Faces of the Food Bank
Introducing Faces of the Food Bank, a series dedicated to highlighting the faces that join us every day in the fight against hunger in South Jersey.
In a house with six siblings, you’re going to learn a few things. And many of those lessons are still helpful today to Carol Strock.
“You definitely learn a lot,” said Carol, who is the Director of the food pantry at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in West Deptford. “You learn how to cook and make food stretch. We always cooked and we didn’t order out.”
Carol grew up in National Park and lives there today. She worked at a residential healthcare facility and also ran her own childcare facility at home. To take care of her mother, she stopped working. Then, she ended up taking care of her father and father-in-law.
It was about 12 years ago that Volunteers of America asked if she would take care of the pantry. She wasn’t working at the time and decided to give it a try. Now, all these years later, she’s not only taking care of the pantry, but she’s taking care of so many people in her community.
“I like giving back to the community,” Carol said. “I’ve never lacked help with all the volunteers. I did have to learn to delegate, that was the hardest thing.”
Her lessons in making things stretch have kept the pantry going. At one point, there was only $100 in the accounts. But with the help of the congregation, people soon responded, and they had enough funding to keep everything going.
Carol’s also taught those caring lessons to her two daughters, who have helped at the pantry and served neighbors in need.
“Running the food pantry gives you a purpose, and it’s something to teach my grandchildren values.”
For some people, it’s a moment in time. For others, it may be an ongoing activity. For Chris Luebbe, multiple experiences have led to his purpose of service, which is truly at his core.
Along the journey that led Chris to the Food Bank of South Jersey in February 2022 as the Senior Manager for Direct Service Programs, many different experiences propelled him toward his work helping to feed neighbors near and far.
For one, growing up as the son of a Lutheran minister in a family of seven in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, had a profound impact on Chris.
“I’ve always been very interested in food,” he said. “I worked on a farm in high school, loved to cook, and my family was also food insecure. I lived that experience of we’re not going to heat the house, but we will have food.”
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Chris worked for several years at his alma mater advising undergrads. He took a group of students on a service-learning trip one summer to India to volunteer with a community organization in New Delhi.
“It is like that cliché – the moment that changed my life,” Chris said. “I knew this was what I wanted to do. Work on basic quality-of-life issues directly with communities.”
Before serving for three years with the Peace Corps in Thailand and returning to the area to work in the Americorps VISTA program in Philadelphia, Chris was also trained in social justice mediation with the University of Michigan’s the Office of Conflict Resolution. This experience truly grounded his life in service and is reflected in his work today leading FBSJ’s direct service programs, like the Summer Meals program that feeds kids throughout South Jersey.
“The whole idea of social justice mediation is that you look for the person in the room in that conflict that has the least voice, the least power, and you make a space for that person to speak,” Chris said. “In addressing issues of food insecurity, I want for everyone, but especially for those most vulnerable – children and seniors. I’m especially committed to serving them to the best of my ability.”
Chis has truly built his career to help others speak.
Pastor Sonita Johnson
BOUNDLESS ENERGY WITHOUT THE CAFFEINE:
“She doesn’t even drink coffee.” That’s what one of the staff members of St. John’s Pentecostal Outreach Church in Salem said to describe Pastor Sonita Johnson’s palpable energy.
Pastor Sonita grew up in Salem as the oldest of eight children. A biologist by training, she worked on disease management programs for a Fortune 500 company. She describes herself as “extremely outgoing, but I’m also a nerd.”
After leaving Salem and working in a number of places on the east coast and down south, Sonita took over St. John’s when her father, the pastor, died three years ago. “I never thought I was going to be a pastor, but I really knew I was going to be a pastor,” she said.
To run the pantry that feeds hundreds every month, Sonita said she relies on both her corporate and nonprofit experience. “I always have the same mindset. It’s about quality.”
Currently working as an independent health broker, she is constantly networking in the community and bringing pieces together to solve problems and take care of local residents. What drives her unmatched determination everyday?
“When someone tells me no – that’s just a no. In fact, that gets me excited, because it’s harder for you to say no the second time.”
Pastor Georgia Dennis
It was a very difficult decision. With a civil war raging in her home country of Liberia, there was devastation everywhere. Pastor Georgia Dennis had everything in Liberia, including her family, and she was going to school there. But she kept dreaming about coming to the United States. And then she received a nudge.
“My uncle was an international businessman and he traveled all over,” Pastor Georgia recalled. “He said to me, ‘Your future is too bright. There is no way you can stay here.’” So, at the age of 20, she made the difficult decision to leave her parents and her family and come to the United States. While she was nervous, she also felt it was destiny, and she had great appreciation for how her parents raised her.
Pastor Georgia is always finding the good.
Following a calling that she received, she and her husband opened their church Love Ministries Outreach International in Pennsauken in 2000. Soon after, she opened a food pantry as part of the church. That food pantry now serves the community multiple days a week and thousands come for the food distribution each month.
She knows this was something she was born to do. “Just to know at the end of the day, when I lay down, knowing that somebody is glad that they are eating. They’re able to go home and I see that fear and uncertainty of food insecurity vanish.”
Pastor Jeannette Brewer
ALWAYS BETTER: As a young teen, Pastor Jeannette Brewer had a rough childhood and was often getting in trouble. Sometimes it led to disagreements with local police when they were trying to return her home after she would run away. The voice of one of those police officers has been with her for a long time. “He would always say – Jeanette Brewer, you’re better than that.” That seed planted by the police officer, and a call to service, has led Pastor Brewer to feed thousands through her Commissioned 2 Serve Community Food Pantry in Willingboro, NJ.
