CUMAC: Feeding the Community with “Infectious Hope” for 35 Years

July 8, 2020 | | GNJ News, The Relay

“Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”–Finley Peter Dunne, an American journalist and contemporary of Joseph Pulitzer

Tomatoes are being picked, boxes are being packed and a steady flow of deliveries are coming and going. At a time when celebrations may have been planned and good cheer about its anniversary would have been felt throughout the food pantry, thrift shop and other facilities, CUMAC, a Hope Center and United Methodist affiliated non-profit organization in its 35th year of nourishing the lives of people in Paterson, NJ, and the wider community, is hopeful and determined while they focus on their main priority of addressing hunger.

“There hasn’t been any time to mourn the losses in the past 18 weeks,” said CUMAC Executive Director Mark Dinglasan who first joined CUMAC three years ago. “Although there has been no time to celebrate, we need to keep moving forward. Our team and our followers deserve it. There will be resilience, hope and inspiration.”

During a recent virtual tour of the facility, it became quickly evident that all three of those were present in spite of the daily struggles.

Rose Bates, director of community engagement at CUMAC, said, “We’re trying to keep up with the rising demand. For the first time ever, we are buying food. Right now, we’re okay, but we definitely have food supply concerns.”

The courage and determination that led to the creation of CUMAC 35 years ago has been tested over the past four months as the COVID-19 pandemic chokes the economy and amplifies the underlying crisis of food insecurity for an already vulnerable population.

“CUMAC believes that ending hunger has nothing to do with giving people food,” said Dinglasan. “Feeding people is about giving people food, but ending hunger is about wrapping services around individuals and families so that we are giving them the power to secure equitable opportunities and resources.”

Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the poverty rate in Passaic County was estimated to be about 14-18 percent, or more than 85 thousand people. Other studies using a higher, more realistic income expectation for a metropolitan area, reveal a figure closer to 30 or 40 percent. In Paterson alone, it is estimated that over 29 percent of the population lives in poverty, 41 percent of whom are children. These well-above average numbers are naturally growing even higher with the arrival of COVID-19 and the disparate mortality rate it brings along with it.

The picture looks grim, but now with an emergency grant from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund, this new reality has hope. CUMAC was one of several groups in Greater New Jersey to receive this valuable funding.

“We’ve totally changed the way we operate. We have suspended all other operations,” said Bates, who noted that the thrift shop needed to close and services are also on hold so that all attention could be placed on food distribution.

Bates added that CUMAC is now feeding about 150-200 people each day. About 8,000 pounds of food are being “rescued” from local grocery stores, which is down from the normal 17,000 pounds, and crops are reaped from their on-site garden.

Bates was also quick to note how grateful the people of CUMAC are for the several churches who have been helping including Leonia UMC, Franklin Lakes UMC, Grace UMC, UMC of Summit, Succasunna UMC and Chatham UMC, among others.

“They have really shown up in a big way. They’ve been especially gracious and deserve a big shout out.”

Volunteers are a big part of what make CUMAC tick. On June 18 members of Passaic County Community College were there again hosting a food drive to help provide food to the nine local agencies like Jersey Cares that CUMAC also supports.

“All this couldn’t be done without our volunteers,” said Jeni Mastrangelo, who was promoted in January to be one of the two volunteer coordinators at CUMAC. She first came to CUMAC eight years ago when she was a client and then landed a job as a marketplace assistant following AmeriCorps training and participation in the Pathways to Work program.

“We make sure everybody has everything they need and that they have a choice,” she said, referring to the food distribution system CUMAC started last September where instead of handing out prepacked bags of food, they started allowing clients to pick their own items in a room set up like a miniature grocery store where a personal assistant helps them. In mid-June with the new executive order from Governor Murphy, CUMAC started to bring back this program slowly by allowing two people to enter the pantry at a time to collect groceries.

Mastrangelo said she likes to tell visitors that “this is your church,” that it’s a place where they should feel safe. “It certainly was that place for me years ago” (see sidebar).

CUMAC depends on three two-hour shifts of four volunteers each day. During this time of social distancing, CUMAC is committed to keeping everyone safe. For those people on federal assistance who cannot travel to the pantry, boxes with at least two weeks-worth of food and other supplies like diapers are delivered to their homes.

Despite the changes in the way they operate in recent months, CUMAC still uses food as an entry point to engage with those in need because they recognize that where there is hunger, there are deficits in other areas like learning and medical concerns.

Dinglasan recalled a “Jesus moment” he had one day standing outside a consulting firm in Chicago in 2009. The economy had crashed, he had lost his job and he was struck by an overriding idea that wherever he ended up, he would take care of his employees. He has vowed to keep that promise ever since that day.

A Look Forward
Once the environment gets back to a little more normal, CUMAC is looking forward to resuming the comprehensive new strategy called Beyond Hunger Initiative the team rolled out in January 2019 to transform CUMAC into a one-stop access point for supportive services that is trauma-informed, embedded in the community and not siloed.

