As the battle against COVID-19 rages on, the number of food-insecure people in Essex County, N.J., may rise to a staggering 17.4% by year’s end, with the greatest concentration found in New Jersey’s most populated city, Newark. Families are facing other troubles, as well, including employment loss and staying current on rent payments, plus the “digital divide” emerging with remote education. Enter La Casa de Don Pedro, a community-based, grassroots organization that has ramped up its activity during the pandemic, distributing some 600 Chromebooks to preschoolers and adult education students in Newark, while distributing food to hundreds of families, as well as providing rent relief.
The organization serves upwards of 50,000 people per year in Greater Newark and Essex County, N.J., with 280 employees and an operating budget of $24 million (fiscal year 2019). The organization has made a concerted effort to address new (and ongoing) issues that have emerged or worsened in the wake of COVID-19.
For example, La Casa, in partnership with Goya, Table to Table, ShopRite of Newark, World Central Kitchen and dozens of individual donors, has provided food assistance to more than 500 families. During the pandemic, some 200 families will continue receiving these groceries and will also receive supermarket gift cards every two weeks, depending on available funding.
With the proliferation of remote work, education initiatives have also risen to the forefront. In late-spring 2020, La Casa purchased and distributed Google Chromebooks to over 500 Newark students; over 600 families also received a $100 supermarket gift card to help feed their children.
La Casa’s own education programs also transitioned to 100% virtual in March 2020 – reaching more than 600 children and 100-plus adults in a variety of topics, including English as a Second Language (ESL), U.S. citizenship and a tech training program called Cyber Bridge.
What’s more, to address housing insecurity, La Casa has connected renters and homeowners with government assistance and is now preparing to launch a rental assistance program. Funded by several private foundations, the program will aid families owing significant back rent but who can demonstrate sustainability moving forward. The organization anticipates helping at least 150 families that average at least $6,000 in arrears, La Casa noted in a release.
While medical challenges continue to persist, La Casa has also made it a priority to help working families regain employment. Many Newark residents do not have the ability to work remotely and depend on having someone to care for their children while they work. La Casa is exploring how to offer alternative care for school-age children, within a safe and structured environment, the organization stated in a release.
The active North Jersey organization has also organized the upcoming “Burgers & Brew Week” event (Sept. 21-27), where it is partnering with local and black-owned businesses to promote some of New Jersey’s premium food and drink establishments while raising funds to help Newark families impacted by the pandemic.
According to La Casa’s website, the event will “explore the region’s food and drink partners’ outdoor dining options and takeout menus. Some establishments are even offering give-back specials that will support the organization’s COVID-19 relief efforts.”
Featured events for the week include a “Kickoff Event,” Sept. 21 (1 p.m.), featuring Chef Jesse Jones. On Sept. 22 (1 p.m.), the “Microbrewing with Montclair Brewery” session will feature the company’s husband-and-wife co-owners, Leo Sawadogo and Denise Ford. Then, on Sept. 23 (also 1 p.m.), the “Behind the Scenes with The Fox and Falcon” event will feature owner David Massoni and Executive Chef Ruby Curtis-Felix.
For more information on La Casa de Don Pedro, visit: www.lacasanwk.org.