Pastor Brewer’s background is in social work and vocational training, but she’s always had a heart for evangelism. She started Commissioned 2 Serve International Church in 2013. She bought her current building in 2019 with her husband, but he passed away in 2020. She always wanted to create a food pantry when she opened the church and she’s wanted to keep busy since she lost her husband.
“I was hearing that some of the food pantries were closing because of COVID – but we decided to keep open multiple days a week.” She became a hub for other pantries who were distributing and delivering food. “I feel like I was born to do it – I just had a passion.”
Without initially connecting the dots to her past, Pastor Brewer would also create a youth conference called “I’m Better Than That…Created In the Image of God.” And today she’s even a chaplain for the Willingboro Police Department. She’s clearly living a life that’s not only better than that, it’s also making a lot of lives better too.
SEEING HUNGER IN HER COMMUNITY: One thing we learned from the pandemic is that hunger is everywhere in South Jersey. Janet Giordano knows hunger exists in the suburbs as it does anywhere else – and Cherry Hill is no exception.
“I see the hunger. Over the years I have been asked about the depths of hunger in the suburbs, it exists here just like anywhere else, we have working poor, people working hard for minimum wage,” Giordano shares. “We have a very diverse community in Cherry Hill – seniors living solely on social security. Families surviving on disability. People who need to eat.”
Distributing food to hundreds of families every month from its Beechwood Avenue location, the Cherry Hill Food Pantry, launched in May of 2007 by Giordano and a team of well-meaning people from six different local congregations, knows it is their Tuesday and Thursday food distributions each week that provide lifeline nutrition to residents of Cherry Hill, Marlton, Mount Laurel, Haddonfield and nearby neighborhoods. The pantry is even open on Wednesday evenings, to help people outside its general service area.
Today powered now by 14 local congregations, the pantry and Giordano continue to see the hunger around them, and continue to fight it at every turn. “I constantly remind myself that, if it was not for this pantry, people would go without. My love for the Lord let me know this was the mission I had been looking for and, if permitted, I would do this forever – as long as we see hunger, our doors are open.”
Pastor Darlene Trappier
A Promise Kept: When she was very young, she hid herself in books. Mainly to hide from the abusive house she grew up in. “But as I got older,” Pastor Darlene Trappier said, “reality starts to set in and you can’t always hide away in a book.” At 19 she left home with her son, $10, a diaper bag and a suitcase. “I would cry and say to God how did I end up here. If you help me to get out of this situation, I will do what I can to help others.”
A few years later, working in the city at a corporate job, she stopped and talked to a homeless man that she passed on many days. “I told him I see you.” She got his backstory and got him lunch. “That was the beginning of me keeping my promise.”
Today her promise is in running the Beacon of Hope Food Pantry in Mt. Holly. The pantry provides food to hundreds of people every month. They offer classes in parenting, finances and other topics. Soon she will be moving the pantry to a bigger space. To serve more and to deliver on more promises. Beacon of Hope Inc.
We all have our very personal reactions to grief. For one of the Food Bank of South Jersey’s drivers leading our mobile distributions, Andrew (Drew) Johnson knew he had to do something after suffering an immensely difficult loss.
Drew’s wife Marcel passed away in 2018. Marcel was very active in her community, served on a number of boards, and often organized community events. Drew and Marcel were married for almost 40 years and they had three children.
At the time Drew was working for a school bus company, which gave him the flexibility he needed to go back and forth to home to take care of her. Drew knew after she passed away that he needed to focus on “being like my wife.”
“I was so torn up inside about her and working at the Food Bank helped me take my mind off of it,” Drew said. “It was therapy for me because I had to give.”
Drew, who was born Philadelphia and spent several years working at Hahnemann University Hospital, started his work for the Food Bank driving a school bus, but this bus instead was delivering summer meals to children in need throughout South Jersey. He’s also started a foundation in his wife’s name to serve young people in the Philadelphia community.
“She was such a people person, which was really the opposite of me,” Drew said. “She loved helping and working with people. I found out that I really enjoyed helping others and doing whatever you can to make things a little better for them.”
Tricia Yeo, DTR
You could call it a passion project. Or maybe even a side hustle. But for Tricia Yeo, with very young kids in the house, she was simply looking for some “grown uptime.” Having previously worked as a radio DJ and promotions director, she thought taking a community college class on nutrition would be interesting.
“I took a nutrition class, and my mind was blown,” Yeo said. “First, for just how I was feeding my babies, the information was really, really important.”
“I stayed after class and spoke to the professor. I said, ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’”
Yeo went through the dietetics program at Camden County College and, as part of her community rotation, she came to the Food Bank as a volunteer. “I fell in love with the mission of the Food Bank.” So much so, Yeo continued volunteering for several years. Then in 2013, as the Food Bank was expanding its work into health and wellness, she was hired full time.
As a teacher of nutrition education, she’s most inspired by those aha moments in classes with parents or kids. “I enjoy taking a group of parents to the grocery store and going over nutrition labels and also getting them to overcome the misconception that eating healthy is too expensive.”
Of all the audiences she has taught over the years, there is one group she is very happy she’s reached successfully. “My sons are not afraid of food. I could always put a vegetable in front of them and 100 percent they would try it. I attribute that to me having the knowledge to introduce healthy foods when they were very young. It just becomes normal. And healthy shouldn’t not be normal.”