The Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation (BEOF) hosted its first annual Exalt to Excellence White Party fundraiser on Saturday, September 17 at the BCB Bank Pavilion. The foundation provides services to low and moderate-income households, elderly and handicapped residents, including Meals on Wheels, rental assistance, energy assistance, and Head Start. The fundraising event was meant to raise not only funds, but awareness of the issues that face the economically disaffected members of the community.
“We call this the Exalt to Excellence because we view excellence as a journey,” said BEOF Director Samantha Howard. “People take extraordinary steps along the way to have an impact. Every day seeking to make a difference. And that’s what we want to celebrate.”
Leaders in government and business were on hand, all in white, to honor those who give back to the Bayonne community, including Monique Young, the BEOF grants manager, and Pete Amadeo, recreation supervisor of Bayonne’s Recreation Division.
Times are changing
Community organizations designed to assist low-income people are increasingly faced with financial challenges, especially in New Jersey where over the past two years, government has cut funding for welfare programs and lowered caps for welfare eligibility, while the governor has been denying more applications for emergency assistance. The BEOF has adjusted accordingly. “Sponsorship is key, and sometimes we have to adjust with those that we provide services to,” said Howard.“Sometimes we have to leverage it to where we have to make it a little tighter, so we make the restrictions and guidelines a little tighter.” Howard said the BEOF has been seeking a wider range of grant funding while trying to provide more services. “We have to keep changing with the times,” she said,“and look at what’s in demand and try to provide those services based on the current needs for today.”
Monique Young is one of BEOF’s “success stories,” according to Howard. She started as a bookkeeper and was promoted to grants manager three years ago. She helps the organization apply for federal, state, local, and private grants for everything from homelessness prevention to nutrition and transportation.
The greatest needs? “Right now, it’s finding jobs,” she said.“We noticed that the unemployment rate in Bayonne is very high.” The poverty rate in Hudson County hovers around 20 percent, according to recent census figures, and in Bayonne, the unemployment rate is slightly higher than the county average, although at press time Young could not provide an exact figure.
Young also attributes economic struggles to the rising cost of living. “When you get an apartment in Bayonne, it will cost you about $1,200 or $1,300. And if you’re bringing home $500, $600 dollars a week, how can you survive like that?” She said that many residents who come through the BEOF have minimum-wage and part-time jobs, which are not enough to keep up with the cost of living. The BEOF offers on-the-job training for five people at the BEOF and helps to place others at businesses around Bayonne so that looking for jobs in the future will be less burdensome. “They work in our main office, in our nutrition site,” said Howard.“They might help the front desk, answer the phones, do some filing, help prepare food for Meals on Wheels.”
State Senator Sandra Cunningham (31st District) was the opening speaker. “I must say this event is fabulous and everyone looks wonderful in white,” she began. “As a state senator, we hear people all the time who come in who have issues. They need someone to listen to their problems. They need to find an answer. We call the BEOF, and we know they’re going to be treated with respect. They’re going to be cared for and they’re going to have an answer. Whether they can be helped or not or how that’s done, the BEOF will be honest. No game-play. And they will care about how they treat our residents. That is very important.”
“We have to keep changing with the times and look at what’s in demand and try to provide those services based on the current needs for today.” – Samantha Howard
Seniors in attendance
The BEOF bused in a group of seniors to attend the event. Barbara Hopkins, a senior living in Bayonne, said, “The BEOF does a tremendous job,” but that the organization can do only so much for seniors who need much more than what the BEOF can provide. She goes to the senior center on 4th Street for the Meals on Wheels program as often as she can. According to BEOF Nutrition Manager Lori Anderson, there are about 300 people in the Meals on Wheels Program and 60-75 on the wait list.
Despite the good that the BEOF does, Hopkins said that the state cutting food stamps has hurt people in her position. “We already paid our way to assist others who came before us. Now it’s our turn,” Hopkins said. “For instance, some people only get $16 a month in food stamps. Is that too much money for one month? That’s a little bit crass that [the state] is going to penalize the senior citizens for whatever their budget problem is. But $16 a month is less than 50 cents a day. So you want to cut people’s food stamps? I don’t think I have to be more clear than that. It’s pretty obvious, right?”
Councilman-at-large Juan Perez spoke on issues that face blue-collar workers. “It’s a blue collar town, and it’s a blue collar county,” he said.“We’re not talking about some high-society county. A lot of people are losing their jobs. The market is great, but the job situation is not that great, and that’s why the BEOF is here to help these people. With the little bit they have, they do a lot.” Issues of poverty prompted Perez to repeat Winston Churchill’s much-quoted line: “Never has there been so much owed by so many to so few.”
Rory Pasquariello may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.