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Rising to the Occasion
The pandemic’s challenges have not been avoided by local nonprofits, but these organizations continue to fulfill their missions even during difficult times.

by Matt Cosentino

No matter the size, scope or focus area, there is little debate that operating a nonprofit and meeting the needs of a certain population are difficult tasks even during normal times. Throw in a pandemic and all of the challenges that come with it, and it’s no surprise that local organizations have had to pivot over the past few years and make necessary changes to ensure they can still deliver the high-quality services they are known for. At the same time, the need for their assistance has only risen.

“Nonprofits have such a great need,” says Colleen Frankenfield, president and CEO of Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey, “and the need is greater today than it ever was.”

Fortunately, the special men and women behind these groups, as well as the individuals and companies that support them, have stepped to the plate and helped area nonprofits survive. South Jersey Biz spoke with several nonprofits’ leaders to find out the continuing issues they are facing and the ways their mission can best be helped.

Moorestown Theater Company

When the pandemic first struck in 2020, the public quickly came to realize just how important live performances are to everyday life as Broadway stages, along with professional and community theaters across the country, were forced to shutter their doors. Luckily for residents in South Jersey, the Moorestown Theater Company (MTC)—an award-winning nonprofit committed to presenting high-quality productions year-round for audiences of all ages—never went away.

From June 2020 through December 2021, the MTC did live musicals in whatever setting it could find, from outdoor venues to country clubs and schools.

“We just kept going,” says Mark Morgan, who founded the organization with his wife and mother-in-law and serves as producing artist director. “We truly believe at MTC that the show must go on and the heck with a worldwide pandemic. Now, were we wearing masks? Yes. Did we make people get vaccinated to perform with us? Yes. Did we check vaccination cards in our audience through last December? Yes. We did everything we were told to do. They said if you did all of that you could have live theater, so we did it.”

That philosophy was embraced by not only audiences but also the actors and creative teams behind each show, particularly children who were being educated remotely and not getting a chance to see their friends in person. “We knew how important it was … that we did not shut down and we gave kids an opportunity to still do what they love,” Morgan says.

That’s not to say the pandemic hasn’t seriously impacted MTC’s operation. Its popular summer camps have continued running, but numbers declined from a high of 250 to 45 in 2020. Last year, it shot back up to 114; this year, the number was around 180 heading into August. Morgan is hopeful that pre-COVID numbers will return but he’s just not sure when, or if, that will happen.

For now, MTC is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with 15 live shows, from The Sound of Music to Into the Woods. The nonprofit’s main goal moving forward is to find a permanent home of its own, and Morgan has his sights set on a former theater in Moorestown that he would love to turn into a local performing arts center. Until then, he urges South Jersey residents to take in a show where they are likely to see one of their neighbors performing, or to even audition themselves.

“The best way to help a community theater like Moorestown Theater Company is to buy tickets, take ads in our program book, or become a production partner or sponsor of our shows,” he says. “Financial help is huge right now because our ticket sales are down and our registration fees our down. That’s how people can help us, and all of those options are available on our website.”

Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey

Established in the early 1900s, Lutheran Social Ministries of New Jersey (LSMNJ) has a rich history of serving the state’s residents, regardless of background or religious affiliation, through a broad range of programs. Frankenfield estimates that 70% of the organization’s assistance is geared toward people 55 and older, including senior health care and retirement communities and the PACE program, which coordinates home and health care services for qualified seniors so they can continue to live safely in their residences. But younger people can also benefit from affordable housing, food pantries, hospice care and immigration legal services.

Several of those programs have seen an increased demand since the pandemic hit, and the challenge has been meeting those needs.

“It’s been an interesting time for nonprofits and other organizations as well,” Frankenfield says. “For nonprofits, we tend to not have those deep wells to go to. We’re not a private equity company that has access to those funds, so our extra funds go back to the people we care for or we fundraise for the gaps or try to access grants that may be available.”

While the good news is that volunteerism is on the rise, particularly in regard to the hospice programs, Frankenfield is concerned that the general public feels the worst of the pandemic is behind us and is not supporting nonprofits the way they were in the early stages of COVID.

