Neighbor Spotlight

We are Neighbors Helping Neighbors. Everyday members of the Interfaith Neighbors team and over 100 volunteers come together to support our neighbors in the community.

Neighbor Spotlight | Bilal Mohammed | November 2018

It was on one of those very cold mornings in October that Kula Café trainees went out to retrieve the sidewalk tables and chairs to be stored until the popular outside dining could begin again. That same day, a new OPEN flag went up outdoors near the sandwich board to keep attracting breakfast and lunch patrons.

The West Side neighborhood restaurant–five and a half years old with a new décor, creative menu and unending energy — was transitioning into winter.

If Kula Cafe’s heart lies with the young people coming through the hospitality training program year after year, the café’s newest inspiration is in the culinary and mentoring skills of executive chef Bilal Mohammed.

“Kula absolutely is a café and restaurant but also a classroom,” Mohammed, 39, said.  “We do a lot of teaching with our youth, and what we teach in here is not always about the restaurant but life skills they can use no matter what path they follow.”

Mohammed grew up in Asbury Park and left the city to study and  become a chef in Pennsylvania. But he wanted to come home and has been working at the Shore since 2010. He came to Interfaith Neighbors’ Kula Café a year ago.

“I love Asbury,” he says. “I was born and raised here. Asbury’s just different from anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s very diverse. And yes, we do have problems like everywhere else but you can always see the people in Asbury fight to keep what we have. And that’s the reason why I came back to help them fight. I wanted things to be different and I do see things getting better within the community. It’s a good thing. We just have to keep fighting.”

“Bilal’s a phenomenal chef and very good with our youth,” said Meg Flores, Kula Café operations manager and Interfaith Neighbors’ youth specialist. “He’s positive. His energy and his heart are for our trainees.”

Bilal is the seventh of 10 children born to Bernice and Wali Mohammed. He grew up in a loving family where he spent time with his father’s restaurant businesses that included Wali’s Fish and Chips at the corner of Asbury Avenue and Church Street and Chicken Holiday in Ocean Township.

That didn’t mean his own career path toward a restaurant career was a sure thing. A wide receiver at Asbury Park High School , Mohammed had an opportunity to go to college and play football upon graduating in 1999. But, he and his teammates and the town itself had received a crushing blow when Asbury Park had to forfeit an 8-0 record late in the 1998 fall schedule his senior year because school officials allowed academically ineligible players to participate in games.

“Because of what happened, I decided I wanted to be a chef,” he said.  “I saw the happiness my father’s food brought to the customers. And now for myself, I love that aspect of cooking for people and seeing their faces light up.

Mohammed left Asbury to study culinary arts at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, getting a grant and a student loan and some money each month from his sister, professional singer Khadijah Mohammed. After a year and a half, he started his externship at the Hilton Hotel in Harrisburg where he was hired and stayed for eight years before leaving in 2008 to be a sous chef and then executive chef at the Spice restaurant, also in Harrisburg.

Mohammed also began his family while in Harrisburg where three children were born. Today he has four children ages 2 to 17. His three older children live with their mother in Georgia.

In 2010, Mohammed came home. His father had died in 2004. His mother lives in Neptune and all of his siblings are in New Jersey except for a brother who lives with his family in Charlotte. His family also includes six foster brothers and sisters his parents helped to raise.

Upon his return, Mohammed worked at Seabrook Village in Tinton Falls where a younger brother also was a chef.   Mohammed went on to work for restaurateur Marilyn Schlossbach at Pop’s Garage on the Asbury boardwalk. He thanks Schlossbach for encouraging him to apply when Kula Café was looking for an executive chef.

“I came in and saw there were certain skills the youth needed,” he said. “We started to teach kids the knife skills and how to cook certain items, how to make soups from scratch, things they can use in their every day life.  We stay away from anything pre-made. And we’re working on getting things done in a certain time period in a correct and professional way.”

“Instead of reading something out of a book, we get to work side-by-side with a natural chef and get one-on-one training,” said Tychelle Williams, 20, an Asbury Park High School graduate. “Bilal is really a good person, kind and understanding.”

“I was blessed enough to have a great foundation,” Mohammed said. “My hope is for our young people to get a foothold in life and not have to struggle and go through the heartaches they did growing up.  A lot of youth are here because they had a rough upbringing and want to change it. A lot have second jobs and continue to progress. Some of them get other jobs on their own and some go through Miss Meg (Flores).”

Kula Cafe at 1201 Springwood Avenue is open for breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, and until 9 p.m. every other Tuesday for specially prepared, home-style comfort cuisine dinners as prepared by Mohammed.

Neighbor Spotlight | Robert Beatty, III | September 2018

One of the great matches at Kula Urban Farm last year was bringing on Asbury Park native Robert Beatty, III to help build and manage the Farm Without Borders on Springwood Avenue.

Beatty, who is 30, grew up just three blocks to the west on Springwood where his father Robert Beatty Jr. owns a building with a restaurant, barbershop and apartments. His dad taught him to be an entrepreneur, but also to give as much to the community as he could, the younger Beatty says.

Beatty came on board with Interfaith Neighbors in March 2017 through Kula Farm’s work experience program where residents can be paid for up 60 work hours at the farm. Fifteen residents completed the program so far and several, including Beatty, continued to long-term, part-time jobs at the farm.

Beatty also has been able to help staff Kula’s Farm to Table dinners at the greenhouse, a type of work that relates to his other job as a supervisor for a catering business at Monmouth Race Track.

“He’s been very consistent at work and has such a great personality,” says Lisa Bagwell, who with Thijs van Oosterhout, manages Interfaith’s year-round Kula Urban Farm and oversees the Farm Without Borders program. “He’s been good at bringing people into the farm. He’s very welcoming.”

