We are Neighbors Helping Neighbors. Every day members of the Interfaith Neighbors team and over 100 volunteers come together to support our neighbors in the community.
Neighbor Spotlight | Johnny Vacchiano | December 2020
“You’re late!” Johnny will say with an endearing smirk on his face if you walk into a 1:15 pm meeting at 1:17 pm. Most of the Interfaith Neighbors’ team knows a conversation with John Vacchiano comes with a healthy dose of witticisms; after all this man has been the brains and source of laughter behind our construction work for the past 18 years.
Johnny Vacc, as he’s affectionately called, was born and raised in Asbury Park; his mother delivering him in their Pine Street home. He was drawn to carpentry at a young age and by age 14 was assisting his father, a mason contractor.
“I built a tree house when I was 11 years old,” he said. “I built an underground fort at 11-years-old and covered it with grass; no one knew it was there.”
At age 19, he launched a brief house framing venture with his brother Frank. And through the years, Johnny garnered experience in numerous fields, including working under the tutelage of Mason H Marshall, doing bridge construction, and installing a pumping station.
“I had a lot of lucky breaks with qualified people,” he said. “I have never regretted doing what I am doing.”
Recruited by Bevin Irvin and founder Joe Marmora as a subcontractor, Johnny Vacc is multifaceted and was the perfect man to be IFN’s hands on the ground. While he has left an imprint on each of the over 55 affordable homes IFN has constructed, he’s served as the field superintendent on nine single-family homes, our two ‘Rights of Passage’ houses for homeless young adults, and the recently completed ‘Pathway to Homeownership’ residence – a two-unit rental that facilitates our rent-to-own program.
Johnny Vacc’s current project is Parkview AP – a homeownership program along Springwood Avenue. Each of the 10 lots features a three bedroom, two and one-half bathroom home and a one-bedroom apartment above the detached garage.
“It’s different from my usual projects,” he said. “Day to day, it is interesting because of the type of work. I’m used to doing single family construction. The project is under my control but there’s a lot of other people involved.”
Johnny said this project is important because of its size, which will enable a significant number of families and people to become homeowners. Although new obstacles come with a larger-scale project, he says overseeing it from start to finish and walking away marveling at what they built is his favorite aspect of this work.
“I have been in love with my business,” he said. “It was just something that intrigued me. It was in my blood and I knew more about building at (age) 17 than most.”
We at Interfaith Neighbors are lucky to have his knowledge and experience. We’re looking forward to more laughs and successful projects with Johnny Vacc.
Neighbor Spotlight | Margaret McGinn | March 2020
For over twenty years, Margaret McGinn served the Meals on Wheels of Monmouth County program as an employee of Interfaith Neighbors.
What began as a part-time volunteer commitment in 1999 quickly led to a new career for the 63-year-old, who worked as a publishing industry employee before taking time off to raise her two children.
“When the kids were in middle school, I started searching for part-time work that would work around their schedules,” the Minnesota native said. “I wanted something that would allow me to run around.”
McGinn, who retired this fall, said despite an affinity for delivering the meals, she was hired two years later to serve as a kitchen aid at the Congregate Howell site.
“You know how they say, ‘never say never,” she said. “One day they had a party, and the long-time site manager Marie Barris said if you want to stay and give a hand after you do the run, why don’t you come back. I said, oh thank you but I like to deliver the meals. Boy was I wrong.”
McGinn’s 21-year tenure took her from eventually becoming the site manager at Howell’s congregate meal site to serving in Keyport and then onto Red Bank for the past decade.
“When I first began, I thought this was an avenue to help people, to bring something to their day,” she said. “I think I felt I was helping them, but, and you’ll hear this from a lot of volunteers, we get so much more out of it than you would think.
“Meeting the seniors was an extraordinary revelation about how they live, sometimes with such grace, with so little, in poverty or in ill health, and, for some, in isolation,” McGinn said. “I kind of felt this would be a nice thing to do for them but, in all honesty, you start to see how remarkable it is that these people let you walk into their lives and into their homes, but they walk into your hearts. How utterly kind they are with our volunteers was a pleasant surprise.”
In Red Bank, McGinn managed a team of five kitchen volunteers who prepare over 70 daily meals for delivery throughout Red Bank, Fair Haven, Rumson, Lincroft, and Middletown, as well as another dozen for the congregate site guests.
“They have been volunteering for over 20 years and some do have children in their sixties,” McGinn said. “One of our volunteers is Josephine Smiga, a 92-year-old who still helps in the kitchen.”
McGinn refers to the Meals on Wheels service as a humbling honor.
