By: Maura Ferrigno
My name is Maura. I am 17 years old and just graduated from Oak Knoll School in Summit, New Jersey. During the month of May, all Oak Knoll seniors are required to complete a capstone project which involves interning at a company of their desired career. When it came time for me to pick where I would complete this assignment, I knew exactly where to look. I have volunteered with Bridges Outreach since elementary school. I have made lunches, packed toiletry kits, gone on runs to New York City, and even came to the building during one of Oak Knoll’s annual service days. One year, we were unable to visit in person, so instead, we had a call with the Executive Director Mr. Rich Uniacke. He told a story that day that really inspired me:
There once was a very busy village alongside a river, and life was good there. Everyone had a job to do and enough food to eat. One day, a baby was found floating in the river. The woman who saw the baby and heard it crying, was horrified. She asked her fellow villagers, “does anyone else see this baby?” Another woman pointed out that there were even more children coming down the river. The villagers organized themselves to help them. They rescued all the children from the river and made sure that they had food to eat and clothes to keep them warm. But, it seemed that the number of babies coming down the river was only increasing, so one day a villager asked, “where are all these babies coming from anyway?” Although some were opposed to further investigation, a group of villagers decided that they would travel up the river and try to find the source of the babies.
Bridges is that group of villagers. Instead of putting a Band-Aid on the problem, they aim to eradicate homelessness entirely.
Before beginning my capstone, my only knowledge of Bridges came from my personal experience volunteering for the organization. I had never given much thought to where the toiletries I was packing came from or where they would go and how they would get there. On the days that my school would sponsor volunteering for Bridges, I knew that the items were donated and that they would be going to people experiencing homelessness, but there were so many steps in between that I had no knowledge of. For instance, who sorted the toiletries into bags of like items, and how did they make it to my school? Well, the answer to that is a group of talented volunteers who keep the basement of the Oakes Center pristinely organized. They sort and clean every single donation, organize them in bins or on shelves, and arrange them in a maze of shirts and shoes. Bridges usually receives toiletries in bags of assorted variety. Volunteers sort through them entirely, count them, and unfortunately must discard useless items or opened bottles. They are then grouped into bags of 25, and then placed in large bins, which sit on shelves patiently waiting to be bought by schools or community organizations and then made into toiletry kits. After the toiletry kits are assembled, they will most likely go back to Bridges, and again wait patiently to be distributed to clients in Newark, New York City, Irvington, or Summit. So, unbeknownst to me, it was the work of many devoted volunteers and employees who brought that bottle of shampoo in my hand. At Bridges, even the small mundane tasks are important. Although “easy” to assemble, those toiletry kits are essential.
Something else I experienced which was new to me was visiting Project Connect in Newark. It was different from Summit, which is the location that I spent most of my time at during the three weeks because there were many more clients visiting the building daily. In Summit, there are about 15 clients who come in a few days a week to take a shower and eat, but in Newark, clients visit nonstop. They gather outside of the door, where they are brought a lunch and, on some days, can come in to shower. Another resource of the Newark office is the case management available there. Clients can come in and meet with a member of the Bridges team and discuss how Bridges can help them, beyond just providing a lunch. Every client must fill out the VI-SPDAT form, which is a form that every client needs to fill out about their state of homelessness. The case managers meet the clients where they are, as some do not have any forms of ID. Getting an ID is a long and arduous process, and differs based on where the client was born. Once they have an ID, they can find out what kind of benefits they qualify for. This can be anywhere from receiving government money or even housing. That was the case for one client, Allison, who with the help of Bridges, was able to get an apartment. I had the privilege of being welcomed to her apartment to bring various supplies that she was not able to buy with food stamps. It was amazing to see what a success Allison is, and how substantial Bridges’ resources are for her.
Throughout my time at Bridges, I got to travel farther up the river, and see what it really takes to end homelessness. It is a special organization that changes and saves peoples’ lives. So, I encourage you all to get involved in any way you can. Donate, volunteer, organize and come join a community that is making a difference in the world.