Beatty says that when he first started helping to create the Farm Without Borders located on land Interfaith owns across from Kula Café, people in the neighborhood couldn’t understand what he was doing working in a vacant lot.

“I felt we were helping the community,” Beatty says. “This is an area that has known a lot of negativity and now that you have a garden smack in the middle of it, it’s a positive.”

“We help a lot of people with vegetables, and give them seeds to start their own gardens,” Beatty said. “All the food that’s grown is free. We want people to stop by and get vegetables to cook and eat.”

The farm has expanded from the original lot to nearly three times in size courtesy of Monmouth Elks Lodge No. 122 which owned the adjacent property.

“We get our water from the city fire department, which we really appreciate, and try to keep good relationships with everyone,” Beatty said. “This was just a random dirt parking lot,” he added in a rather proud way standing in the midst of the flourishing summer garden. “We’re open to all and take what you need,” he said.

Neighbor Spotlight | Diane Madsen | May 2018

Twenty-nine years ago, Executive Director Joe Marmora interviewed Diane Madsen to be his secretary for a new organization setting out to assist families facing the prospect of losing their homes — what was to become Interfaith Neighbors, Inc.

Now Madsen, Interfaith Neighbors’ volunteer coordinator,  is retiring this month, joining Marmora who previously announced his own plan to retire in 2018 as Interfaith Neighbors celebrates its 30th anniversary since its incorporation.

During the three decades, the nonprofit’s first employees have seen their organization grow with dedicated staff members and successful programs in rental and mortgage assistance, affordable housing and home ownership, Meals on Wheels, job training, Youth Corps, and community and economic revitalization of Asbury Park’s West Side.

“Interfaith Neighbors had a small beginning but has expanded tremendously to a size I couldn’t have imagined,” Madsen said. “It has become a very large and well-known organization. And it continues on. It just continues on.”

Madsen says she learned Marmora was looking for a secretary to help set up the first Interfaith office at a time when she was raising two daughters from an 18-year marriage and volunteering at the office at Atonement Lutheran Church in Asbury Park, one of the early congregations that helped form Interfaith Neighbors. She remembers saying she would take the job but told her new boss, “It doesn’t mean I’ll work here for the next 10 years.”  She never left.

“Diane recently reminded me that when we moved into our first office, I was the designated handyman,” Marmora recalls. “While nailing something, I needed her assistance. She said the hammer whizzed past her nose! She closed her eyes and hoped her face and hands would survive intact.”

For 13 years, she was Marmora’s secretary, and then switched over to the volunteer unit for the Meals on Wheels program with one of her major responsibilities becoming the training of new volunteers. Today, Madsen coordinates about 65 volunteers/agencies delivering meals to approximately 110 people in Hazlet, Holmdel, Aberdeen, Eatontown, Oceanport, the Covered Bridge community in Manalapan. She takes referrals, writes new route sheets, trains volunteers, keeps the schedule, and fills in when needed.

Much of the joy of her work is her relationship with the volunteers, Madsen said.

“I love that I’ve met the most interesting people with a variety of interests and diverse backgrounds,” she said. “Volunteers are retirees, homemakers, airline pilots, retired firefighters, social workers, and school teachers during the summer, as well as high school students during their time off. Every volunteer I work with cares. They want to help others. This has been a wonderful people experience.”

“My big responsibility is training, meeting new volunteers at the meals pickup point, showing them their route sheet and picking up insulated bags with meals. I ride along with them as a navigator while they drive,” she said. “It’s great because they may or may not be a little apprehensive, but if there is any apprehension, by the last stop, they say I want to do this.”

“And the people getting meals just love to meet a new volunteer,” she said “Two minutes of chatting makes a difference in their day.”

Now, Madsen’s looking forward to retirement and new opportunities. Her grown daughters live in West Long Branch and Bordentown. She has two grandchildren.

She plans to pursue her gardening, “reading really good novels,” and walking.  She wants to volunteer at Kula Urban Farm and also work on her ancestry which in her case involves a lineage from Great Britain, Scandinavia, Ireland and a few miscellaneous countries, she said.

Neighbor Spotlight | Thomas Vollers | February 2018

On January 2, 2018, Thomas Vollers celebrated his 16th anniversary as one of Interfaith Neighbors’ paid Meals on Wheels drivers.

The 66-year-old Eatontown resident actually started as a volunteer, delivering meals for four years before being hired as a paid driver in 2002.

His day begins at 6:30 a.m. in Interfaith Neighbors’ kitchen at 810 Fourth Avenue where he helps assemble meals for later delivery.

His first run is the drop off of meals to senior centers in Neptune, Bradley Beach and Howell. Then he’s back to the main office to load up his truck with 72 meals to be delivered to 50 stops in Neptune, Neptune City and Asbury Park. This has been his route for 10 years, and Vollers enjoys it.

Vollers said his life revolves around his faith as a born-again Christian. A recovered alcoholic, he had dedicated his working career and life to his faith, and his job with Interfaith Neighbors is a big part of that, he said.

He said he admires the individuals he takes meals to each day. Although he keeps moving from stop to stop, Tom knows  his clients well and can tell if something is wrong that needs to be addressed when making his deliveries.

A native of Florham Park, Vollers has an associate  degree in hotel and restaurant management. “I worked my life in restaurants where there is nothing but profit,” he said. “I was yearning for a nonprofit situation, and God gave it to me.”

“One of my goals is to be  the oldest living deliverer of meals,” he said. “I was thinking I could get to 80.”

Vollers is one of eight paid drivers delivering meals for Interfaith Neighbors, and he has the longest tenure in that position.

The Interfaith Neighbors Network