All posts by Steven P. Rodriguez

Elijah’s Promise: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Among the many non-profit organizations fighting homelessness, poverty and food insecurity in New Jersey is Elijah’s Promise, an organization nestled in New Brunswick. It was first established in 1989 when three local churches (St. John’s Episcopal, Emanuel Lutheran and Christ Episcopal of New Brunswick) joined together to start a small soup kitchen.

Today, however, the organization’s efforts extend far beyond a single soup kitchen. After two decades in operation, this once small soup kitchen serves about 100,000 meals every year and the organization’s other services serve just as much.

In 1997 Elijah’s Promise began a culinary arts training program called Promise Culinary School. Here, students are exposed to a professional culinary curriculum that prepares them for and places them in jobs in the foodservice industry.

Jim Zullo, Executive Director of Elijah’s Promise, estimates that the school graduates approximately 50 students every year and that 95% of these graduates go on to find jobs in the food industry. And although tuition is required, the school offers financial assistance, and the tuition oftentimes is covered in full if you are unemployed, a veteran, a displaced worker or have a disability.

“Seeing individuals who have endured so much hardship and been faced with the most difficult of circumstances find a new vigor in the food industry is extremely satisfying,” Zullo said.

Elijah’s Promise has also collaborated with Who Is My Neighbor? Incorporated to create A Better World Café — a restaurant that makes healthy eating affordable.

The Café, located in the Quilt Room of the Reformed Church in Highland Park, follows a model introduced by the One World Everybody Eats foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Salt Lake City, Utah that allows patrons to “pay what they can” at any of its community kitchens and restaurants.

At A Better World Café, diners who cannot afford the full price of their food can volunteer an hour of time in exchange for their meal. They can also dine on the complimentary dish of the day if they can neither pay nor volunteer.

In speaking of the environment that both the soup kitchen and the café promotes, Zullo said, “The great thing about our soup kitchen and our café is that we provide our visitors with a very dignified dining experience. If you walk in, it feels like you’re in a restaurant and the foods that we serve are not only delicious but also nutritious.”

The organization, whose work is committed to fostering sustainability in both the lives of those it serves and the community, is involved in numerous green efforts across the state. At their Better World Market and community garden, funds are raised to support meals at the soup kitchen and provide job training and employment opportunities for students at the Promise Culinary School. Efforts like these not only encourage a connection between people and their food but also support the plight of individuals looking to launch a culinary career.

“For many impoverished individuals, the food that they have access to most of the time is very unhealthy and so in exposing them to fresh, healthy alternatives and showing them the affordability of it all is one of our highest priorities,” Zullo said.

From wholesome meals to culinary arts job training, the efforts of Elijah’s Promise to fight hunger and food insecurity in a way unlike its many counterparts is especially notable. The organization provides an innovative approach to breaking the cycle of poverty in struggling urban communities.

“Being able to provide a vitality of services and a sense of security to the most needy in our community is great,” said Zullo. “But knowing that getting nutritious meals from us gives these same individuals the availability to apply their money to other important things is something that I find very rewarding.”


Main Office

Phone: 732-545-9002

Hours: Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Community Soup Kitchen

18 Neilson St., New Brunswick N.J.

Phone: 732-545-9002



90 Jersey Ave, New Brunswick N.J.

Hours: Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 12 p.m.


A Better World Café

19 S. 2nd Ave, Highland Park N.J.


Administrative Office

Promise Culinary School Promise Catering

211 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick N.J.

Phone: 732-545-9002


Article written by Engy Shaaban for the Fall 2014 edition of The Wall

From Sharing Stories to Saving Lives. Welcome to the A-TEAM.

“Art: something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” — Online Merriam-Webster Dictionary


“Before letters and numbers, [art] was the original language,” said Roger Senski, a patron of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen. “And today, it is more than that — it is like a priceless currency.”

