A small brick house is on South 17th Street in Newark, nestled between a leafy residence and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. Maria Torres finds her sanctuary in this worn two-story house, guarded by a chain-link fence.
On February 13, 2020, Torres was promoted to operate the United Community Corporation’s Champion House pantry out of this brick building. Within a month of that promotion, the coronavirus began its deadly and widespread spread in the city of Newark, Essex County, New Jersey and beyond.
In no time at all, unemployment rates and COVID-19 cases skyrocketed, making Torres’ service one of the most important to the people of Newark and Essex Counties.
Torres was rightly nervous about the virus. Shortly before the pandemic, she was diagnosed with lupus, which greatly increased her risk. However, this autoimmune disease would not stop them from helping those in need.
After speaking to a local food bank, UCC General Manager Craig Mainor, and her staff in March, Torres made a passionate decision to keep the Champion House open and its doors have not closed since then.
Since the pandemic, this tiny house around the corner from the hustle and bustle on Clinton Avenue has been responsible for providing food to over 150,000 people with the help of donations from the Community Food Bank and the MEND Hunger Relief Network.
“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. “
In the Champion House pantry, the number of customers served from 2019 to 2020 increased 1,084 percent after serving 14,400 customers last year. Torres and her staff work tirelessly to provide food to the community and do it in a variety of ways.
They host daily distributions at Champion House, regularly attend mass distribution events, distribute through UCC’s 40+ partners, and personally deliver groceries to those who cannot leave their homes.
United Community Corporation operates the only pantry in Newark supplying families 14 days worth of groceries that must be quarantined due to COVID-19 exposure and / or contraction.
This contactless delivery service was used by the Newark Department of Health, Newark Public School District, and Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services.
“As soon as the coronavirus hit, we started delivering the COVID family and started building partnerships with local churches and organizations,” said Torres. “I always tell my employees 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. “
This family is a great motivator for Torres.
It took her two years to get her lupus diagnosis, and although she had an autoimmune disease in the middle of a pandemic, she kept pushing herself to not only do the hard work of her staff but also to serve customers in need.
“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, so that’s my motivation to keep going. “
Torres has been part of the United Community Corporation since 2013. She began volunteering at the agency’s Fulton Street Emergency Shelter and was hired later that year. She got her first taste of running a pantry at the shelter before working her way through various departments and was promoted to head the Champion House pantry in February.
The success of Champion House prompted the United Community Corporation to open a second pantry on Ann Street in Newark’s East Ward, due to open in March.
Although UCC’s pantry effort will have a second location, Torres wants to make sure their customers know that when the chain link gates are open on that tiny brick house on South 17th Street, they can step right in because they have plenty to eat .
“Everyone who comes here, we’re trying to help,” she said. “We try to treat customers like family members so that when they leave they feel like they are getting something other than food out of their visit. That is the goal of UCC. We can’t let customers go depressed, we stop, talk to them and try to get to know them. You will become part of our family. “