Aldersgate Outreach Community Center Serves Neighbors in Need

April 9, 2024 |

While times feel tough for a lot of us these days, some are struggling more than others to put food on the table and meet some very basic yet critical needs. These are the times when it’s most important to stand by each other and help our fellow citizens.

AOCC volunteer Diane Hutchins and pastor the Rev. Sung Chun Ahn, “Pastor Sunny.”

Aldersgate United Methodist Church, in East Brunswick, NJ, operates Aldersgate Outreach Community Center (AOCC), whose mission is to provide that unwavering support for its community. The AOCC food pantry is a volunteer-run, self-sustaining, full-choice pantry that faithfully supports neighbors in need.

Serving 50-plus households a day, their mission is to provide for families through dedicated community outreach. While the food pantry serves Middlesex County residents, the thrift shop that helps fund the pantry is open to all. They are currently accepting donations of clothing and household goods to offer for sale.

The pantry receives most of its food from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, but AOCC also procures provisions from local stories as needed. At the full-choice pantry people can choose what they need for their families within prescribed limits.

Shelves are lined with neatly arranged containers that have labels designating how many items shoppers may take of non-perishable foods, bread and fresh produce, and from coolers of fresh meat and dairy products. Volunteers like Diane Hutchins, Nancy Kevin, Paul Siedler and many others are key to maintaining this community support endeavor.

While the pantry does not offer direct financial assistance, volunteer Diane Hutchins explains, “We can provide people with food, and the grocery money they save is equivalent to financial assistance.”

Pantry changes improve service, efficiency

Moving to a full-choice program has been beneficial, said Diane, as families can choose what they need, rather than receiving a pre-packed bag of random items, some of which might go unused. “It changed a lot of what we needed, and we realized we could change the way we distribute food.”

Indeed, not only are they not wasting food now, they also aren’t wasting time. “It saved time, as it changed the way we spent our time,” said volunteer Nancy Kevin They can now focus on helping families shop, while organizing donations, managing the thrift shop and developing important programs that further help their residents in need.

Volunteers Donna Balsamides and Diane Hutchins in the thrift shop.

In addition to food, the pantry gives out diapers for both children and adults, as well as feminine hygiene products and a kids snack bag for every family that visits. The snack bags, funded mostly by the thrift shop, are popular among families because they add a special treat for children.

Volunteers like Donna Balsamides help keep the thrift shop organized, replenished and welcoming for all patrons. They accept a variety of gently-used but undamaged shoes, clothing, household goods, glassware, linens and toys.

While AOCC always need more donations and volunteers, they also need more visibility and space for people to shop.

“During the pandemic, the only way to stay open was to move our whole operation outside,” said Dianne. And because they were outside, they actually grew. They put up their canopies and became much more visible in the community, and thus, they received more donations and community support.

Being outdoors also allowed them to bond with each other and with community members. “We were outside every day for 3½ years, which was a challenge,” Nancy said. “That was a challenge, not only for our volunteers, who found out how tough they could be, but also for some of our neighbors who struggled to be outdoors. But we developed a camaraderie and could even give out coats if people were cold.”

New space, more funds are needed

Now that the operation has grown so significantly, they want to build a new space to help even more people. If they can sell some of their land, they hope to use part of proceeds to erect a new building on the current property. If that doesn’t happen, they will need to raise the money through grants and gifts from the community.

“This is a community thing, not just Aldersgate,” Nancy noted, “and including community members on our board has opened the door to a lot more services, benefits, communication and visibility.”

The good people at Aldersgate have hearts full of empathy, especially since some have struggled themselves in the past. “Our goal is to treat people with dignity and be welcoming and make people feel comfortable,” Diane attested. “Any of us could find ourselves in the same situation.”

This is what God calls us to do—to be there for each other in our times of struggle. The volunteers at Aldersgate take that responsibility seriously and will continue to serve their neighbors in need. They have high hopes for the future, that they will continue to be a force for good in their community; and they could use all the help they can get.

Aldersgate’s donation days are Wednesdays from 10 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and Saturdays from 12:00-1:00 p.m.  An appointment for donations can be made by calling 732-307-7430. If you or your organization would like to set up a food drive for Aldersgate Outreach Community Center (AOCC), contact Diane Hutchins at 908-239-9098.

Main photo: Aldersgate Outreach Community Center Food Pantry delivery from Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Milltown