Art defines one of the most diverse fields of study and expression. This field has been synonymous with the course of history and transformation of culture. And, more and more frequently, art is becoming a vehicle for change in urban areas such as Trenton, N.J.

Nowhere is that more evident than the walls of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen (TASK) that are adorned with the work of the A-TEAM.

Sprouting from an art class offered by TASK in the late 1990’s, the A-TEAM became an independent entity in order to share and sell its work in the community. While the A-TEAM is still hosted and sup- ported by the soup kitchen, as a collective, the artists have continued to make their own unique impact within Trenton.

“Drawing kept me off the street and out of trouble and now I teach others how to do it too,” said one of the founders of the A-TEAM, Herman “Shorty” Rose.

Along with working with the A-TEAM at TASK, Rose also attends the monthly classes that the group facilitates at the ARC Mercer, an organization that helps people in need achieve their fullest potential through various instilled programs.

“It is not a contest. Everyone helps each other and everyone works together,” said Rose. “When young guys come in, I tell them, ‘Everyone can draw, just give it a shot and see what happens.’”

Senski, one of the team’s newer members, emphasized the significance artistry carries.

"Family" By Samantha Rivera
By Samantha Rivera

“It is important for the city,” Senski said. “Some people had college, I had art. Anyone who can paint, gives them a chance to be ahead of the economy.”

With over 11,000 households in the city earning less than $25,000 annually, reported by the U.S. Census’ 2008 American Community Survey, being ahead of the economy is a luxury that many in Trenton could benefit from.

With over 50 members participating in 20 events a year, the A- TEAM continues to make its mark in Trenton and it has garnered the praise from the highest powers in the country.

After a striking portrait of President Barack Obama was completed by the A-TEAM’s Walter Roberts Jr., the group decided to get the Commander-in-Chief’s thoughts on the piece and sent it to the White House. Roberts Jr. received a letter of commendation from the president for his impressive work. A letter that has been immortalized in one of Rose’s signature frames for visitors to admire.

“Whenever we get out, people ask, ‘Is the A-TEAM coming?’” said Rose. “They are happy. They bring their friends, and I say, ‘If you love what you do, keep doing it.’”





Trenton Area Soup Kitchen

Phone: 609-695-5456 72

Escher Street, Trenton, N.J. 08609


Article written by Raj Manimaran for the Fall 2014 edition of The Wall


Cherry Tree Club: Small Footprints Taking Big Steps

Imagine yourself three or four years old, possessing a mind with boundless direction-unfettered by time. The world was your playground, seemingly infinite and everlastingly innocent. Many of us imagine a time free of worry, filled with exploration and devoted to endless possibilities. Our minds were like sponges, absorbing every dollop of information that fell within inches of our realm of potentiality.

Now again imagine yourself at four years old. But now you are often without food. You feel a ping in your stomach from meal to meal, experiencing hunger daily. You have moved numerous times in your brief existence, slept in many different beds, from motel to motel to homeless shelter; you have no place to call home. You have often been mistreated and you feel ever so small in a big, scary world. And with your parents struggling more than ever, there is a feeling for you that there is no way out.

These are the kinds of struggles no child should ever have to endure. However, this is the reality that many children at Cherry Tree Club face every day.

The Cherry Tree Club is a government-licensed preschool program for homeless and at-risk children between the ages of three and five in Mercer County, New Jersey, located in Princeton Junction.

According to their website, the Cherry Tree Club’s goal is “to provide a loving and nurturing environment that allows the children to thrive and grow emotionally, socially and academically.”

This nonprofit organization, in partnership with The Prince of Peace Lutheran Church and HomeFront, gives destitute children an opportunity to have a normal preschool experience. The organization ensures that every child in its program is cared for and receives the resources every child deserves. Throughout the year, families are signing up for their children to become a part of the program.

Many of these underprivileged children struggle with insecurity and low self-esteem. Now, in its 20th year, the Cherry Tree Club gives its students an opportunity to feel important, included and safe.

