At IHN, we may sound like a broken record but we LOVE how our volunteers connect with our mission. Everyone has their own way.
Peter Avellaneda is a junior at William Paterson University and a member of their Enactus chapter, an international non-profit organization. Their mission as a community of student, academic and business leaders is to use the power of entrepreneurial action to transform lives and shape a better more sustainable world. For the second year in a row, students from this group have developed projects to teach entrepreneurship to IHN families, adults and children alike.
When Peter, the group’s student leader, contacted us about ideas for 2015, their vision was to conduct job seeker workshops for IHN parents. Using a grant from Walmart, the 10-person team pulled together resources for workshops that focused on applying for jobs; the interviewing process and preparedness, such as researching the company and dressing professionally; resume and cover letter writing. Since a number of the students have attended training workshops at WPU’s Career Development Center, they were able to use it to train IHN parents.
One of the students, Rashawn Ramirez, began the first workshop by talking about his own experience with homelessness and why he was motivated to complete his college education and position himself for future success. This personal testimony made IHN parents feel comfortable about sharing their struggles with employment because as one parent put it, “he knows what we’re going through.” At IHN we heard only positive comments about the workshops. Moms and dads not only gained practical, hands-on information but felt more confident and inspired to keep applying for job openings. Peter hopes to check in with the families down the road to determine the success parents had in finding employment.
Although the students have completed their project for Enactus, they would like to continue working with IHN families as new ones rotate into our shelter program. Peter shared that in the end, it’s not about competing (for Enactus), but about making a difference for IHN families.
Congregation Shomrei Emunah has a history of "adopting" IHN families for the holidays and buying gifts on their wish list through their Shomrei Shares program. This year, Shomrei and IHN Staff member Amanda Seeff-Charny had a different idea. Knowing that families lose most of their possessions when they're evicted, she thought it made sense as part of our Home for Good program to have IHN ask families to fill out a registry of items needed to rebuild their homes and better care for their families.
Next, Shomrei conducted a drive, the result being nine tall boxes filled to the top with wrapped giftsof sheets, towels, pots, colanders, potholders, blenders, and more. Our families were grateful to be the recipients of such generous and thoughtful gifts -- a terrific boon to their homes for the year.
Left: Laurence Howard will use his gifts to set up his household for the care of his niece.
Every year IHN holds a holiday party for families we have helped over the years. We depend on a volunteer group to plan it, provide food, music and festivities. When former coordinator Jamelle Straker called us to see how her group, the Montclair Drifters, could help the organization, we offered several ideas including the holiday party. Little did we know that the Drifters are experts at throwing a good party! After meeting with us, Jamelle and Drifters VP Penny Corum went to work.
The result? The Drifters provided IHN families with a stunning party featuring beautiful décor and a catered buffet dinner, They had a photographer on hand who took the picture of each family and provided them with a framed photo. They also recruited Jazz House Kids to perform the best music we’ve heard in a long time! What an inspiration it was for the IHN children to see older kids playing so skillfully. The Drifters as well as Cathy Klein and daughters guided the younger children with crafts.
Sharon Simmons has been involved with IHN for a number of years through her daughter's school and Girl Scout troop, but it wasn't until recently that she connected with us on a professional level. As a professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at William Paterson University, Sharon wanted to expose her students to IHN and our mission.
A group of her students were working on a team project for Enactus, an international non-profit organization that brings together student, academic and business leaders who use the power of entrepreneurial action for social good.
These 15 students competed this past spring in the Enactus national competition. The project they chose was to publish a book online about the Declaration of Independence Signers. One student is a descendent of one of the signers. He is passionate about bringing to life all of the signers and not just the four who are well known.
For the book, they gathered one-page excerpts on each of the 56 Declaration of Independence Signers and then spoke with children in the IHN Afterschool Program about the relevance of the document from an historic and modern perspective. The children wrote their reflections, some of which are included in the book.
The students presented their book project to Enactus. Although they didn't win the competition, they learned valuable lessons about social entrepreneurship, which they hope to use in future endeavors. The students also sold copies of the book around campus and donated the proceeds to IHN. The project may be finished, but we hope that this is just the beginning of opportunities for future collaboration.
Alex Cole is an original. For IHN that means she was one of the original founders of IHN of Essex County over 26 years ago. Today she is the only founder in the network who continues to act as a volunteer coordinator. We recently spoke with Alex to help recapture some of the organizational history, and to learn the secret of her longevity.
Her time with IHN dates back to May 1987 when she gathered with a group of clergy and individuals who were interested in helping families that were experiencing homelessness. As a representative of St. Stephen's Church, Alex led the charge to involve her congregation. Thanks to the support of the rector and congregation, St. Stephen's became the 4th hosting congregation in April 1988, a month after IHN of Essex County opened.
Alex credits Sara Ruth Dorn for her strong partnership over the years. Sara Ruth has been responsible for all aspects of food coordination each time St. Stephen's has hosted. This includes recruiting and managing volunteers for shopping and preparing meals, and ensuring that the kitchen is well stocked for the families according to their dietary needs.
When asked about her thoughts on what makes a good volunteer, Alex talks about the importance of being a caring presence -- simply being there, able to respond as needed. It means not coming in with expectations, but letting the families go about their business. And since life is often uncertain, especially when one is homeless, a volunteer must be flexible and understanding. One of Alex's favorite moments is seeing a volunteer who starts out with a fear of serving become completely committed.
Alex says that she has started to transfer her IHN activities to another church member who is eager to learn the ropes. She hasn't said she's stepping down, though. We have a feeling that year 27 for Alex is right around the corner. At IHN, we couldn't be more grateful.