Volunteer Stories

Volunteer Spotlight: Brenda Mason

It was little more than a year ago that Brenda Mason and her fellow members of the Lady Orchid Assembly #44, a community service organization, arrived for a morning of volunteer service in the Crisis Ministry’s pantry on East Hanover Street.

Brenda Mason, Volunteer and Retired Diva
Brenda Mason, Volunteer and Retired Diva

She and her fellow Lady Orchid volunteers liked what they saw, and Brenda soon began volunteering with the Crisis Ministry once a week. Still, she wanted to do more.

Now her warm smile and her friendly “Hello!” greet clients, staff, and fellow volunteers almost daily at the pantry.

For someone who refers to herself on her calling card as a Retired Diva, Brenda Mason certainly works hard. In fact, Brenda contributed the most volunteer hours in our East Hanover Street location for July 2016! “It’s hard to see someone in need of essentials and not do something about it,” she says.

Most days, Brenda assists clients coming to the pantry with the intake process: “I do what I can where I’m needed, but I enjoy intake the most because I get to interact more deeply with people and maybe brighten their day.”


Working in intake can be difficult at times, she notes, especially if a client doesn’t have the proof of identity and residency necessary to shop in the pantry. Brenda is glad she can turn to Crisis Ministry staff member Seth Arber, who oversees the East Hanover Street pantry and helps people get their paperwork in order or request new IDs if they have lost theirs, so they can come back for the food they need as soon as possible.

“Everyone here is doing as much as they can to help people in need,” Brenda says. “They treat people like equals and don’t talk down to people. I don’t think anyone who really needs help should feel like they’re begging for it. A positive tone can change someone’s day.”

When asked what keeps her coming back to volunteer each day, Brenda replies simply that it is “the joy it puts in my heart to help. Each day, I have a choice to sit home and do nothing, or go and do something to assist somebody. Sitting home, I’m harming myself. This helps me to be more active, not just for the community, but for me also. I feel blessed to be able to work here.”

We couldn’t be more grateful to have her on our volunteer roster.

Volunteer Spotlight: Helen Burke

Monday mornings, iced coffee in hand, Helen Burke arrives at the Crisis Ministry to volunteer as an intake specialist in our Homeless Prevention program. Helen first came to the Crisis Ministry in response to a leaflet she received at Trinity Church about volunteering. “At first, I thought, well I could volunteer in Princeton,” muses Helen, “but when I came to Trenton for the interview, I fell in love with the city and the people.” Eleven years later, her love for the people of Trenton keeps her coming back to volunteer with us each week.

Helen Burke, Homelessness Prevention volunteer.
Helen Burke, Homelessness Prevention volunteer.

It’s not always easy. Helen remembers the difficulty of learning to navigate the system of state agencies, municipal offices, and local organizations to find out who can help and who can’t. “When I first started,” she recalls, “I was shocked by how difficult it is for people: how much paperwork and information they need to deal with, how much they have to bare their souls to the world.”

On a given day, Helen meets four to eight people seeking assistance for back rent, mortgage, or a security deposit. She listens as they share their stories, and captures their information for the homelessness prevention staff. “The doors open, and you’re immediately thrown into people’s lives,” she reflects, “some days the issues are straightforward, sometimes it’s more complicated. You never know who you’re going to meet.”

That opportunity to interact and learn about people first drew Helen to work in homelessness prevention, and continues to motivate her as a volunteer. “When you sit down and listen to people’s stories you learn that we really are all in this together—the line between those who need assistance and those assisting is so fine.” Without a personal or family safety net, people can find themselves facing homelessness for a lot of reasons: a job loss, a medical emergency, a long illness, an abusive spouse. As Helen points out, “so much in life is luck of the draw.” Yet she always returns to the grace and shared humanity she experiences with those who come seeking assistance, “we can’t always help everyone, but we can always treat people with kindness, dignity, and respect.”

Helen served on the Crisis Ministry board of directors from 2008-2014. In addition to her work with the Crisis Ministry, she also volunteers at Trinity Church and on the board of the Friends of Soko Fund, which provides scholarships to support women’s education in Malawi.

