Every once in a while we get asked how we know if people who visit the Dream Center are really in need. They're curious as to how a person qualifies to receive our assistance, and if we screen people, or if just anybody can walk in and take what they need and go. For every person that asks, most likely there are others who are wondering the same thing but don't ask. These are great questions.
The people who visit the Dream Center are those that need a little help from time to time, or those that have fallen into a cycle of lack and defeat. In America today, 45 million people are still stuck below the poverty line*. Right here in Gloucester County there are more than 23,000 people below poverty, and over31,600 people who are food insecure. So, are there people in need in south Jersey? Yes. Much, much more than we are actually reaching through the South Jersey Dream Center at this time. That's why we are looking for a larger facility.
Hunger can affect people from all walks of life. Many Americans are one job loss or medical crisis away from food insecurity - but some people, including children and seniors, may be at greater risk of hunger than others. 1 in 5 children in New Jersey are living in food insecure homes. The number of food insecure seniors is projected to increase by 50% when the youngest of the Baby Boom Generation reaches age 60 in 2025. Rates of food insecurity among rural households, as in some parts of south Jersey, are generally higher than urban households. African Americans and Hispanics/Latinos are disproportionately affected by poverty, food insecurity, and unemployment**. Yes, there are people in need in south Jersey.
When we look around our community, it's hard to believe that there are people who can't afford food. Yet, before the sun comes up on our Food & Clothing Distribution Day, there are already 30-50 people in line waiting for our doors to open at 9am. People who are willing to wait hours to fill a grocery cart full of food and a bag or two of clothing for their families. It would be so much easier to go to the local supermarket or a thrift shop, but for many of our guests, that's not an option.
When people walk through our door, some are struggling with receiving assistance, they feel ashamed and overwhelmed. That's why we immediately greet everyone, and offer a warm and welcoming smile. It's not our place to judge what circumstances brings a person to the Dream Center. For most people, they wouldn't be there unless they really needed the help. Yes, there are a small portion of people who take advantage, but we exist for the thousands of people who have fallen on hard times and truly need help.
Each person in line receives a number, then if they have been with us before, they proceed to the sign in area. If they are a first time guest, they proceed to the registration area. Caring volunteers are waiting to process both types of guests using an online program that was implemented through the Food Bank of South Jersey (FBSJ). As a part of the Hope Mobile program, the information we provide is captured in a database that cross references between FBSJ agencies in south Jersey.
The information we require to receive food is two documents proving that they are a resident of New Jersey (driver's license, current piece of mail, or utility bill), and a document that states their current income or lack thereof (Social Security Award letter, pay stub, etc.). We also ask pertinent questions regarding their present household demographics, expenses, other assistance they might be receiving, and voluntary basic background information. All our guests provide an electronic signature, which completes the sign in and registration process.
Though food and clothing are an essential part of life, we believe that lasting change comes from the inside out. We are not interested in being part of a system that does not offer people a way out of a cycle of lack and defeat. Our greatest joy is when our guests let us know that they will no longer be coming because they found a job or their circumstances changed. Like Wayne, one of our guests who also served as a volunteer for over a year. He came to the Dream Center after making a series of bad choices and found himself unemployed and broke. For many months now, he has had a steady job as a cook and his life is on a path toward a wonderful future. Why, because he heard uplifting and hope filled messages at the Dream Center, that Jesus loves him unconditionally, and that God has a purpose for his life. That's what the South Jersey Dream Center is all about.
* Huffington Post, 2014 Census
** Feeding America, www.feedingamerica.org
All boxed quotes are from actual guests of the South Jersey Dream Center