways the UCC has tried to lend a hand to Newark residents affected by the pandemic. It also operates an emergency shelter on Fulton Street, runs an energy aid program, has run virtual youth programs, and has housing aid programs to help with evictions and rental / mortgage assistance.

The Community Action Agency is ready to distribute even more food for Thanksgiving. Anyone interested in donating food can email [email protected] or contact Torres at [email protected] People in need of food can email Torres too.

“Our agency has always looked at people living in poverty and tried to find ways to help them,” said Craig Mainor, executive director of United Community Corporation.

“During this pandemic, we had to come up with a new motif that says we’ll find a way to help you put food on your table – no matter what,” Mainor said. “It may be different from the past, but we’ll find a way.”

This story is part of Patch’s Headlining Hope series, which features local nonprofits and nonprofits in need of volunteers and resources. If you know of a local organization that should be profiled, contact [email protected]

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