“It is the same goal for every student,” said Lead Teacher Shaneica Barnes. “We want them to start kindergarten on the same academic level as any other child.”

However, Barnes adds that this goal is more difficult than it may seem. Many of the children come into the program with delayed development due to their domestic situations.

Nine out of the 30 Cherry Tree Club students have little speech to no speech at all. Some of the children have witnessed brutality or been subject to mistreatment, and all have experienced hunger. The preschool has a large number of volunteers, giving the children the individual attention they so desperately need.

"Crazy in Love" By Frankie Mack
“Crazy in Love”
By Frankie Mack

Most of the children in the program change residences often. And so, along with being fed breakfast, snacks and a hot lunch, the children receive special care and affection from the staff to combat self-deprecation and self-doubt.

From play therapy to pre-literacy development to violin lessons for the older students, the Cherry Tree Club works diligently to ensure each child feels a sense of accomplishment.

Barnes said that two twin boys came into the program from the inner city a few years ago. Their father was fresh out of jail. Barnes shared, “They did not know how to behave like children. By the time they finished in our program, they were enthusiastic to learn, and were behaving like well-mannered children. That is what this program is all about.”

Funded largely by private donations, the Cherry Tree Club has created a service that is making a grand impact on many children’s lives.

Director Wendy Schutzer stated, “It is not easy to support the cost of the program.” While the program receives McKinney grants from the state government, it remains both “frustrating” and “a challenge” to keep the program fully funded.

Schutzer is currently working with the state to try and get the families to receive childcare subsidies.

For six hours, five days a week, these children can escape from the incommodities of a small motel room or homeless shelter and receive the positive feedback, socialization and even a little bit extra. Something as simple as a place to run around freely and safely outdoors can be really special to a child who comes from an impoverished neighborhood.

One student, Brandon, said, “My favorite part of Cherry Tree Club is play time outside!”

The organization does a fantastic job preparing the children with a lively curriculum for entering the public school system, but unfortunately, this is only the first step to a long staircase of challenges that lie ahead.

Cherry Tree Club


Phone: (609) 799-1753


Article written by Jared Wolf for the Fall 2014 edition of The Wall

Resilience Personified: The Empowerment of Art and an Artist

“It was a Friday morning, I will never forget that day, when my daughter called,” reminisced Jo Ann Abdelwahabe. “She said that the house was on fire.”

Upon arriving at the scene, Abdelwahabe was unable to process what was happening as she witnessed firefighters swarming what was left of her home. It was then when she was asked, “Do you need to go to a shelter?”

She could not even begin to consider the option. Abdelwahabe, a Trenton resident, had led a very normal life up to this point. She even volunteered to tutor students in math at her daughter’s school, and was taking care of her ailing mother on the day of that life-altering call.

After losing her home, she at- tempted to stay with her parents, continuing to care for her mother. But once her mother’s condition took a turn for the worse, Abdelwahabe was forced to seek assistance. It was under these dire circumstance that led Abdelwahabe to HomeFront.

A local homelessness prevention agency serving families and individuals in Mercer County, HomeFront provides many services and programs, as well as an emergency shelter, to keep those faced with situations, similar to Abdelwahabe’s, from having to resort to a life on the streets.

Abdelwahabe stayed in the shelter for three months, and although this could have been the lowest point in a string of unfortunate situations, she had no idea that it was actually the beginning of many uplifting moments to come.

“One of the ladies at the shelter invited to me to go to an art class, but I told her that I wasn’t an artist,” said Abdelwahabe. Despite her reluctance, Abdelwahabe was persuaded to just attend one class at ArtSpace — HomeFront’s art program — to see what it was like. It was here that she discovered her new talent.

“I found out that I loved to paint,” Abdelwahabe said.

