The holidays can be a joyous time, as families and friends gather together in celebration of the season of giving. We give thanks for blessings big and small: the health of loved ones, the food on our tables, the roof over our heads.
But the holidays also cause us to reflect upon the pain and losses of the past year. On December 21, 85 people gathered at First Presbyterian Church in Cranford, New Jersey for the second annual Homeless Memorial Vigil. They came together for an interfaith service in remembrance of the 43 people who died in Union County in 2017 due to lack of shelter or care, with speakers addressing how each of their faiths are called to serve the homeless and the poor.
Rev. Caroline Unzaga of First Presbyterian Church of Cranford said, “We hold this vigil on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. In the middle of the darkness, we are holding up the light of each person who has passed this year and honoring their lives by saying their names.”
Agencies from across the county participated, including: Family Promise-Union County (FPUC), HomeFirst, Monarch Housing, Community Access Unlimited, Elizabeth Coalition to House the Homeless, and the Union County Interfaith Coordinating Council. The Vigil was the culmination of the second annual Homeless Sabbath, which engaged more than 20 congregations in Union County.
Amy Jones, Manager of Volunteer Engagement for Family Promise, spoke to the event’s significance: “The vigil is important to remember the lives of those we lost. But it is also a way to raise awareness that homelessness remains a life-threatening issue in our community. This service demonstrates our commitment to working together to prevent and, ultimately, end homelessness.”
Even with more than 1,000 volunteers supporting the Union County program alone, the need for services and resources continues. In 2017’s Point of Time Count, 475 people were identified as homeless in Union County.
Summit-based Celgene Corporation certainly did their part to make the holidays a little more special for some lucky area kids. Their IT department initiated a Holiday Gift Drive from the week after Thanksgiving through December 17th. When the drive’s proceeds were tallied, Celgene employees had purchased more than 200 brand new presents for 30 current and graduate families in the Union County program. They then joined Family Promise volunteers in personally delivering the gifts to the families’ homes.
“We don’t have the money to buy a ton of gifts for a bunch of children,” said Family Promise volunteer Andre Johnson. “It’s nice that Celgene was able to collect the toys so that we could deliver them to bring joy to kids in need.”
“The children are the reason we do all that we do,” said Angelica Johnson, taking time out from her work at Family Promise to deliver Celgene’s presents to area children with her husband, Andre. “To see their excited faces when they opened the door—it melts your heart. To share a moment with them, hearing about their day and how school is going, makes you hopeful that the stigma of homelessness has not scarred them. That is in thanks to the Union County program. And, thanks to Celgene, I know that their Christmas morning was bright and full of joy. I am glad I got to be one of Santa’s elves this year and I look forward to being one next year.”
In December, Ashley HomeStore’s national Hope to Dream program celebrated seven years of providing the gift of sleep to children nationwide. FPUC was one of several recipients of Ashley HomeStore of Central New Jersey and Staten Island, which donated more than 100 mattress sets to the children of local families in need in an event co-hosted by Rutgers Preparatory School in Franklin.
From the Union County program, four children from three families received new beds, complete with sheets and pillows, as well as backpacks and other holiday gifts. “It was a spectacular event,” said FPUC Executive Director Geleen Donovan. “Every child present was matched with a Rutgers Prep student as their ambassador for the day. It made them feel very special.”
“We are thrilled that we are able to donate twice as many beds as last year this holiday season and that 100 children in our local communities will be able to spend the holidays in their new bed,” said Ashley HomeStore CNJ-SI President and CEO Will Schafer.
The Hope to Dream program provides beds to less fortunate children across the U.S. and Canada. A portion of the proceeds for every mattress purchased at one of the 435 participating Ashley HomeStores helps pay for beds for children in need. Hope to Dream has donated more than 50,000 beds nationwide since the program began in 2010.
And, as a fitting end to the holiday season, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day our founder and president emeritus, Karen Olson, received a “Keeper of the Dream” award from Shaping Summit Together during their Day of Justice, Equality and Service to Others. Karen was selected for the award because the impact of her work at Family Promise continues the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a beautiful award ceremony! Thanks to Rev. Gladys Moore of St. John’s Lutheran Church for introducing Karen!
Her work and spirit remain an inspiration to all of us at Family Promise.