Becoming a leader in your field is more than being an expert in your line of work, says Jim Zullo, executive director of Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick-based community organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty. Volunteering is a great professional opportunity. It builds new skills and gives you experience in doing things outside of your job description, Zullo says.

Zullo will lead a round table discussion, “Opportunities and Benefits of Community Involvement,” at the Emerging Leaders Summit Thursday, February 5, noon to 5 p.m. at the Heldrich Hotel, 10 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Sponsored by the Middlesex County Regional Chamber of Commerce, the event includes lunch, a panel discussion, and several roundtable sessions, followed by a happy hour. Register at www.mcrcc.org or call 732-745-8090. E-mail: info@mcrcc.org. Price: non-members, $65; members, $55. For information about Elijah’s Promise, visit www.elijahspromise.org.

The event is designed to provide professional and personal development for beginning to mid-career professionals.

Leading up to the round table groups, executives from four companies will share what they learned about leadership on the way to their current positions. The speakers include Patrick Ryan, president and CEO of First Bank; Jessica Thiebaud, sales manager of Coca Cola; Brian Agnew, executive director of the New Brunswick-based Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Foundation; and Gloria Cirulli, managing director of eWomen Network.

Community involvement develops and enhances your communication skills by exposing you to a broader spectrum of people, Zullo says. It’s also a great way to build friendships and professional networks. Young leaders want to advance in their professional careers, but they need to balance that with actions that give them a sense of giving back. Volunteering one’s talents is fulfilling to the person giving and the person receiving.

Elijah’s Promise runs several programs that empower people’s lives, including micro businesses and career training. The programs serve the working poor, the unemployed, veterans, and other groups, providing immediate assistance for basic needs such as food and clothing; and offering programs that improve their lives through education, job training, and working business models.

These programs evolved over 25 years, starting from a soup kitchen that was run by three different New Brunswick-area churches, St. John’s Episcopal, Emanuel Lutheran, and Christ Episcopal. The work of the three groups was eventually combined, and a soup kitchen was set up at its present location at 18 Neilson Street in the early 1990s. The name, “Elijah’s Promise,” comes from a passage in the Hebrew Bible in which Elijah fulfills a promise to a widow that she will never lack what she needs.

“The kitchen has never been closed in its 25-year history. Its doors remained open even after Hurricane Sandy,” Zullo says. Operated by 2,500 to 3,000 volunteers per year, the kitchen serves meals seven days a week and also provides bag lunches for people who are working or unable to make it to the kitchen at meal times. The kitchen and related programs focus on nutritious meals. Most ingredients are locally sourced and very little processed food is used.

The past few months have seen the highest demand ever for meals, Zullo says, adding that a lot of today’s new jobs are not very high paying, so working people augment their incomes with help from the kitchen.

The community soup kitchen is just one program Elijah’s Promise sponsors.

The Promise Culinary School offers state-approved vocational programs in culinary arts plus baking and pastry arts. The program includes internships at restaurants and the hospitality industry. Graduates receive job placement assistance. “We train about 50 to 60 people per year,” Zullo says. About 85 percent graduate, and about 90 percent of them are placed in jobs.

Promise Catering is one of the organization’s micro businesses providing catering to daycare centers, schools, and community organizations. Focusing on freshness, the food is sourced from local farms and prepared by students and graduates of the culinary school.

Better World Market on Route 27 at Skillmans Lane, Franklin Township, opened this past August and raises funds to support the soup kitchen while providing training and employment for graduates of the culinary school. Customers can buy produce provided by Somerset-based Suydam Farms, baked goods, coffee, gelato, flowers, and staples sourced from local businesses including A Better World Bakery.

A Better World Bakery/Raisin’ Dough Bread, a community supported bakery (CSB), offers members baked goods made by the culinary school students. When someone subscribes to the CSB, she receives a weekly package that typically includes two loaves of artisan bread and about six servings of baked desserts.

Better World Cafe in Highland Park is a partnership between Elijah’s Promise and Who Is My Neighbor? Inc. and is modeled after “One World Everybody Eats” cafe in which patrons pay only what they can for their meal. For people who can afford it, the cafe offers a suggested price. Some people voluntarily pay more to help support the cafe, Zullo says. The food is prepared by the culinary school, and the cafe is operated by employees trained at the school and also by volunteers, some working in exchange for a meal, and some helping out based on a desire to support the organization.

The JBJ Soul Kitchen, a non-profit program run by the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation (yes, that Bon Jovi) visited Better World Cafe before it opened to learn how a “pay what you can afford” cafe works, Zullo says.

Shiloh Community Garden offers members a leased garden bed for a one-time fee of $15. During the season, gardeners meet for work days, training, and workshops.

The Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program is a joint effort of Elijah’s Promise and John Krueger, the owner/operator of Starbrite Farm, an organic farm in Andover, NJ. Members of the public buy shares before planting and pick up fresh produce during harvest time weekly at Elijah’s Promise’s site on Livingston Avenue.

Let’s Cook classes teach nutrition education and hands on cooking, plus money-saving tips. The organization also offers a variety of support services including a health clinic, a community thrift store, help finding shelter and housing, mental health services, and a variety of referral services.

Zullo, who lives in Piscataway and grew up in North Brunswick and Somerset, says that community involvement has been a theme throughout his life. His father worked as an oncologist in New Brunswick. “My dad felt good about helping people,” Zullo says. His mother, a registered nurse, made him aware of the inequities in society. Although Zullo did not follow his parents’ career paths in medicine, he continues the family’s tradition of serving those in need.

Before becoming the executive director of Elijah’s Promise last March, he served as the vice president of Timothy Haas and Associates, an engineering and architectural design firm. The company is committed to helping people in need, Zullo says. Earlier in his career, he worked for New Jersey Transit, New Brunswick Parking Authority, Lockheed Martin IMS, and New Brunswick Development Corporation. Zullo says his career path has helped him build great connections and has given him the opportunity to contribute to the revitalization of New Brunswick and the county. Before taking his current position at Elijah’s Promise, he served as an advisor there.

Zullo holds a masters degree in city and regional planning from Rutgers-New Brunswick, and a bachelor’s in English and communications from Tulane University.

Elijah’s Promise exists because of volunteers, Zullo says. Although the community kitchen is a popular place that attracts a large number of helpers, there are other areas where people donate their time and services, including IT support, job interview guidance, tutoring for the GED high school equivalency test, and marketing and design for the organization’s micro businesses.

In addition to Zullo’s group, attendees at the Emerging Leaders Summit can choose from four other roundtables sessions: Moving On and Moving up: Personal Development and Overcoming Adversity with Ryan Parker, Robert Wood Johnson; Setting Yourself Apart and First Steps into a Leadership Role, Jeffrey Babey of Horizon BCBSNJ; Networking 123 with Kathleen Cashman of Cashman Consulting, LLC; Everyone Sells: The Importance of Branding Yourself with Jay Kingley of Lionshare Partners.

There are many ways of developing your career path and being a leader, Zullo says. Community involvement is a way to connect with and help causes. “The entire community benefits, and in turn, enables broader opportunities for all. We empower lives.”

To learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit Elijah’s Promise website, or contact Kaitlyn Deal at 732-545-9002 ext. 117 or kaitlynn.deal@elijahspromise.org.

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