It wasn’t long after Governor Murphy’s COVID-19 Executive Orders became effective – where non-essential businesses were forced to close and social distancing protocols were put into place — when Bellmawr Borough Clerk, Frani Wright, noticed that the phones at Borough Hall began to ring — and ring a lot.
“The calls for help just kept coming in,” she said. “The need seems to be increasing weekly.”
Before the pandemic, Wright and Mayor Chuck Sauter knew that there were people within the Bellmawr community who needed help and they’ve been working to try and find ways to help meet some of those needs.
One idea was to open a food pantry in town. As a way to test the waters and to gauge community response, three “Little Free Food Pantries” were constructed. Little Food Pantries are like Little Free Libraries, but instead of being filled with books, Little Free Pantries contain non-perishable food items for people to take what they need.
The Little Food Pantries are also a joint venture with the school district. At the beginning of the school year, Wright brainstormed with School Superintendent, Annette Castiglione, about the logistics of installing one Little Food Pantry at each of the three schools in town.
“Our Borough workers built the Little Food Pantries and installed them at Bellmawr Park, Ethel Burke and Bell Oaks,” Wright said. “Students held a food drive to make sure that the pantries were stocked. Mayor and Council also approved a purchase to replenish the Little Food Pantries through the Borough’s Needy Fund Account.”
The Little Food Pantries were well received, so two more Little Free Pantries were built and installed — one at Borough Hall and the other at St. Joachim Church.
Because of the coronavirus, needs in the community have intensified. “The need for food and assistance is so great,” Wright said, “Bellmawr tries to take cares of its own. Around the holidays, we have ‘Bellmawr Believes’ to try and make sure every child has something for Christmas. We call this outreach “Bellmawr Cares.”
In March, Bellmawr Cares volunteers were able to help connect senior citizens with generous platters filled with food donated by the Club Diner. When the diner was forced to close because of Governor Murphy’s Executive Orders, the diner’s owners were left with a sizable amount of food that they didn’t want to waste. They wanted to find a way to donate it to the community.
Immediately, the seniors at Bellmawr Senior Housing came to mind because many residents don’t drive and the Bellmawr Shuttle Bus cannot make runs to grocery stores because of the coronavirus. Some seniors aren’t able to get out to buy food and groceries as regularly as they used to.
Bellmawr resident and volunteer Anna Maria Stolfo and her daughter, Jamie, stepped up without hesitation and picked up the food from the Club Diner. They divided it up and made containers full of food and delivered it to Bellmawr Senior Housing. The donations were met with gratitude, Wright said.
Wright also learned from speaking with Bell Oaks Guidance Counselor, Brian Reilly, that many families in the district have been hit hard during the pandemic.
The first week food packages were made, 16 families and 14 seniors were served.
Last week, donation packages were made for 51 seniors at Bellmawr Senior Housing, nine packages were made for seniors who still live at home, and 26 packages were put together for families in town. Donation packages can vary, but include mostly shelf-stable items such as bread, boxes of mashed potatoes, rice, cereal, pudding, peanut butter, jelly, toilet paper, juices, and canned chili. They also include some lunch meat and cheese.
Wright says people have been so kind and generous. She told a story about how she and another volunteer, Lisa Young, had been recently shopping for over an hour at Aldi. “Our cart was filled to the top. We were wearing masks and couldn’t breathe. As soon as we hit the parking lot, we ripped our masks off.”
“While we were unloading, a woman reprimanded us from across the parking lot for not wearing masks,” Wright said. “Then, the woman questioned us about why we had so much food and groceries in our cart.”
Wright assured her that they just taken their masks off after having been in the store shopping for so long and then explained that the groceries were for residents in town who need food.
“We talked with the woman for a few minutes about how food packages are put together for families and senior citizens, then she asked us how she could make a donation,” Wright said.
Several Bellmawr residents and Borough employees have made “very generous donations.” One person even donated eight hams.
Shopping for groceries and keeping the Little Food Pantries stocked is no small task.
Wright said that there are about nine volunteers who regularly help. “We have enough volunteers to shop, box up the food, and deliver. However, people can get involved by donating. The greatest needs are cleaning supplies and non-perishable items.
Bellmawr Cares is truly a team effort, Wright continuously emphasized, “We are purchasing truckloads of food at a time and our Recreation Department guys are a huge help unloading the groceries when we go shopping. All of our Borough workers keep their eyes and ears open in the community if they learn someone needs assistance.”
“Some people are too proud to request help, so we are finding out through their neighbors or friends. In some cases, our Borough workers learn of a need from simply speaking to residents on the phone,” she said.
How to Help:
Donations of non-perishable food items and cleaning supplies are accepted. Drop off locations are at the main entrance to Borough Hall. To arrange pick-up from your doorstep, email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Monetary donations are accepted via venmo at Borough Bellmawr@Borough-Bellmawr
Residents in need are asked to send an email to: email@example.com or leave a message at 856-933-1313 ext. 1209.