“Immediately when the pandemic broke out, we saw an increase in funds, especially in our health care entities,” she says. “Health care workers were heroes and people wanted to help. But then it kind of slumped off. People out there in the world think most of it is over, so a lot of that stopped. We’re trying to get it to pick up but it hasn’t picked up to the way it was prior to COVID, and we’re working on that because our needs are actually greater.”

Delaware Valley Safety Council

Started in 1995 as the South Jersey Chemical Manufacturers Safety Council, this organization eventually expanded to serve a larger geographic area as well as all types of industries. Today, the Delaware Valley Safety Council provides safety training and certification to the petrochemical, construction and food service segments, among others.

When the pandemic first hit, it was forced to shut down from March to July in 2020, but many of the businesses that rely on its services were still operating.

“We had to think outside of the box to see what we could do to continue to bring in revenue while we were shut down,” says Geraldine Radio, executive director. “That’s when we developed streamable safety training that they would accept in their facilities. Putting that on our website gave us the opportunity to offer training to people who needed it and were going back to work before we reopened. That really made a difference and it made us some money while we were shut down from the end of March until the beginning of July.”

Radio has been with the Delaware Valley Safety Council since 2007 but took over her current position this past February. One of her goals is to continue meeting the challenges of the pandemic while moving the nonprofit into the 21st century. One way of doing that is to embrace technology, and she sees the virtual platforms remaining as a big piece of its offerings.

“There’s always going to have to be some type of in-person training … but there’s a great deal of training that can be done virtually,” she says. “Even if we need to verify somebody’s identity, there are ways to do that virtually as well.

“We reopened back in July of 2020. It’s been a slow process but people have been coming back. There is more foot traffic, but because we offer a lot of virtual training, a lot of people still want that option and it makes it easier on them rather than traveling.”

Garden State Council, Boy Scouts of America

It’s no secret that many children have been dealing with mental-health issues as a result of the pandemic, especially early on when school was remote, most activities were limited and normal face-to-face interaction was almost non-existent. The Boy Scouts offered an avenue to overcome that isolation and meet in a safe, outdoor environment that fostered togetherness.

The Garden State Council, which serves the seven counties of South Jersey, saw its numbers hold steady in 2020 and 2021 and significantly rise this year as its traditions became more appealing to more families.

“One of the benefits of scouting is that outdoor classroom where our mission is character education for young people,” says Patrick Linfors, CEO of the Garden State Council. “What a great thing to plug into when the challenges of the last couple of years have put so many families in tough spots. We have what parents want and sometimes they don’t realize it. They want their kids to go outside, to make friends, to have great adult mentors, to be in a place that’s safe, to be exposed to potential hobbies and potential careers, to get a competitive edge, to learn something they can use for the rest of their lives, to make memories that last a lifetime. Scouting is all about experiencing thrills, overcoming challenges and helping others, and that’s what we do.”

Before they were able to meet safely, the organization created online programming, started a food drive to help those experiencing food insecurity and continued service projects. Fundraising was affected but creative ideas like an online telethon from Linfors’ basement helped, and now normal outings have returned, like an annual golf tournament and multiple distinguished service events per year. Scouting activities have also resumed, including this summer’s camps that have welcomed in more than 600 kids.

“The pandemic is one big example of a challenge that people overcome in life, and there’s going to be more challenges,” Linfors says. “We’re trying to make great employees, we’re trying to make great parents, we’re trying to make great people in their communities. Part of that is to positively deal with and overcome challenges like this.”

Food Bank of South Jersey

Founded by 13 individuals in 1985, it has been the mission of the Food Bank of South Jersey ever since then to provide an immediate solution to the area’s hunger problem. At the height of the pandemic, it was feeding around 94,000 to 96,000 people per month, but earlier this year those numbers were starting to go back to pre-pandemic levels of around 52,000 people. However, the past five months have seen another increase back to the mid-90s.

“When there’s inflation, food insecurity goes up, and it’s just an incredible strain on families,” says Fred Wasiak, president and CEO. “What’s different now is there aren’t directly COVID-related things. At the height of the pandemic, companies and organizations were shutting down, so people were out of work, and the next thing you know you’re living paycheck to paycheck and you have other bills you have to worry about, whether it’s medicine, electric, mortgage, all of those things. Now it’s a different circumstance with inflation and gas prices, and there’s really no end in sight. That’s what concerns us.”