Bringing the Farm to the City

A recent community health survey by the Trenton Health Team showed that more than 40% of Trenton residents feel it’s challenging to find fresh produce in their community. In some Trenton neighborhoods, that figure rises to 50%. Compare that to Mercer County as a whole, where only 16% of residents find it difficult to access fresh produce.

Brian and Elyse from Farmers Against Hunger hosting a tasting during a busy day at the East Hanover Street Pantry.
Brian and Elyse from Farmers Against Hunger hosting a tasting during a busy day at the East Hanover Street Pantry.

Compared to the rest of Mercer County, Trenton can be considered a food desert—an urban area in which it is difficult to find affordable or good quality fresh food. Together, we can change that. The Crisis Ministry is proud to be one of several organizations infusing our city with fresh produce by growing food in Trenton and partnering with farmers and grocers in the wider community. Collaborating with Yes We CAN! Food Drives, the West Windsor Farmers Market, Farmers Against Hunger,  and other organizations improves our clients’ access to farm-fresh produce, while supporting local New Jersey agriculture.

In addition to delivering produce to the Crisis Ministry throughout the growing season, Farmers Against Hunger provides healthy food tastings at our East Hanover Street pantry.

“We want to make sure the recipients of our produce know how to enjoy the produce,” says FAH nutrition educator Elyse Yerrapathruni. “Our partnership with the Crisis Ministry allows us to not only distribute the produce, but also teach nutrition and provide recipes.”

For clients who like the tasting sample, Farmers Against Hunger provides the recipe and a grocery bag containing the ingredients necessary to prepare it.

“We’re able to reach so many people in need in this way,” says Brian Strumfels, FAH Produce Coordinator. “This is the perfect audience, because they’re coming in to shop specifically to cook. If we can add fresh produce, everybody wins.”

Mark Smith, our Director of Hunger Prevention and Nutrition Education agrees: “This wonderful collaboration brings a festive spirit to our pantry and helps create a sense of community. We are all in this together as we work to improve the quality of our service and hospitality for our neighbors in need.”

Guilherme Brewer

I graduated from The College of New Jersey in May of 2014 with a degree in Philosophy and am grateful I had the freedom to study a wide range of subjects. I have been with Crisis Ministry since December of 2014 and it has been an extremely rewarding experience. I spend some time working with the Communications department helping staff members who work on varying projects, and with Homeless Prevention services, aimed at helping individuals and families with emergency financial assistance so they can stay in their homes or to help them move into more affordable housing.

The Crisis Ministry is giving me an opportunity to do exactly what I want to do, which is to help those in need while I figure out how to make a career of helping others.

Not long ago I had a preliminary meeting with a young woman who was in danger of being evicted from her home. As I put her information in the computer I listened to her story, shared some of mine, and cracked some jokes to lighten the mood. The next time I saw her, she had been approved for assistance and was picking up a promissory note to help pay off her back rent.

The Crisis Ministry is helping me learn that in life there are rules, and that you can’t help everyone, especially when resources are limited. But it doesn’t mean you throw your hands up in the air. At the end of the day what you remember is the smile of someone who has a home to go to.

Katy Kinsolving

Tuesdays are busy at the Crisis Ministry’s Princeton pantry. As Tuesday hours stretch into evening, clients flock to the pantry for fresh produce and healthy food choices, as well as for the friendly smile and warm greeting of volunteer Katy Kinsolving. Always generous with her humor, knowledge, and compassion, Katy is a dedicated and valued Crisis Ministry friend.

Katy in Princeton
Katy in Princeton

We are particularly fortunate to take advantage of Katy’s expertise and training as a food consultant, educator, and writer, who is experienced with sustainability movements in the community. Katy brings this passion to her work at the food pantry: “I love using my nutrition and cooking background to steer clients in the direction of healthy choices,” she says. “Most of the time I don’t need to say a word:  the women and men who shop at Crisis Ministry are there because they hope to find fresh spinach or mushrooms, oranges and grapes, bananas, bell peppers, and acorn squash in our pantry.”

As a cooking teacher, certified Health Counselor, and author of a cookbook and food blog, Katy knows what she is talking about. Clients shopping in the food pantry have a real resource at their fingertips, and her time spent as a recipe developer is an added bonus. “Occasionally,” she says, “I can suggest a simple preparation method that might make someone select a bunch of kale or collard greens when they might not have, or pick up a few oranges instead of some bottled juice and that is neat.”

