It’s that time again! As Thanksgiving and the December holidays approach many Philadelphians generously replenish food cupboards and provide festive meals for down-on-their-luck neighbors. Caring for Friends, a nonprofit based in Northeast Philadelphia, goes even farther to support struggling seniors throughout our community.
According to The Mayor’s Commission on Aging, Philadelphia has one of the oldest and poorest populations of any major city in the country. This trend shows no signs of abating: an increasing number of men, and especially women live on the edge of economic calamity and debilitating isolation.
Caring for Friends’ executive director Jeannette Fournier is on a mission to end hunger and loneliness in Philadelphia. She leads the organization with a small staff and an army of volunteers that provides food and friendship for thousands every day of the year.
In 1974, Rita Ungaro-Schiavone, a fixture at the Commission on Human Relations at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, recognized that her neighbor needed help. This galvanized her to lend a hand: she stocked her friend’s freezer, visited, and offered support and companionship. It was obvious that this very basic need extended beyond her friend, so she enlisted her church, St. Jerome’s, and local parishioners to get involved. She created Aid for Friends to serve her friends and neighbors, but quickly realized that many people throughout Philadelphia faced similar difficulties. She wanted to expand and did, through hard work, strategic partnerships, and unwavering dedication. Rita Schiavone’s kitchen table became the launching pad for the preparation and delivery of thousands of meals and visits throughout the entire region.
A key component to the expansion of service was the decision to provide meals on a nonsectarian basis. The creation of partnerships with other nonprofits became the most efficient way to broaden the organization’s geographical reach. Members of Shaare Shamayim, a local synagogue, and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in nearby Southampton quickly joined the effort to help cook, store, and deliver food. Most recently, Muslim Serves in West Philadelphia coordinates efforts for 15 mosques to participate. Another strategic initiative was the idea to fundraise for freezers. This allows individuals to cook in their own homes or gather in their neighborhoods, package meals in provided containers, and store the fare in designated freezers for pick up and distribution. Everything is designed to be easy for the volunteer. That’s how an organization with only seven paid staffers can work with thousands of volunteers from every corner of our region.
Forty-five years later Aid for Friends has rebranded as Caring for Friends and operates a 30,000 square foot commercial kitchen in Northeast Philadelphia where religious and civic groups come in to chop vegetables, stir soup, braise meat, and bake cookies. Children put together breakfast bags and snack packs. Next, meals are packaged and prepared for delivery. Finally, one of the organization’s many volunteer drivers picks up meals to distribute throughout the community.
In 2019 Caring for Friends and their partners make 14,000 meal deliveries per week: a total of over a half million meals annually. Recipients are referred to the organization through social workers, geriatric specialists, concerned relatives, and neighbors. Some people may need assistance for a brief period of time, such as someone recently released from the hospital or a man recovering from an illness. Seniors and others in need are never turned away and may stay with the program as long as they like. The result of all of the partnerships with outstanding faith, secular, and civic organizations means that Caring for Friends literally serves as a regional clearing house for thousands of people.
Breakfast, lunch, and dinner aren’t the only parts of the Caring for Friends mission. The “secret sauce” is the recognition that fostering relationships between volunteers and seniors who are unable to leave their home is just as important as providing nutrition. What Rita Schiavone knew intuitively has been confirmed scientifically. Research from The National Institute on Aging has linked “social isolation and loneliness to higher risks for a variety of physical and mental conditions: high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”
Jeanette Fournier maintains that a leading factor in longevity is connection to a community. That is exactly what Caring for Friends brings to the table. Volunteers visit weekly. They form genuine relationships. For some seniors, this may be the only companionship they receive. Volunteers benefit, too, many have donated their time for years.
What’s the best way to help? Caring for Friends always welcomes groups at their Northeast Philadelphia kitchen for cooking projects, or you may pick up packaging supplies from them or one of their partners and cook in the comfort of your own kitchen. Drivers and visitors are always needed. If you know a person who may be lonely or unable to access the broader community, lend a hand. If you can’t do this personally, Caring for Friends will accept your referral for service and follow up. Contact them at caringforfriends.org.
Holiday food drives are vital, but it is even more important to recognize that adequate nutrition and social connections are critical needs every day of the year.