The First in a summer series called PrincetonScoop’s Outstanding Non-Profits in the Greater Princeton Area: In Conversation with Carolyn Biondi, CEO of The Crisis Ministry of Mercer County
- What is the cause/mission of your organization?
The mission of The Crisis Ministry is to partner with the community to achieve stability for our neighbors in need. Every day, we turn these words into action with our efforts to provide low-income people with linked services designed to improve the well being of all who reach out to us. For some this means access to heart-healthy food and helpful nutrition information. For others it is the offer of emergency financial assistance that will end a threat of homelessness. And for men and women who seek to re-join the workforce, it means enrollment in our on-the-job training program to gain marketable skills, job search support, and driver’s license assistance.
- What is the history or background of your organization?
Ever since we opened our doors for the first time in 1980, The Crisis Ministry has provided service to people in need right in the heart of Princeton —across Nassau from Palmer Square with our office in the lower level of Nassau Presbyterian Church, one of our founding organizations along with Trinity Episcopal Church. Over the three and a half decades since, we have grown and developed with our community of supporters, friends, and clients.
Today, in the course of twelve months and with an operating budget that tops $2.3 million, we serve over 12,000 people of all ages across all of our programs and throughout Mercer County. In fact, here is what I consider to be an amazing figure: Every single week that our pantries are in operation, we provide enough food for our customers to be able to prepare 12,500 meals for themselves and their families! We base this figure on our provision of 10 meals’ worth of food per household member and the number of people we serve in a given week through our pantries and home delivery to elderly clients.
By operating three locations, two of them in Trenton, we can serve people who come to us from all corners of Mercer County. This keeps us central and accessible, so clients with access to a car can reach us within 15 minutes from anywhere in the county. Of course, many of our clients do not own a car, so our very close proximity to bus stops is very important. Palmer Square is one of those bus stops!
Over the years and in every economic environment, our community supporters — businesses, foundations, congregations, schools, civic groups, and many thousands of individuals — have made it possible for us to work with people who turn to The Crisis Ministry during a time of need.
In 1980, economic insecurity in the greater Princeton area was beginning to take hold. The clergy and leaders of two congregations Princeton — Nassau Presbyterian Church and Trinity Episcopal Church — collaborated in a grassroots response that provided emergency food and financial assistance on a local basis. The two founding congregations and their members continue to provide important support that is a part of our very broad base of community supporters.
- What is your role in the organization?
I earned my Master of Social Work degree from the University of Chicago, which led to social service agency positions in which I was involved with grant administration and compliance – numbers! Before I became the Executive Director of The Crisis Ministry, I served as a volunteer in the homelessness prevention department, and then as a member of the board, both of which gave me great insight into the organization. Now, as Executive Director since 2011, I work with our board of directors and our department directors to oversee and implement all operational and administrative aspects, from organizational policies to program initiatives to fundraising. Since The Crisis Ministry offers its many services from three different locations, there is never a dull moment, to be sure.
- What about your organization are you most passionate about?
One thing I love about The Crisis Ministry’s mission is that it is about human connections. It is so important to me that we find ways to work together toward the well-being of our neighbors. It is not easy to be in need, and it is not easy to ask for help. When people reach out to us for assistance, we consider it the beginning of a partnership. And when people or organizations provide us with financial or volunteer support, we consider that a partnership, too.
Our food and healthy living initiatives forge community connections through a common desire to grow and share healthful food. In and around Princeton, experienced gardeners involved with the Morven Museum and Kitchen Garden, the garden at Riverside Elementary School, the Peace Garden at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Princeton Junction, and our own downtown Trenton garden connect community-grown produce with families in need through our food pantries. Volunteers with Yes We CAN! Food Drives coordinate food drives at McCaffrey’s, Whole Earth Center, and the farmers markets in West Windsor and Princeton. It’s amazing how the sharing of food is such a great connector, whether it is at our own dinner tables or across a community.
Also very exciting to me are new partnerships and studies we are embarking on through Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. We are working with groups that are in the forefront of behavioral economics, and their focus on supporting evidence-based practices through quantifiable means is truly inspiring to me.
- What are some of the goals you want to achieve through the work of your organization?
I feel strongly that it is important to deepen the services and learning tools that our clients can access along their path to long term stability. While the one-time financial assistance we provide might sufficiently re-stabilize some households, it is not enough for some people who have longstanding barriers to overcome in order to achieve stability. Providing ongoing support in a strength-based model that fosters long term financial stability is one of the ways we are already doing this. Another is through our expanding nutrition literacy and garden-based learning.
- What is the best way for people to get involved with, volunteer or support your organization?
I am happy to say that we respond almost immediately to the email and phone inquiries we receive every day from wonderful people of all ages who want to volunteer with our organization. A visit to any of our locations or to our website, www.thecrisisministry.org, or social sites is an easy way to learn a little bit about The Crisis Ministry’s volunteer and support opportunities. There are so many great ways to get involved from coordinating and hosting donation drives for food and personal care items to participating in other community outreach programs. We couldn’t provide nearly the level of service that we do if it were not for both our dedicated and experienced volunteers and the volunteer groups who get involved with us through community service projects at their schools, congregations, clubs, and places of employment.
As told to by: Carolyn Walsh