“When we walk through that door, we walk into their lives in a very personal way,” she said. “It’s difficult to see sometimes the condition people are in; sometimes the homes would be in poor shape, or they themselves would be in poor shape, but if you look beyond that, you can see them.”
Every day, over 125 volunteers arrive at one of the Meals on Wheels Monmouth County sites. They help prepare and serve the meals or sign on to deliver meals to our homebound senior citizens.
If you are interested in volunteering, please contact Beth Paterno at 732-775-0525 , ext. 227 or via email at email@example.com.
Neighbor Spotlight | Patti Lombardi | September 2019
Patti Lombardi started her career at Interfaith Neighbors on May 3, 1999. It all began when Patti decided to return to school, after raising her children, to get her degree that would allow her to launch a new career.
She enrolled at Brookdale Community College to pursue a degree in Human Services. As she was finishing the program, she was required to participate in an internship with a community organization.
It turns out Patti is a member of the First United Methodist Church of Oakhurst, one of the founding congregations of Interfaith Neighbors. Patti heard about Interfaith Neighbors and their mission and programs at church, so she made an appointment to explore doing her internship in the Rental & Mortgage Assistance Program. And the rest, as they say, is history.
When she arrived at Interfaith Neighbors and began working with families applying for assistance through the Rental and Mortgage Assistance program, she realized how so many are unaware of the struggles others are facing every day. It might even be the family you sit next to at church every Sunday.
“I love what I do. If I could, I would do it for free,” Patti says. “So many families struggle with the high cost of rent and low wages.” Many of those she helps are working more than one job, struggling to cover their rent or mortgage, pay for childcare, car insurance, and food, while earning minimum wages.
“As a mother, I can’t even imagine what it would be like if I was at risk of losing my home and not knowing how I was going to keep my children safe,” Patti expressed. “We try very hard to intervene and prevent a family from losing their home.”
When Patti was asked about her most memorable client, she couldn’t narrow it down to one, telling the stories of several families and individuals that touched her over the years. She shared letters and cards that families had sent her in thanks after their housing situation was stabilized. People cry tears of relief and appreciation when Interfaith offers the help they need to solve their housing crisis and get back on track.
Patti Lombardi especially loves Interfaith’s Holiday Adopt-A-Family program. Many different groups [congregations, businesses and foundations] and individuals adopt over 100 of the families Interfaith has assisted over the previous year. The sponsors and families are matched, and sponsors provide holiday gifts and food to their adopted families. “Helping parents ensure their kids can experience the joy and wonder of the holidays is so rewarding. It’s also touching to see a mother or father surprised with a gift as well.” Patti also feels pride in seeing the changes to Asbury Park during her years at Interfaith knowing that she was a part of this revitalization.
Interfaith Neighbors assisted 327 Monmouth County families with Rental or Mortgage Assistance in 2018, distributing over $487,000 in direct payments to landlords, mortgage companies or utilities.
Neighbor Spotlight | Pepsi Beverages Co. | June 2019
Interfaith Neighbor’s Kula Cafe Hospitality Training Program strives to prepare area young adults with skills and abilities to enter the vibrant hospitality sector growing across Asbury Park, but to also acquire certain soft skills necessary to be a responsible, productive employee. Beginning in 2013, PepsiCo began to donate product to Kula Cafe, enabling it to keep its prices low, but also expressed a desire to engage more deeply with program participants. In response to this desire, “Kula Cohorts,” was established, whereby employees at Pepsi Beverages Company in Ocean Township meet regularly with Kula trainees and share their job and professional knowledge.
That early commitment has not changed, and six to eight members of the PepsiCo team, from sales representatives to delivery supervisors to secretarial staff, come to meet with Kula participants on the first Wednesday of each month, said Kevin Mueller, supply chain associate manager and point man for the PepsiCo team.
“The thing with our corporate ideology is we always give back to the community, in fact, we thrive on it,” Mueller said.
He said it’s often quite when they start the Cohort meetings, but over time, when everyone remembers each other’s names, and they share their backgrounds, connections are made and the program works.
Kula graduates Tychelle Williams and Ja’Quail McMillian say the Cohort activities provide good professional support.
“It helps you put your basic skills in the perspective of what you want to do in life,” said Tychelle, 20, who graduated from Asbury Park High School in 2016 and plans to begin culinary studies at Brookdale in the fall.
“When they come in, we do different activities,” Ja’Quail explained. “They don’t just look at us. They help you talk about yourself and find things in common. I didn’t know I could just sit down with a stranger and be comfortable talking with them.”
Ja’Quail, 22, a graduate of Academy Charter High School, also wants to pursue a culinary career with Brookdale.
