Politicians and volunteers serve up hot meals at Eva’s Village in Paterson

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

We begin in a kitchen. Where people without enough to eat are being seated and served turkey and all the trimmings by people who choose to serve, along with those elected to serve the community and country. Senior Correspondent Brenda Flanagan is at Eva’s Village in Paterson with volunteers who every day are helping people still chasing the dream.

Eva’s Village in Paterson laid out a feast for 300 guests — a traditional meal of turkey with all the trimmings. Since it opened to serve the homeless in 1982, Eva’s has seen a distinct shift in clientele.

“More of the people that we’re serving are actually members of our working-poor community. They’re people that work in the community, that have minimum wage jobs,” said Heather Thompson, the executive vice president for development and external relations at Eva’s Village. “They come here because this is a really important resource for them to stretch their dollars. But this, for a lot of people, can also be a gateway to getting other types of help that they need.”

“I asked for some help, and Eva’s gave me some help. And in return, I ended up working here,” said Willie Allen, a kitchen employee at Eva’s Village.

Allen landed at Eva’s after battling addiction and serving hard time at Rahway State Prison. He now serves up sliced turkey and life lessons.

“Eva’s gave me hope. You know, I mean, I finally found some people that regardless of what I’ve done, you know, they looked over that,” said Allen. “And they said, ‘What do you want to do now, with yourself? What do you want to do with your life right now?’ And I told them I wanted to change, and they gave me the opportunity to do that.”

“I’ve learned how to take a chicken apart. I’ve tasted raw oysters — never had that before,” said Sarah Gist, student chef at Eva’s Village. “I’m an intern, and I just love it. I wouldn’t have it no other way.”

Eva’s culinary school gave Gist, Gist, a Paterson mom-of-two, a scholarship and will help her find a job. Eva’s has graduated 200 chefs over the past four years, with a 90 percent placement rate.

“It was difficult. In the beginning it was really, really hard to sit with the other students, but the chef’s were, like, very helpful. And I’m so grateful for the chefs because they just helped us so much,” Gist said.

“Our connections and our due diligence can get people a job. Can they keep the job? And we’re finding, with the skills that they’re learning with us, with the professionalism they’re learning with us, they are keeping the job,” said Dave Belin, the kitchen director at Eva’s Village.

Politicians like to pitch in and help serve at Eva’s Thanksgiving dinner. Sen. Menendez is a regular. After winning a nasty re-election campaign, he says he’s thankful.

“I’m thankful to the people of New Jersey, who saw through all the negativity and rejected it,” said Menendez.

He’s mindful most residents opted to vote for him purely because they wanted a check on the current president.

“He’s going to find out when many of us in the Senate will use the filibuster, if we have to, on legislation to stop some of the abuses. And I’m thankful for the courts that so far have stopped him in many different ways from abusing his office. So, you know, but he has no appreciation of those checks and balances,” Menendez said.

Menendez is grateful for a shot at redemption. As for these dinner guests, the hot meal offers a chance to exchange warm greetings and come in out of the cold.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.