The Stories of Lunch Break

December 14, 2018
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Serving the Community With Dignity for 35 Years

By Gretchen C. Van Benthuysen

The pantry at Lunch Break in Red Bank

RED BANK – What started as a dream of Lunch Break founder Norma Todd to help the hungry 35 years ago has grown into a community that freely provides food, clothing, life skills, mentoring and fellowship to those in need.

Now helmed by Gwendolyn Love, executive director, with the help of more than 2,100 volunteers, Lunch Break distributed 986,336 pounds of food, and made 10,660 food pantry and 43,450 clothing pickups last year.

From a simple soup kitchen, Lunch Break services grew to include children’s cooking classes; Saturday breakfasts; a mobile community gardeners’ market; Senior Christmas Luncheon; Womyn’s Worth (women’s mentoring program); Food for Thought male mentorship program, Dinner and Classic Movie Nights; Internet Café; Back to School backpack and school supply drive; Holiday Toy Program; disaster relief support; ESL/literacy classes; business and family clothing; and a Life Skills Center in Shrewsbury focusing on resume and interview coaching and employment assessment, that opened two weeks ago.

“The most incredible thing about Lunch Break is the welcoming, accepting and respectful environment,” said John Klein,president of the Lunch Break Board of Trustees. “When people need help, they can ask without any embarrassment. Preserving clients’ dignity is part of our Mission, Vision & Values statement.

“Being able to help people right in our backyard, within our community where we are able to make a difference, able to seethe need for help, and effect that change locally. For me, that’s very rewarding.

“We appreciate our donors and volunteers, and those who offer food, time and expertise. We are a real success story. We take that seriously and thank everyone who helped make it happen.”

Making the Most of Mentorship

When Celestine Woods, 51, of Red Bank, watched the Lunch Break ground-breaking ceremony 35 years ago, she had no idea the nonprofit would change her life. It supplied Christmas gifts and back-to-school supplies for her children, hired her husband, fed her family and gave her an outfit for a job interview at the East Brunswick Board of Education that she nailed.

But it’s the Womyn’s Worth mentoring program that filled a void that she didn’t even know she had.

“There’s no topic that’s taboo. There’s no conversation that can’t be had,” she explained. “And it’s freeing. Freeing in a way that I never even knew I needed to be freed from.

“The atmosphere is all respect. You don’t have to worry about whatever you share being on the street. We all protect the sanctity of the group because we know it’s for us, by us – and we’re all we got.”

Sharda Jetwani, program director, oversees about 15 invited members of various ethnicities and backgrounds who meet monthly. Anticipation is great to reunite and catch up, Woods said.

“When I get in this group I feel safe. I don’t have to have my guard up. It’s about my own self-discovery and watching other women discover themselves and their voice,” she said, as she teared up.
“We want to be better and this group helps us to get there.”

Volunteering Can Be Selfish

About 10 years ago David Landy, a clinical psychologist who lives in Shrewsbury, was looking for something worthwhile to do as he cut back his management consulting business. He found it as a volunteer in the Lunch Break kitchen as the low man on the totem pole: the dishwasher.

“They don’t need my managing consulting skills. It’s already wonderfully managed,” he explained. “The CEO there (Executive Director Gwendolyn Love) is a phenomenal human being and a great manager. I’ve met many CEOs and she is right up there incompetence and dedication.”

The Life Skills Center that opened two weeks ago is also impressively run by coordinator Mary Ann LaSardo, Landy noted.

Washing dishes is Landy’s primary job. He also takes out the trash and cuts up chickens. He calls his volunteering “selfish” and describes it like an addiction.

“There’s a sense of gratification in doing something useful,” he explained. “It’s gratifying to meet people of service doing something needed by the community. It’s pleasurable being around lovely human beings. “People who volunteer – and I’m not alone in this – probably get as much from it as the people who come there for help.

“It’s just a fantastic place,” he said. “If you were a member of the community you would be proud such a place exists.”

An Atmosphere of Respect

Dalia Gaitan, 31, of Tinton Falls, was concerned about her 12-year-old son. “He went through a lot in the last three years,” she said. There was the death of two grandparents and an uncle (her brother), her separation from his father, and a new school.

“He doesn’t like to express emotional pain,” she said. “He looks at it like, ‘I’m not being a man.’ ”

Gaitan sought help from the mentoring program at Lunch Break, a place she’s known since she was a child and her mother volunteered there. “The mentoring program helped my son,” she said. “He had a lot of anger issues at school and at home.“Now I’m not getting as many calls from school and at home he tries to help out,” she said. “Mentoring helps him to cope, to deal with things better, rather than lashing out first.”

The Food for Thought male mentorship program includes educators, businessmen, police officers and clergy who meet two to three times a week, she said, and provides cooking lessons, field trips and positive bonding, all to tackle anger and aggression issues. “It’s so scary raising boys these days,” Gaitan said.

Her 8-year-old son will join the program next year, but has mixed feelings. “He says he’s not going, but keeps asking, ‘What do you do there?’He’s curious about it,” she said. “He knows his brother is the leader and if (his brother) can do it, he can do it.”

This article was first published in the Feb. 28-March. 6, 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.

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