"Instead of thinking about what you don’t have, try thinking about what you have in excess in your house. By the plain laws of physics, if you have too much of something, that means someone else doesn’t have enough.” As I listened to Alison Ingenito, one of eight yoga instructors who were speaking about how they give back to the community at the first annual Yoga for Unity Conference last month at Can Do Fitness, I was struck by Ingenito’s simple message.
I then remembered that, without drawing any attention to himself at all, my husband had quietly, once a year, for about five years, been gathering all of the clothing our son had outgrown, as well as coats, shoes, and clothing we no longer wore, and kitchen cast-offs. David would say, “Hey, I’m going to that place in Trenton tomorrow, what’ve we got?”
Some years I would put in children’s books and games Mackenzie had abandoned. Or a couple of blankets and sheet sets we never used. Or a handbag or two from the back of my closet, along with sweaters with too much pilling, pants that were too big or too small, and sandals with slightly-worn heels. I had no idea where David took all these bags and boxes. He only said, “Families can come there and take whatever they need.”
This year I asked him to take me with him. The night before we went I packed up three bags of clothing and two boxes of kitchen items. Before I went to bed I saw that David had put a few items back, including a small green Le Creuset casserole. I said, “We never use this casserole, never ever.” “I know,” he said sheepishly, “but it’s Le Creuset!” David had also ferreted out the Good Grips rubber-handled spatula (nice, but we have three other spatulas). I let it slide.
In the morning we drove into a neighborhood in Trenton off Bellevue Avenue. David pulled over on North Willow, a non-descript street that could have been in any urban jungle. He pointed to a church with a battered sign that said St. Paul AME Zion Church. “I had all this stuff in the back of the car, and I was driving around Trenton, looking for somewhere to take it. I saw a woman in front of this church. I asked her where I could take used clothes where they could be distributed to people in the community. She said, go down a couple of blocks to the Carver Center.”
We parked along the curb at a two-story brick building at 40 Fowler Avenue. We were greeted by the ersatz security guard, a tiny woman not a day under 70. I introduced myself and asked her name. “I’m Flo,” she said brightly. “How are you, Flo,” I asked. “I’m blessed,” she said. Then she eyed my bags. “You don’t happen to have a queen sheet set, do you? I don’t need a pillowcase, I already have a pillowcase.” I said I was sorry but I only had a double and a twin. “That’s alright,” she said.
Up to the second floor, David introduced me to Marisol Flores-Young, the community service facilitator for the Health Incentive Program for Women (HIP) and Carol Thame, project coordinator.
I wanted to know who was going to benefit from my excess spatulas and caught up with Thame on the phone a few days later. She told me that HIP was established 10 years ago and is funded by a grant awarded from the NJ State Department of Health and Senior Services, Division of HIV and AIDS Services. The grant is administered by the City of Trenton’s Department of Health and Human Services, Division of Health. In the early days, HIP’s main function was to screen for HIV disease and to offer case management and social services. “Since that time, because our technology has really improved and scientific intervention for risk reduction has improved, HIP now consists of programs that help people change their behavior,” says Thame.
But HIP actually goes far beyound HIV education. “Imagine you are just coming out of a substance abuse center or incarceration or are just displaced,” says Thame. “You have nothing. Often these women have no family, no resources. It’s awfully isolating.” In addition to offering women items to get them started — clothes, household goods, toys and books for their children, car seats, dishes, sheets, blankets, and towels — HIP offers referrals to social services, transportation; help with job searches including letting women set up an E-mail account at the HIP offices — and plenty of TLC.
“We offer everything we can to improve quality of life, even down to getting food. We stock non-perishables here. Sometimes women may just come in to warm up, get something to eat, and watch a movie. A moment just to breathe and get their bearings. We offer a safe place to collect yourself,” says Thame.
Some women who come in are grandmothers caring for their grandchildren with little or no financial help. “Here they can get some clothing, shoes for these little kids.” Others are young women aged 18 and 19, living on someone’s couch. Thame says most people don’t realize the number of circumstances that can render a person homeless or displaced. “Unless we’re affected, we don’t really get it.”
Thame grew up in Bridgeton, in south Jersey, with her dad, a naturalized citizen from Jamaica and a truckers supervisor for Seabrook Farms, her stay-at-home mom, and four brothers. “I was in the middle. I was the negotiator, just trying to keep the balance. That led me to where I am today.” She earned a bachelor’s in art therapy from
TCNJ (then Trenton State College) in 1978, and a master’s in human services with a specialization in healthcare administration from the online Capella University in 2005. Before joining HIP she worked in art therapy at Catholic Charities and for Bernard Choe, an innovative physician who founded the Hartman Clinic in Trenton.
While hundreds of women come through HIP’s doors every year, some stick in Thame’s mind. She remembers one young woman who had a substance abuse problem and mental health issues, and had not finished high school. “Through our program we helped her connect with mental health resources, and she was able to go to Daylight Twilight, the alternative high school, and obtain her diploma. She invited the whole staff to her graduation.”
In 2009 HIP reached more than 1,000 women. In November they held a fall “retreat,” which drew 69 women who brought 35 kids. “We fed them, gave them basic HIV education, and gifts, and let them go through our donations and take anything they needed,” says Thame.
Now think, how many spatulas do you have?
Health Incentive Program for Women, Carver Center, 40 Fowler Street, Trenton 08618, 609-989-3403. Open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.. Best days to bring donations are Tuesday and Thursday or call to make other arrangements.