Dinner on Thursday, April 24 was a special affair at the Palisades Emergency Residence Corporation (PERC) homeless shelter in Union City. That was the night that 13 kids from Memorial High School in West New York brought along a virtual feast, from salad to meatballs to red velvet cupcakes, and served as waiters to the hungry men and women who rely on PERC for their meals.
Tom Harrigan is the director of operations at the shelter. “They come here every year,” he said of the kids who showed up to help out. “They bring all the food. They donate everything. They work in the kitchen there. The food is already cooked. They set it up and then the students serve our clients. They do it restaurant style.”
The visits from Memorial High have been an annual event for over a decade, ever since Elsie Diaz first brought the idea to Harrigan. Diaz is a drug counselor at Memorial High School, where she has been working for about 15 years, running a student group called TIGS, which stands for “Together in Greatness.”
“She called me about 12 years ago and she introduced herself,” said Harrigan. “She told me about her group and that they wanted to do some community service and she came down to the shelter and we talked about serving dinner. And then she called me back and said she had an idea. She said ‘I think we should pay for it.’ She said it’s going to take time and we’ll save the money over the course of the year. And they did, the kids saved money and she got their parents involved. The mothers don’t have a lot of money so they make the food. Whatever they don’t have, Elsie puts out of her own pocket.”
This year the group brought large quantities of food of all sorts, even offering vegetarian meals as requested. Together with Emily Flores, a volunteer who acts as coordinator for the shelter, they prepared dozens of plates before opening the shelter doors for the evening meal. Loaded containers were set aside for shelter residents who were working at mealtime and would be returning later that evening.
Together in greatness
“I run a peer leadership program,” explained Diaz, referring to TIGS. “It’s an anti-drug program.”
Altogether the members number about 40, but she limits them to just over a dozen for the meal at the shelter, to keep it manageable.
Reluctant to talk about herself, Diaz kept busy in the kitchen while Harrigan picked up the story. “It’s a group that Elsie runs to keep them focused. To keep kids off the street. Everybody here is college motivated.”
“We do a lot of community service,” said student Jennifer Baez, a senior who has participated in the annual shelter nights for the past three years. “We do little plays for the middle school, kind of advising kids about drugs.”
“We show kids that there’s things to do other than drugs and alcohol,” said sophomore Giovanni Munoz.
So how does one become a member of TIGS? “We do a mentoring program that’s aimed at the freshmen to help guide them,” added senior Melissa Melgar. “We do the whole freshman class. We pull them out of class for like five minutes to have a conversation and we introduce the program. Other than that we do different activities in the school, like a talent show, a fashion show, stuff like that. And through there, students find out about our program and we gain new members.”
“It’s a group where they can talk to [Diaz] about anything and everything remains confidential,” said Harrigan. “She’s so dedicated to these kids. If there’s any problem at home she’s right there. She takes it very personal. And I’ve seen her yell at them. Oh yeah, she’s tough. And she’s honest.”
An evening of hope
Harrigan first started working with PERC as a volunteer 21 years ago, when they operated out of the basement of St. John’s Lutheran Church at 35th and Palisade Ave. Currently he is the only full time employee at the shelter, with part time workers Gabriel Concepcion, Abner Velez, and Joe McGrade serving as intake managers.
Together they administer beds, meals, and more for the shelter’s 40 residents and 30 overflow clients, with the numbers swelling during the winter. Plus the numerous nonresidents who show up for food.
Greeting people at the door, they make it apparent that they not only know their regulars but care deeply about them and their problems, their families, and their needs.
Flores is one of several volunteers who help out on a regular basis. She has been pitching in at the shelter three or four nights a week for about a year.
Last year the PERC shelter provided more than 21,000 shelter nights, served more than 96,000 meals, provided more than 13,000 families with groceries, and offered an afterschool program for Hudson County children.
PERC can always use additional assistance and donations. To that end they hold an annual fundraising event called “An Evening of Hope.” This year the event will take place from 6 to 10 p.m. on Wednesday, May 21 at Waterside Restaurant, 7800 River Road in North Bergen.
Individual tickets are $150 each, with sponsorships available. For tickets or for more information about the event or PERC, visit percshelter.org or call (201) 348-8150.
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.