Story and photos by Joseph Sapia
COLTS NECK – Sitting in a vegetable patch, weeding around tomato plants on a muggy Saturday morning earlier this month, 10-year-old Ella Wilson belted out the Bon Jovi song “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
When she was 5, Ella began 16 months of chemotherapy at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for neurofibromatosis, a disease that causes tumors to form on the nervous system. The Bon Jovi song “brought her through chemo,” said her mother, Terri Wilson, 41.
Now, Ella’s condition is stable, and according to her mother, she “loves giving back.”
So, the Wilson family, which lives in Marlton, makes the 50-or-so-mile occasional journey to Hockhockson Farm, here on Route 537, to volunteer – on this day, a combination of picking vegetables and weeding the garden. And there is a Bon Jovi connection.
The 1-acre vegetable patch is what tenant farmer Bobby Laurino donates to Soul Kitchen, the Red Bank restaurant supporting the needy that was founded by rock and roll star Jon Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea Bongiovi.
Here, the restaurant grows such items as tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, squash, kale, eggplant, radishes, pumpkins, beets and chard. In Red Bank, Soul Kitchen grows herbs, lettuce and strawberries on site, in a small garden.
“When we first opened Soul Kitchen (in 2011), there was always a plan to grow as much food as we could,” said Bongiovi, 53. “When we were approached to use the acre of land in Colts Neck, we jumped at the chance.
“The Laurino Farm is organic and it was close enough for our volunteers to get there, so it was a great fit,” said Bongiovi, who lives with her musician-husband, 54, in Middletown.
Benefits of the farm are it keeps costs down and the food is chemical-free, said Jamie Morreale, Soul Kitchen’s volunteer coordinator.
“I think everything tastes better farm-to-table,” Morreale said. “It feels healthier.”
A second Soul Kitchen opened in Toms River in May. The farm produce is split between the two restaurants, Morreale said.
In 2014, a farm customer asked Laurino to donate corn stalks to Soul Kitchen. That evolved into donating food to the restaurant, said Laurino, 51, who lives in Oceanport.
In a way, it is carrying on a family tradition. Laurino’s father, Robert F., who died six years ago, used to donate farm food to a food bank or shelter, Bobby Laurino said.
“I remember my father used to go two, three times a week (with the food donation),” Laurino said.
The farming arrangement between Laurino and Soul Kitchen began last year on a limited basis. This year, “from planting to harvest,” the arrangement is in full swing, Morreale said.
Over the winter, Laurino and Soul Kitchen personnel discussed the garden. Then, Laurino donated seeds and time planting the garden behind his farm market. Soul Kitchen and its farm volunteers – an estimated 300 on hand, with 10 to 15 needed at a time – then take over the har- vesting, with Laurino assisting.
“I’m learning as I go along,” Morreale said. “Bobby has been a big help, teaching us when things are ready, how to maintain them.”
At Soul Kitchen, customers are asked to pay $20 per meal. If someone cannot afford the $20, he or she can volunteer at Soul Kitchen or at the farm. The volunteerism done by the needy earns a meal for that person and four family members.
Volunteerism at the farm usually runs 90 minutes to two hours, Morreale said.
“If it’s a hot day, you can’t be out here (too long),” Morreale said.
On this morning of weeding and harvesting, it was only in the 70s, but humid. Among the small group of volunteers were Rich and Diane Tarabour of Middletown.
“You’ve got to give back,” said Diane Tarabour, 57.
“It’s work, family and community, I like that three-way balancing,” said Rich Tarabour, 58.
Darcy Chrinko, who lives in Sea Bright and is a retired art teacher from the Perth Amboy school district, combined a call to volunteerism with a love of gardening.
“I’ve been wanting to do this,” said Chrinko, who began volunteering at the farm this year. “It’s a love of gardening and, as we say at Soul Kitchen, pay it forward.”
Maureen “Moe” Keane of Eatontown has been volunteering for Soul Kitchen for 2- 1/2 years, at the restaurant or the farm.
“I’ve had a good life and I love giving back,” Keane said. “If the world was run as Soul Kitchen was, it would be happy, healthier, more unified.”
Laura Walters, 49, of Red Bank began as an “in-need” volunteer almost three years ago, recalling how Soul Kitchen helped her. She now volunteers at the restaurant and the farm.
“I can’t put a price tag on how much they’ve helped me,” said Walters, who works as a technical writer. “They were there for me. They just accept anyone who’s in need.”
On the flip side, Morreale said, “I can’t express how much I appreciate the volunteers who come out here. This is hard, dirty, grueling work. They try to make it fun.”
As for Laurino, he said, “It makes me feel great. They really appreciate it.”
Volunteers are welcome at the farm, but those interested should first contact Jamie Morreale at Soul Kitchen, 207 Monmouth St., Red Bank; 732-842-0900; Jamie. JBJSoulKitchen@yahoo.com.
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