Meg Flores, Interfaith Neighbors’ youth specialist who manages the Kula training program, said the interaction with the PepsiCo team allows Kula’s young people to learn what it’s like to work in a much larger company, and yet, they also see that some aspects of a job at PepsiCo and Kula are the same.
PepsiCo’s Mueller said PepsiCo donates its beverage products to a number of area nonprofits and various fire and police companies. Interfaith values and salutes their willingness to give back to the communities they serve.
Neighbor Spotlight | Deserving of a Standing Ovation | March 2019
Please join all of us here at Interfaith Neighbors as we celebrate the service of five members of our team, who after decades of service, will be retiring and taking some well-deserved personal time.
Twenty-seven years ago, Interfaith Neighbors took over the operations of the county’s senior nutrition program and at the same time gained a dedicated team of Monmouth County Meals on Wheels employees. And, that core group has been with us ever since.
Sandi Silber, Sally Maloney, Ronnie Bacharde and Meg Flores transferred with the program from the county in 1991. Sandi, Sally and Ronnie will be retiring. Meg, who is still at Interfaith, eventually took on coordinating our Youth Corps program and now manages the Kula Café training program.
Joining the three retirees are Grace Yanick, a 25-year employee and director at the Middletown Meals on Wheels site, and Dolores Drobny, a 25-year employee who started out in nutrition but spent most of her years as administrative secretary to Founder and Executive Director Emeritus Joe Marmora.
“It’s always difficult to say goodbye to valued colleagues who have worked for so long with great passion, boundless energy and ready good humor to help fulfill the mission of Interfaith Neighbors,” said Interfaith’s Executive Director Paul McEvily. “And now we have to bid adieu to Sandi, Sally, Ronnie, Grace, and Dolores who, collectively, have given over 131 years of dedicated service to our neighbors in need. Their absence will be sorely felt by all but we will smile at the thought of them each now having the time to spend with family and friends while still having the energy to explore new things!”
While we are losing long-time members of our staff, we are also pleased to announce that most of these positions will be filled from within our team. Dante Agresti has been promoted to Director of Senior Nutrition. Linetta Wall has been promoted to Kitchen Supervisor. Brandon Terry will continue as a Meals on Wheels driver but has also been promoted to Transportation Coordinator. Mary Anthopulos has been promoted to Site Supervisor for the Middletown Meals on Wheels site. And, Dolores Drobny has returned after her retirement as a volunteer!
Neighbor Spotlight | Lunch with a Friend | March 2019
Herb Reed’s home is the sixth stop on volunteer Margaret Steppe’s Friday Meals on Wheels route. One recent day, she brought the famed former Red Bank Regional football and track coach a sympathy card with his hot lunch because Herb, now 90 years old, had just lost his son, Kevin, to illness the week before.
They talked quietly for a while, after which Herb shared that he enjoys and appreciates Margaret’s company. In fact, Margaret and Coach have become good friends as a result of our senior meal program.
There’s a tremendous bravery, combined with kindness and good humor, on Interfaith Neighbors’ Meals on Wheels routes as meal recipients face illness, a financial situation, and aging but also have a strong will to keep going through life’s many challenges.
Margaret Steppe is part of that daily life. The retired NYC Staten Island special education teacher says she gets so much back from her volunteer job of the past six years. Her own husband died in 2006, and she has two grown daughters.
“You meet new friends delivering meals and they give you an outlook on what life is ahead,” she said. “My mom got Meals on Wheels, and I kind of thought it was payback time for what they did for her. The hardest part is when you get attached to people on your route, and then, because of circumstances, they may go into different living arrangements.
And, while often a delivery means just that, handing the noonday meal to the recipient at the door, Margaret and many others also can be found inside visiting and seeing how the last few days have been. One man had just lost his mother. A woman, now 85, lives with her husband in the home he built 60 years ago. She told Margaret her husband had just been hospitalized because of a stroke. When a couple did not answer the door, Margaret said she would circle back after her other deliveries to try again and see if they were home, and if not, she’d have the office follow up to check on their health and safety.
Red Bank Site director Margaret McGinn says most volunteers deliver once a week and routes usually take about an hour. Margaret Steppe took on a long route with 13 stops that can be two hours or longer and includes homes in Red Bank, Little Silver, Fair Haven and Rumson.
Margaret is one of the 50 volunteers who deliver meals from Interfaith’s site at the Red Bank Senior Center where longtime worker Ann Bacon and volunteers get the meals ready to go. There are 8 delivery routes out of Red Bank serving 68 senior citizens. Across Monmouth County, Interfaith Neighbors can call on a loyal cadre of over 500 volunteers to help deliver over 1,000 meals a day to seniors throughout the county.
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 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 everyday 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.
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 homeownership, 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.
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.
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