"Sunny Landscape"  By Jo Ann Abdelwahabe
“Sunny Landscape”
By Jo Ann Abdelwahabe

It was ArtSpace’s mission in action. The therapeutic art program encourages its clients to express their stories through creative outlets; stories that may otherwise be kept hidden from others. It also instills a sense of confidence and self-esteem that many struggle to attain given their circumstances. “Jo Ann was a natural from day one,” Executive Director of ArtSpace, Ruthann Traylor, said. “It’s like she’s been painting for years.”

In addition to operating a venue for paintings, Traylor also works tirelessly to get her client’s work into exhibitions to be sold. Abdelwahabe can still remember her first exhibition.

“It was an art show so I got as dressed up as I could,” recalled Abdelwahabe. “I had a purse and a nice dress, and I felt like a movie star.” It was then when she was told that her first painting had been bought.

“I couldn’t believe that some- one wanted to pay me for my art,” Abdelwahabe said.

After having moved into an apartment of her own and sold several more paintings, Abdelwahabe has still not gotten used to people’s admiration of her work, but she has begun to share her artistic prowess with others.

“She not only helps the other la- dies with their paintings, but also teaches them to sew at our new space,” Traylor said referring to SewingSpace, a new venue that started with just a few sewing machines, but is now adorned with paintings, bags and patterns designed by clients.

“I really like working with the other women here,” Abdelwahabe said. “Sewing provides them with a way of realizing that they can get past these seemingly insurmountable obstacles.”

After effortlessly demonstrating the use of several machines and sharing some of her newer work, Abdelwahabe expresses her gratitude for Traylor, the volunteers, as well as HomeFront as a whole.

“The work we do here is more than just gratifying,” Abdelwahabe said. “It is empowering for us all.”


Article written by Raj Manimaran, for the Fall 2014 edition of The Wall

What We Are Reading This Week: Top Stories about Homelessness

This series of posts aims to provide a brief survey of some of the most interesting stories relating to homelessness each week.  The 24hr news cycle would have one to believe that there is a paucity of stories relating to homelessness, but many advocacy groups, blogs, and other internet resources actively report on the latest news in this area. Below is a blend of stories about people experiencing homelessness and some news on political policy.

The Importance of Housing

Last year, The Wall published an article treating on the same subject as this article: the importance of housing in combating homelessness. Our article surveyed the success of Mercer Alliance’s rapid rehousing program here in New Jersey. The article linked to here presents an alternative approach to housing known as “permanent supportive housing”. In essence, this approach to combating homelessness aims to flip the traditional model of housing assistance on its head by providing the person experiencing homelessness with access to a home first, and then helping them gain the skills necessary to support themselves in the future. The program is funded by the government and its effectiveness has been touted with an estimated 80 percent success rate. Simply described, permanent supportive housing is for those who need significantly more help than people who would otherwise utilize programs such as rapid rehousing.  Like many innovative programs, permanent supportive housing is dependent upon government funding and a steady supply of housing. Without these two essential ingredients, the program cannot function.  So, despite the possible concerns regarding sustainability, this approach to ending homelessness seems to be a promising solution.

Lasting Impact of “Million Dollar Murray”

Students Facing Homelessness

Though often overlooked, many students—in high school and college—have or are experiencing homelessness.  In the article linked to below, Camilla Garner discusses her own personal struggle with homelessness. The second link to the NPR report, discusses Rashema Melson’s personal academic success (achieving an impressive 4.0 GPA while also juggling high school sports) in face of homelessness. A very moving story. Here is an excerpt:


Even Melson isn’t sure how she’s managed to successfully juggle school (a 4.0 GPA), athletics (cross-country, track, volleyball) and homelessness. “I just know when I have a goal, I try not to let anything get in the way,” she says.

That goal, even before becoming homeless, has been to graduate from medical school and become a forensic pathologist. She says her father’s murder when she was a baby inspired her to pursue the career.

“At The Head of Her Class and Homeless”, NPR

Homelessness Policy

The National Alliance to End Homelessness has published its 2014  “State of Homelessness in America” report. It is full of interesting statistics and policy info. Read it online: