By David Cruz
It’s lunch prep in the kitchen at St. James Social Services, a ritual that goes on here all year long. Delicious looking meals, prepared by a mostly volunteer staff. But St. James is more than just a soup kitchen. It’s one of Essex County’s largest social service agencies, and while they serve 100,000 meals a year, they also run a food pantry, provide HIV services, rent and utility assistance and run an after-school program and summer camp. The organization is 24 years old and Executive Director Vesta Godwin Clark, who’s been here for 17 of them, this year has been one of its toughest.
“It’s been a real tough year in terms of funding,” she said. “We have a cash flow problem. Not many funders want to provide funding for general operations and that causes a cash flow because most of our grants are reimbursable grants. In order for us to provide the services, we have to put the money out and then wait to receive the money back, which can take a long time.”
The agency runs on a tight $600,000 a year budget. There’s not a lot of wiggle room in there when the variety of programs cost almost $25,000 a month to run. And since 2008, says Godwin Clark, the number of clients here has almost tripled.
“When I first came, people who came to the soup kitchen were homeless; they had no place to live. Now I say we not only feed the homeless, we feed the hungry,” she noted. “And it really happened in 2008, when we had the recession. That’s when you had your middle class people who lost their jobs and they started coming to our food kitchen and a lot of those people still haven’t found employment and they still come here.”
Over the past few years, the building on MLK in Newark has had a fire that left a massive hole in the roof, water damage from heavy rain and other seemingly biblical plagues, like four break-ins. Despite it all, this largely volunteer crew comes back every day, joined today by a United States senator.
“All of our programs are run by volunteers, our feeding programs,” she told Sen. Cory Booker.
Booker’s New Jersey home is just up the street from St. James and he and Godwin Clark know each other well.
“It’s such a great community,” he said. “St. James has been doing work with the homeless, families in need, empowering children that are facing lots of challenges, so this is just a great organization and during the holiday season, it’s nice for all of us to try to be of service to others.”
For Sherry Muhammad, St. James is a lifesaver. “This place means a lot to me because these people help us,” she said. “Especially when you’re so hungry. When you’re so hungry, you get a chance to come inside and sit down. Some places like, you have to stand up outside, even in the snow you got to stand up outside and eat.”
It makes a difference. And St. James has been making a difference, despite a dire cash flow situation which has it on the brink, with just over $14,000 on hand and bill collectors as present as funders are scarce. After 17 years on the job, Godwin Clark knows how to buttonhole people who can help and the senator is one of those. It’s how you keep the wolves from the door, finding angels wherever you can and powerful politicians when you must.
Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multi-platform 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.