In Wayne, NJ, mobilizing communities and pivoting thoughtfully in a pandemic

In 2020, Welcoming America and its members worked in eight cities to bridge diverse communities and foster a deeper sense of belonging for local residents, including immigrants. This story is part of the Belonging Begins With Us campaign, which was funded in part by the Walmart Foundation.

As COVID-19 peaked in spring 2020, increasingly more people in the Wayne, New Jersey area were relying on local resources for meals and social connections than ever before. When the state government ordered the closure of facilities like the Metropolitan YMCA of the Oranges, the Wayne YMCA location pivoted to addressing the community’s most pressing, immediate needs, as well as longer-term programming.

Wayne United: Addressing food insecurity

As the pandemic progressed, around four in 10 individuals served by food banks were relying on food assistance for the first time. Feeding America projected a 56 percent increase in food insecurity in New Jersey.

Seeing the growing need — and the desire of community members to help — the Wayne YMCA convened community partners to respond. The Wayne Public Schools corps of nurses, the Wayne Township Health Department, Wayne Interfaith Network, and other local nonprofits formed a collaborative called Wayne United. This activated a network of food resources and volunteers to launch a weekly emergency food assistance program operated by the Wayne YMCA.

Since April 2020, the Wayne Y has distributed over 235,000 pounds of food, equating to over 195,000 meals. At its peak, 410 homes in the Wayne area participated in the program. It also used the weekly distribution as an opportunity to disseminate health information, recipes, local resources, and notes of encouragement. Nearly a year after the start of the pandemic, more than 150 households still depend on the Wayne YMCA for food. Of these, 96 are families with 208 children ages 18 and younger. The remaining households are with people who are 50 and older.

The emergency food assistance program had a tremendous impact on local families, who regularly expressed gratitude to the Wayne YMCA and the collaborative. It also left an impact on the volunteers who have since deepened their knowledge on food insecurity and how disproportionately it has impacted communities of color during the pandemic. They also learned how to select foods that are culturally relevant to the people served.

Celebrating peace, promoting voting rights for Welcoming Week

During Welcoming Week in September 2020, the Wayne YMCA sponsored a project encouraging 30 families to illustrate through signs the things that made their home and family unique, as well as how they would promote peace in their daily lives. A quote by the Dalai Lama was provided as inspiration:

“Peace does not mean an absence of conflicts; differences will always be there. Peace means solving these differences through peaceful means; through dialogue, education, knowledge; and through humane ways.” — Dalai Lama XIV

The signs were then “stitched” together to form a mosaic for a peace garden on the Wayne YMCA’s property. Members commented how delightful it was to be greeted by positive messages of hope when they drove by, affirming the importance of welcoming and inclusive places.

This became a priority as the November 2020 election loomed closer. To help minimize confusion around the voting process and unequal access to voting, the Wayne YMCA connected with Shona Mack Pollock, the Passaic County Superintendent of Elections and Commissioner of Registration, who agreed to be interviewed in a video recording explaining the voting process for Wayne residents amid pandemic-related restrictions.

‘Forever Welcoming’ through virtual programming

For programming that could no longer be done in person, the Wayne YMCA pivoted to virtual methods. Through a webinar series called “Forever Welcoming”, the Wayne YMCA sought to equip community members with conflict resolution and emotional management skills.

The series kicked off on November 10 with the webinar “Anger as a Voice for Change” led by the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence. It explored anger’s relationship to other emotions, skills to process and harness the energy of anger, and ways to relate to anger in others.

On November 12, the second webinar took place with professional mediator Glenda Gutierrez presenting on “Conflict Styles and Conflict Approaches.” Gutierrez discussed personalities in relation to anger, active listening, and finding openings for reconciliation.

The third webinar, “What Does It Mean to be an Ally”, was presented on November 17 by a panel of diverse professionals. In light of the Black Matters Lives protests, the panelists shared their perspectives on what it means to be an ally in racial justice (watch the webinar).

Finally, the Wayne YMCA held its final webinar on November 24 to celebrate the annual Wayne Interfaith Thanksgiving Program with local religious leaders. It was held in partnership with the Wayne Clergy Fellowship and supported by the Peace Islands Institute.

Overall, the series was a success for the Wayne YMCA because it enabled them to collaborate with organizations in and out of its typical network and bring new presenters to help community members navigate tumultuous times.

This was a common theme throughout the pandemic. By mobilizing a collaborative team and activating its network of partners serving immigrant and non-immigrant communities, the Wayne YMCA was able to support its community members through food crises, emotional distress, and uncertainty.