The small, rural town of Wantage in Sussex County, NJ, is known as a “doughnut town” because it surrounds several other towns in both New Jersey and New York. Much like its demographics, the people at Wantage UMC have surrounded their community during the pandemic by stepping up to help those who are hungry.
At the forefront of this effort is Melissa Fortuna, who since May 20 has been leading a free, no-contact dinner once a week for about 75 people. Along with her husband, Edmund, daughter, Amber and son, Tyler, and some church members including Sandy Post, Glen Sumpman and Kenny Reuter, Wantage UMC prepares homecooked meals like baked chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, carrots and dessert for those who visit the church.
“A lot of people lost jobs. People are really hurting,” said Fortuna who has been a member of the church for the past 12 years and serves as the church’s mission chairperson and a lay member to the conference. The church applied for and received support from the NJ Pandemic Relief Fund for their feeding program.
Their hard work did not go unrecognized. In June U.S. Congressman Josh Gottheimer (NJ-5) honored local frontline health care workers and first responders, veterans, students, search and rescuers, life-saving bystanders, volunteers, teachers, community leaders and residents who worked to help the community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortuna was among those heroes.
“Melissa, thank you for making everyone’s days a little brighter. I am proud to name you a Hometown hero,” said Gottheimer at the virtual ceremony.
Fortuna has a habit of being a hero. This December will mark the anniversary of the free Christmas Day dinner that she started 10 years ago when she helped serve more than 300 meals. The tradition will continue again this December, but the meals will be distributed with no contact.
Call it a Family Affair or the Brady Bunch, but Fortuna and her husband of 16 years together have six children. As a family, they help others. Even their three-year-old granddaughter gets involved. In October, in addition to the no-contact dinner, they started to supply families with five-gallon buckets filled with staples like flour and sugar.
“This way they can make other things in addition to what we give them,” said Fortuna who said she has always liked to help people.
One of her biggest inspirations and the person who contributed to her creation of a missions committee at the church, Fortuna said, was Rev. Alfred Jaeger who retired from Wantage UMC in 2015.
“He inspired me to do more. Through his guidance I exploded. He was the reason why I did what I did. He was a perfect mentor.”
Fortuna said she is already thinking about her next idea for a new ministry. Word is it might involve wheels. Meanwhile, her husband, Edmund is studying to be a pastor.
To make a reservation for a no-contact dinner, visit www.wantageumc.org.