Making matters worse is that government support such as moratoriums on rent and electric, aid from the CARES Act and stimulus checks are no longer in play. “All of those things were helping people to survive and we were still serving at those levels of 96,000 people a month,” Wasiak says. “All of those resources have gone away. … Where we have continued to get support is from the good-hearted individuals who are capable of helping us out. Every dollar gives us three meals. With the support of our community and individuals, we’ve worked hard with New Jersey food banks and we have support from our state officials … [to ensure] no one in New Jersey goes to bed hungry.”

With the war in Ukraine and supply-chain issues affecting the prices and availability of food, Wasiak stresses the importance of the Food Bank’s fundraising program, which includes personal giving, corporate giving, foundation giving and grant-writing. He is also grateful for the volunteers, a number that dropped significantly during the pandemic for various reasons but is on the rise again.

“Now that the community food drives are back, we’re slowly building up our volunteer program,” he says. “Corporations and nonprofit groups are coming back because they feel safer and we obviously put a lot of parameters in place. Volunteering is so important to us to help us meet the need.”

An Opportunity’s Knockin’ (AOK)

Started by close friends Pete Mauro and Pete Eobbi, this organization promotes positive development for children between the ages of 5 and 18, helping to impact their future decisions and outlook on life through motivation, education and inspiration. Last year was the 20th anniversary of its founding and that normally would have been a cause for celebration, but the pandemic put those plans on hold.

“COVID has made us stagnate because it’s been so hard,” Mauro says. “We had our 20th year last year, and with my personality and resources at this point, I would’ve had a big, huge blowout. … But with COVID, not only the lack of funds but the potential negativity that can be shined upon you for getting people together, we just hung under the radar and did the bare minimum.”

More importantly, fundraising has taken a serious hit, as AOK has not been able to hold its major event—an annual ping-pong tournament sponsored by the law firm Lauletta Birnbaum—for the past two years. The nonprofit is currently about $10,000 short of its usual reserves, which fund its signature Gifts for Giving events every December. In that program, AOK empowers underprivileged kids by providing money and transportation to buy gifts for their families during the holidays. Although it has been limited since the pandemic, the good news is that it has continued each December and will remain in place.

Unfortunately, Mauro and Eobbi have not been able to speak at local schools as usual because of COVID restrictions. They are eager to resume that in the future and also to introduce a new program that will partly entail kids helping out the community in various ways, such as volunteering at Cathedral Kitchen in Camden.

“We believe when you’re in need, the best thing you can do is go help somebody out who’s in more need,” Mauro says. “It builds your self-esteem up and gives you motivation to do more for yourself as well as other people.”

Center for Family Services

A leading provider of comprehensive and evidence-based services across the state, this nonprofit has programs related to mental-health counseling, addiction recovery, family support, safe housing, workforce development and more. Because of the serious nature of many of these offerings, certain segments had to stay open during the early days of the pandemic, including residential treatment centers for children, domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters.

“You hear about the heroes in health care, the nurses and the doctors in hospitals, but there is this other sector where, 24/7, we’ve had staff in these group homes and residential treatment centers working throughout this time,” says CEO Richard Stagliano. “We’ve even lost a couple of staff members in the past few years.”

That is why Center for Family Services has placed such a strong emphasis on employee wellness throughout the pandemic and has taken steps to curb burnout. It has also pushed for higher salaries in the industry amid widespread staffing issues, with recruitment and retention remaining a focus moving forward.

Stagliano has seen some positives as a result of the pandemic, however, such as an increased recognition “that mental-health services can help and really make a difference.” The option of telehealth has also been a blessing and something he believes is here to stay, although face-to-face treatment is still necessary in many cases.

Some of Center for Family Services’ fundraising events have also gone virtual, including an annual walk/5K. But many have returned in person, such as a successful golf tournament earlier this summer that sold out quickly. Stagliano is grateful that support for the organization never wavered.

“We’ve rethought a lot of our events and where we can go back to face-to-face, we’re going to do that, but the hybrid/virtual model has also been effective so we’re pleased about that,” he says. “I think people recognize the needs out there and the mission of our organization so they haven’t lost their fervor in supporting us.”