Our Founders, Pastor Joe and Natalie Fortunato, each bring over 35 years of ministry experience to the South Jersey Dream Center. They believe that all people are loved unconditionally by God. That He created everyone with unlimited potential to fulfill the plan and purpose He has for their lives. As Pastor of Faith Fellowship Ministries, located in Thorofare, NJ, Pastor Joe established the Dream Center many years ago as the major outreach of the church, to meet the needs of the local community. Since then, the Dream Center has grown to become a 501c3 non-profit of its own. Pastor Joe serves as the Chairman of the Board of the South Jersey Dream Center, and Natalie as the Executive Director. Meet the rest of our wonderful Team, they are absolutely invaluable!
Rev. Joe and Natalie Fortunato opened the Joseph's Storehouse Food Pantry at their church in Sewell, NJ, Faith Fellowship Ministries, to help local families in need. Having received groceries and meals from friends and neighbors themselves at one point in their lives, they knew what it was like to need a helping hand. Even so, they were still overwhelmed by the immediate response after opening Joseph's Storehouse, and the number of people at their door needing help to put food on their own family's table. Through partnership with the Food Bank of South Jersey, Philabundance, and the generosity of their church family, we provided groceries for 75-125 families each month. Also, before each distribution, Pastor Joe shared a voluntary faith-based message, filled with hope and encouragement from the Bible. Though Joseph's Storehouse was helping people with food and encouragement, he knew there was so much more that could be done to help them take steps toward a brighter tomorrow in every area of their lives.
When Pastor Joe heard about the Los Angeles Dream Center, and how they were coming alongside of people with help with food, clothing, basic necessities, and in other areas of life, he knew it was the exact model of what he wanted to reproduce on the east coast. In November, 2011, Pastor Joe, Natalie and their daughter visited the Los Angeles Dream Center, and their vision of meeting the needs of families in Southern New Jersey was forever changed. Plans began immediately to establish and incorporate the South Jersey Dream Center, and become a 501(c)3 non-profit organization on its own.
Though hunger is a serious issue, raising funds and awareness about hunger doesn’t have to be. Our motto is “Good times, doing something good”. In November, 2012 The SJDC hosted our first annual Dodge Hunger Dodgeball Tournament at the RiverWinds Community Center in West Deptford. The tournament continues today, thanks to local businesses who have partnered with us to sponsor the event, including Kohl’s Department Stores, Wells Fargo Bank, Adelphia's, the Riverwinds Restaurant, Fulton Bank, Capital Bank, Woodbury Appliance…and the list keeps growing. The tournament is Round Robin play, and open to Middle Schools students, High School students, Adults and Pro Dodgeball teams. Full details here.
The SJDC received approval from the IRS to operate as a 501c3 non-profit organization.
The SJDC outgrew our facility in Sewell, and moved to the VFW Hall in Runnemede.
What makes the South Jersey Dream Center Food Pantry different from many other food programs, is that we combine meeting basic needs for food and clothing with development of the whole person. In the spring of 2014, the SJDC began to offer a 45 minute voluntary workshop before each distribution on topics that were relevant to everyday life, and helped people take steps forward. Every month, trained and certified professionals shared simple and applicable information on topics such as shopping on a budget, job readiness, how to go about getting a High School Equivalency Certificate, healthy living, understanding healthcare, overcoming addictions, helping your child succeed in school, renter’s rights, and more. We also continued the encouraging messages from the Bible after each workshop. However, we soon began to outgrow the space in Runnemede.
The SJDC hosted the first Family & Friends Day, where guests received free haircuts, hot dogs, popcorn, lemonade, and enjoyed free door prizes and games for the children. In the years that followed we added free health screenings, balloon creations and face painting.
As the full vision of the South Jersey Dream Center continued to unfold, we moved to a much larger space at the National Park Fire Hall. There was such a demand in this particular area for food, the SJDC was personally asked by the Food Bank of South Jersey to establish a program in National Park to help meet the numerous requests they were receiving. In the local elementary school, over half of the students are on the lunch assistance program. With a multitude of guests comes the demand for more food partners. As a result, Panera Bread Company, Shoprite, BJ’s, Flower’s Bread Company which distributes Nature’s Own and Wonder Bread, Albert's Organics, and Target were added to the growing list of local businesses who joined us in the fight against hunger.
The SJDC added new and lightly used clothing to the monthly distribution. At first, we received a handful of donated items, which we made available to clients in a separate room at the fire hall. Since then, it has “exploded”. We now receive unclaimed lost and found items from over five local schools, unclaimed clothing and linens from local dry cleaners, as well as the “rejects” from a local consignment shop in Deptford.
With various newspaper articles featuring the South Jersey Dream Center in the South Jersey Times, the increased exposure caused our volunteer base to grow tremendously. Every week we received requests from people of all ages and backgrounds who wanted to take the lead in making a difference in their community. Interestingly, many of our volunteers were made up of clients who also received food. They simply wanted to give back in any way they can. Because we provided over 15,000 pounds of food to 125-225 families at each distribution, we needed all the help we could get with set up, unloading trucks, registration, and picking up and delivering product. Another feature that made the SJDC different from many other food distribution programs is that we don’t pre-bag our food items for our guests. We group all our food on tables as in the grocery store, then indicate the maximum quantity allowed, which allows guests to shop with dignity, hand selecting the items that meet the needs of their particular family.
The SJDC moved our offices into donated office/storage space in West Deptford, NJ. We started with one office for administrative work, then expanded to another space to store their refrigerators and freezers, then added four more rooms to store clothing and supplies. We are filled to capacity and looking to expand even further.
We hosted our first Annual Diaper Drive, and received a $25,000 grant from Columbia Bank to purchase a much needed cargo van.
The SJDC held their last Monthly Food & Clothing Distribution at the National Park Fire Hall. They outgrew our space...again! They are seeking a new facility with plenty of parking, classrooms, and enough room to accommodate more people, more food, more clothing, and more resources. Why expand? According to Feeding America, there are over 180,000 people living in poverty in the six counties in southern New Jersey that they aim to serve. Since conception of our food distribution program, they have provided groceries for over 12,000 people, from infants to seniors. The face of hunger doesn’t look like it used to. There are sometimes two working adults in the families that they serve, yet they still can't make ends meet. The SJDC's goal is have our own permanent facility where we can open daily and exponentially increase the amount of people they're able to reach and the services they provide.
When one door closed, five doors opened! As the SJDC continued to receive food from our retail partners, we partnered with local agencies serving the community, including the Mid-Atlantic States Career and Education Center, the Mother Child Residential Home, Family Success Center, the Gloucester County Nutritional Program for Seniors, and the Woodbury Coop Food Pantry. Distributing to local agencies continues to this day, as we continue the search for a permanent facility of our own.
The SJDC began its "Good Neighbor" program where we share our resources with other organizations and groups in the local area. The SJDC delivered food to the Rowan University Food Pantry, pillows to the Family Promise of Glassboro, and food to the Victory Bay halfway house, among others.
Getting the Word Out
Pastor Joe is always ready to share how the South Jersey Dream Center helps those in need with your employees, church or civic group. In addition to sharing about the programs and services offered by the South Jersey Dream Center, he expounds on issues related to poverty and hopelessness. This is an excellent way to gain insight into the needs of your community, and become equipped to make a difference at the same time. To schedule Pastor Joe to speak at your organization, email firstname.lastname@example.org.