“We spent 2017 stabilizing and 2018 listening to, learning from and hearing from our clients and the communities we serve,” said Dinglasan. “In 2019 we coupled everything we learned with our belief on how to do this work and used that all to launch the Beyond Hunger Initiative.”

At that time CUMAC made it its mission to do this by concentrating on three goals: be a safe and empowering place to work and receive clients; have a healthy food pantry and have an effective job readiness program.

This in part includes providing staff with competitive wages, full benefits and wrap-around services like food assistance, financial literacy, emergency assistance and professional development. Staff are continuously trained in areas such as leadership, management, relationship building and trauma-informed community building to ensure they have the knowledge and resources necessary to provide high-quality programming and care to CUMAC clients.

In short, CUMAC works on building “a staff that is able to reach back and lift up their community.” Dinglasan’s dream is to be able to offer every employee a living wage with full benefits one day.

The same care and respect are given to the community. Within the Marketplace at CUMAC, where shoppers are given a choice, there is a case management room and nutrition education area where vetted partners can offer clients additional services like health screenings, legal advice, healthy cooking tips and financial literacy.

CUMAC is also working on implementing tracking outcomes. Working with healthcare experts, CUMAC will administer a survey in the first quarter of every calendar year and then once again at the end of the third quarter of the calendar year. This measurement tool will be used to record basic family demographics, SNAP and other benefits clients receive and how clients access food and fulfill other basic needs throughout the community. The tool will also ask clients for feedback regarding CUMAC’s programs and how the organization can improve its services while seeking to determine how CUMAC’s healthy pantry initiatives affect clients’ choices and behaviors.

As part of this program, CUMAC launched the S.E.L.F Study to gain a better understanding of its clients so that they can help them work on health issues like diabetes and ultimately thrive in the long term. S.E.L.F stands for “self-efficacy, education, long-term relationships and food.”

For those clients who find it difficult to get to the pantry, CUMAC has created The Marketplace at Freedom Village, a joint effort between the Paterson Housing Authority, Pennrose and Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Passaic County. The Marketplace was launched last October to serve 155 seniors living at Freedom Village, a state-of-the-art senior living community in Paterson that was built two years ago by Pennrose and the Paterson Housing Authority.

Dinglasan added, “In many ways, Beyond Hunger prepared CUMAC to respond effectively to this pandemic and its continued fallout. This pandemic does not excuse us from our vision or our work. In fact, I think it amplifies the need to do the work this way.”

Hugh Dunlop, a Paterson schoolteacher who grew up in Paterson during the Great Depression, would be proud of the project he and his wife started in a church closet over 35 years ago when he supposedly tripped over a wooden spoon that said ‘Feed my Sheep’ on his way to church. When CUMAC was incorporated on January 17, 1985, it was named the Center of United Methodist Aid to the Community Ecumenically Concerned Helping Others (CUMAC/ECHO) – a name meant to show that while it is an urban mission of the United Methodist Church, it serves all people in need without discrimination. Hugh would probably also be proud to know that the mission hasn’t changed in 35 years.

“Hope is infectious,” said Dinglasan.

Sidebar:

When 33-year-old Jeni Mastrangelo first walked through the doors of the CUMAC pantry on Ellison Street in downtown Paterson, she had four small children, no high school diploma and no bank account. Following years of being “bounced around,” she had just moved into a tiny apartment following a stint at a women’s shelter with her children.

“I’ve been on my own my whole life, but now I’m a full-time volunteer coordinator here,” said Mastrangelo. “I have a G.E.D. and a bank account with commas.”

She recalled how her 16-year-old son, Randy recently posted something in social media about CUMAC that said how proud he was of his mom who worked there. “My kids are pretty great.”

Randy isn’t the only one proud of Jeni and amazed by her resilience. Executive Director Mark Dinglasan said, “One of our goals is to give our staff the power so their voices are heard. That [Jeni’s story] is what power looks like. I’m not sure I could overcome what some of our staff has.”

Eight years ago, Mastrangelo came to CUMAC as a client in need of assistance. After finishing up AmeriCorps training, she started working as a pantry assistant. She worked through the Pathways to Work Program, a skills training program operated by CUMAC that exposes participants to a high-functioning, supportive and professional work environment that provides opportunities for job skills training, network building and professional growth.

In January the single mother of four was rewarded for her hard work, persistence and dedication with a promotion to volunteer coordinator. She is one of two coordinators who, Mastrangelo said, “work like machines.”

But the good news was followed by bad news this past February when she and her family were displaced from a home in New Milford after a fire destroyed the house. She lost everything but kept moving forward.
Just a month later when the coronavirus struck, she quickly organized an effort to get much needed masks to CUMAC. She continued to help others and motivated the volunteers who helped out at CUMAC.

Now, Mastrangelo and her four children—Randy, Luciano, Michael and Giana—live in a nearby town that offers her children a good education with the services they need.

“I love coming to work. Life is good,” said Mastrangelo.

For more information, visit www.cumac.org/.