Katy enjoys sorting through the produce that arrives at the pantry each Tuesday, and appreciates the opportunity to communicate her passion for healthy eating to the clients she serves. “We all know that our health is dependent on an abundant supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. Our clients are no exception. They line up hours in advance on the day that the Whole Foods donation of fresh fruit and vegetables arrives. It is an added bonus when some of the community gardens in the area bring in contributions of Swiss chard, eggplant, tomatoes, and cucumbers. The Crisis Ministry is clearly making a difference by getting fresh produce directly to its clients.”

Thank you, Katy. You make a difference in our community.

Gretchen Jaeckel

Every Tuesday, Gretchen Jaeckel arrives at the Crisis Ministry’s Princeton food pantry, ready to work.


Sleeves rolled up, Gretchen unpacks boxes and then breaks them down, stocks shelves, sorts through produce, separates the good fruit from the spoiled, and tidies up the store.

All of this before the doors even open to clients.

This busy routine suits Gretchen. Besides being a wife and mother of two, Gretchen fills her days working as a meeting planner, playing ice hockey, and strumming the mandolin in an all-girl Bluegrass band!

She always finds time, however, to serve the community in ways that are meaningful to her. Gretchen has put in countless hours volunteering for Trinity Episcopal Church’s St. Nicholas Bazaar, rummage sales, and Prayer Shawl knitting committee, and, of course those Tuesday afternoons in the Princeton pantry.

“I have been volunteering at the Crisis Ministry Food Pantry in Princeton for eight years,” she says. “It truly has become a part of my life. Friends, family and co-workers know that I am unavailable to them on Tuesdays because that is my Food Pantry Day.”

For Gretchen, the rewards of being a volunteer are many. She sees the difference her work makes in the lives of the people who come to the food pantry when they need help.

“I enjoy interacting with the clients and getting to know their families,” Gretchen says. Her friendly smile and calm manner put everyone at ease, often bringing a shy child or a hesitant adult shopper out of his or her shell.

“I especially enjoy getting to practice speaking Spanish with our Latino clients,” Gretchen says. This is the kind of care Gretchen takes with every client. She goes the extra mile.

What Gretchen cherishes most are those times when she can see how much this food pantry means to the people it serves.

“One of our clients even brings us homemade Tamales as a show of gratitude!” Gretchen says. “But, I can’t overlook how it saddens me to see the incredible need for the Crisis Ministry in a town like Princeton. Thank God for the Crisis Ministry! The patrons are truly grateful for being able to get assistance in making ends meet.”

In turn, The Crisis Ministry recognizes the tireless dedication of volunteers like Gretchen, and for that we give wholehearted thanks!

NRG Employees spend a day of volunteering

Volunteers from NRG worked all day with the Crisis Ministry and our partners from Isles, Inc., to prepare our new downtown community garden for its first growing season.

NRG volunteers worked with the Crisis Ministry of Mercer County, Inc., and its project partner Isles, Inc., to prepare the Crisis Ministry’s new downtown Trenton community garden. Mark Smith, Crisis Ministry Hunger Prevention Director, said NRG’s day of volunteering “was a real turning point for the community garden. They left, and suddenly we had a garden.”

The garden is located at 119 E. Hanover St.  on the site of a building that was demolished in August of 2010. The garden now yields fresh, heart-healthy produce such as tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and herbs for low-income families and individuals in Mercer County who experience food insecurity. It was funded by the Bonner Foundation, and our project partner Isles, Inc., provided expertise and volunteer connections, including NRG. Hlubik Farms and Pineland Nursery donated vegetables, herbs, and perennial plants. Artists from Trenton’s SAGE Coalition created a vibrant mural.

The Lederman family

The Lederman Family

Volunteering is a wonderful way to help cultivate compassion in my children. They spend so much time studying and practicing sports that they need to set aside time to help others. It teaches them that everyone needs help once in a while, and if they have the ability to give it, they definitely should. I love taking my children to the food pantry and watching them get excited about organizing shelves or helping patrons bag groceries. They understand what the Ministry does for the community, and it improves their outlook on the world. It shows them that there are people who are willing to get involved and go the extra mile, even for strangers. That is the kind of people I want my children to turn out to be.