By Lois Rogers | Correspondent
“Amen, I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” Matthew 17:20
Those piloting the lifeboat known as the Visitation Relief Center have leaned heavily on this Scripture passage during the hard times, and there have been many since Superstorm Sandy swept away huge swaths of coastal Ocean County in October 2012.
The crew, said Christie Winters, Visitation Relief Center’s founding director, especially drew strength from those words Oct. 14 – the day the outreach agency closed its doors due to building code deficiencies.
Photo Gallery: Visitation Relief Center
Ceasing operations halted a wide range of social services to those who lost everything in the storm, Winters said. Before the order to close, the agency housed on the perimeter of Visitation Parish at 725 Mantoloking Road, Brick, provided help to some 3,000 people a month.
Among those services were a food pantry, outreach and advocacy programs and partnerships with nonprofit business and faith-based organizations including Catholic Charities and the Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, which focused on helping those still in need after the storm.
It also halted one of the center’s main goals: recruiting a new generation of volunteers in an effort to connect young people to Christ.
Related Coverage: Building deficiencies force Visitation Relief Center closure
Even as VRC shuttered its doors, Visitation Parish pastor, Father Edward H. Blanchett, drew attention to that connection, saying at the time that in addition to aiding those in need, VRC was “a vitally needed way to bring and keep our young people active in their faith in a way that resonated with them.”
He pledged to do everything possible to keep the outreach operation going, which is one reason why the VRC has reopened for business in a temporary location during fundraising and renovations for the original site.
The support of Father Blanchett and parishioners, coupled with the willingness of the Diocese and municipal officials to explore ways to keep the center afloat, buoyed Winters and the core group of key staff members and volunteers.
“We see that God had other doors to open for us, things we never would have seen or experienced if this [the closure] hadn’t happened,” she said.
One of those doors will hopefully open on a long-term goal: seeing the Mantoloking site rehabilitated and reopened with 501(c)(3) nonprofit status as a separate Catholic social service agency and with a new name – Seeds of Service – reflecting both the beloved biblical reference and the Morse Code call letters “SOS” for help in an emergency.
“We coined the name all together,” Winters said. “What we do is plant hope, love and faith.”
But back on Oct. 14, the door God would open was only slightly ajar.
After the agency known widely as “725” shut down to deal with construction issues, a threefold phase commenced that involved bringing the site up to code while offering services in a temporary facility.
This called for a fundraising operation to carry the cost of major improvements – estimated at $200,000 – and limited resumption of operations in a 5,000-square-foot former martial arts academy in the Laurel Square Shopping Center on Route 88.
Among the improvements needed, Father Blanchett and Winters said, included a fire escape; the removal of the warehouse section of the building that did not meet current codes; repairs to a 20-by-45-foot concrete slab; electrical upgrades and a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system.
Father Blanchett said the project, which some could have found daunting, instead challenged those devoted to the cause, citing the helpfulness of the Diocese in facilitating permits with Brick Township officials as well as the good works of groups such as the Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties and parish St. Vincent de Paul Society.
On Jan. 15, the Visitation Relief Center opened in its temporary quarters, a move made possible by the Brixmor Property Group of Conshohocken, Pa., the rental agent for the Laurel Square Shopping Center.
“They gave us a remarkable discount on the lease,” Father Blanchett said.
Winters added that Brixmor has a reputation for working with nonprofits. “We are paying about $2,000 a month. It is a good thing.
It has helped us to keep going.”
Making it Work
Walk into the temporary VRC location at Laurel Square, and it’s immediately clear that the outreach center is active, engaged and vital to those dealing with ongoing hard economic times. The storefront offers essentials – a food pantry, clothing and household goods.
The front of the center fulfills Father Blanchett’s initial goal of “ensuring that current clients aren’t left out in the cold.” And indeed, on one recent afternoon, a rack of winter coats and jackets was strategically placed where those in need of warmth could help themselves.
Both Winters and Father Blanchett also mentioned the food pantry, which, since relocating in Laurel Square, takes an open choice, supermarket approach.
Instead of everyone receiving bags filled with the same foods, families now shop for the items. “Signs let them know exactly what is on the shelving and to take what they need,” Winters said.
“There are special shelves for those with diabetes or limited cooking facilities. It’s more respectful,” she added.
There is a referral desk where clients can get information and additional help. On Wednesdays, the center hums as volunteer Richard Haas handles “Attire for Hire,” a program that outfits employment-seekers with clothing suitable for job searches and aids in updating resumes.
Wednesdays also feature Susan Fowler from the Foodbank of Monmouth and Ocean Counties, who multi-tasks by appointment, processing food stamp applications, income taxes and helping job-seekers make contact with local employers.
Less visible to casual onlookers is the extraordinary fundraising effort known as the Visitation Relief Center Online Emporium, which Winters describes as an “online thrift shop.” The business operations are run at the facility.
Along with contributions from individuals and private sources, the Emporium – stocked with rows of well-appointed donated clothing and household items – has been the mainstay of the fundraising effort.
To date, it has carried the overhead of the work at both sites as well as the wages for seven core staff members as they integrate tasks throughout the day.
“Eighty percent of the work is done by volunteers,” Winters said. “As we are open 60 hours throughout the week, you need to have consistent coverage. The Emporium sustains the whole entire program.”
The crew works the online Emporium in the mornings. On March 27, Winters and crew including Lydia Kelly and outreach managers Cheri Gleason and Ruth Murphy rounded up and shipped some 70 parcels of merchandise ordered by those who peruse the website.
“The Emporium prides itself in getting the orders out with one-day shipping and a quick turnover. That’s as good as it gets,” Winters said.
They also work side-by-side with some of the Brick High School students bused in every day by the public school system to gain retail skills as part of their structured learning program.
Andrew Perez, a 16-year-old sophomore, who comes in with his twin brother, Matthew, said he enjoys the work. The two take the school bus back to the center every afternoon to devote more time to the operation.
“We have varied duties. It’s great. I like to help out,” Andrew Perez said as he sorted shelves. “When I first came here, this section was a cluttered mess. I straightened it out. It makes me feel proud.”
Zachary Corduan – who arrived at the center four years ago with Partners in Careers, a program that teaches self-sufficiency through job training and employment services – is another regular at the center.
He takes pride in sharing that he stacks shelves, fills containers with pet food and sorts vegetables in the pantry. “Coming here helps me to learn. I like working a job, and the people are nice and helpful and they like me,” he said, drawing wide smiles from his co-workers.
Like Corduan, many who have contributed their time and talents to the Visitation Relief Center have done so for years. Among them is Kelly.
“I was born into the parish,” Kelly said. “A lot of my friends and family members including my mother and sister were affected by the storm. My sister lost everything. My mother had five feet of water in her house.
“When I heard right after the storm that the [parish] was reaching out to the community and needed help, I joined in and never left,” said Kelly, who also volunteers with the parish youth ministry. “When we learned that 725 would have to cease operating, we were upset but we never thought of giving up.”
With the renovations continuing at the site on Mantoloking Road, Winters keeps her eye on the future.
“It’s very important that we continue,” she said. “People still need help.”