By THOMAS BARLAS and EMILY PREVITI Staff Writers
VINELAND - A Feed the Children-sponsored distribution of food and living essentials to needy families will take place as planned Wednesday.
Pat Constantino, director of training and empowerment services for the nonprofit PathStone’s Vineland office, said all the volunteers are ready to start distributing up to 800 parcels to needy families.
“My volunteers are in place,” she said. “They’re a crew you can count on.”
The parcels - consisting of 25 pounds of food, 15 pounds of Avon products, and another 10 to 15 pounds of toiletries - will be distributed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the parking lot of the CVS pharmacy at Landis and West avenues. Constantino said the operation will be handled like a drive-through, and residents with no vehicles will be aided by volunteers and neighbors.
Vouchers for the parcels were distributed to needy families by PathStone and some of its project partners, including churches, the Salvation Army and various community groups. The vouchers have a time during which the holders can pick up the parcels.
The project was spurred by Feed the Children’s Americans Feeding Americans program. Vineland, Atlantic City and Newark are the only three state municipalities participating in the program.
Program officials said Atlantic City and Vineland were picked because of high unemployment and child-poverty rates.
The unemployment rate is 14 percent in Vineland and 12 percent in Atlantic City, where the childhood-poverty rate is 20 percent - more than double the 9.9 percent national average, data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics show.
That surprised Atlantic City High School students Saad Shinwar and Audrey Hughes, both 17-year-olds from Brigantine. Hughes is president of the school’s Zee Club, a service group that brought about two dozen teenage members to help distribute food to the line of people extending a full block from St. James AME Church Tuesday afternoon.
“I have family in Vineland - they have jobs, their schools are good, it seems like a community that’s moving up,” said Shinwar, the club’s vice president and a senior planning to study civil engineering at Rutgers University. “And here, I know the casinos help out with stuff in the community, like the Atlantic City marathon (Oct. 16), and help out with our school supplies. With (the casinos) here, our city seems richer.”
Once widely held, that perception has eroded during recent years, said Damon Tyner, a lawyer who works in Atlantic City and is running for the state Assembly representing the 2nd Legislative District.
“The streets aren’t paved with gold. For years, we were told the casino industry is recession-proof - that’s just not the case,” said Tyner as he watched resort residents pick up boxes of donated food and toiletries Tuesday.
A few blocks from Tyner’s office, St. James was one of two distribution points in Atlantic City. People redeemed vouchers Tuesday morning at New Hope Baptist Church. After giving ticketholders first crack with a two-hour grace period, distribution volunteers gave remaining supplies to people without vouchers.
In each city, 800 people got vouchers through community-based organizations connected with Feed the Children after the international nonprofit contacted local governments about its interest in bringing the program to them.
Eleanor Smiley welcomed the help. A week away from her 74th birthday, Smiley retired in 2003 from her job as a coat-check attendant at the Sands Casino Resort, which was imploded in 2007. While sharing expenses by living with her eldest daughter - one of Smiley’s eight children - helps make living on Social Security income more affordable, money can still be tight at times, Smiley said.
“For everyone right now, it’s one day at a time,” she said. “I’m thankful for whatever is given to me. And if there’s something I don’t need, I’ll knock on neighbors’ doors.”