A hand up, not handout for working families in need

Staff Writer

 SCOTT FRIEDMAN Founder Brant Holmes, right, and his wife and Executive Director Dorothy Stearns work together to put away a donation of eggplants at Bentley Community Services in South Brunswick on Aug. 8. SCOTT FRIEDMAN Founder Brant Holmes, right, and his wife and Executive Director Dorothy Stearns work together to put away a donation of eggplants at Bentley Community Services in South Brunswick on Aug. 8. Bentley Community Services is certainly not a typical food pantry. Walking into the main building of Bentley, one can be confused as to its function: Is it a supermarket? Is it a flower shop? Is it a community living room?

Bentley was founded by Dorothy Stearns and her husband Brant Holmes as a charitable organization to specifically address the needs of struggling, working families who do not receive government assistance but need help due to the unstable economy. “With numerous job layoffs, individuals working fewer hours and earning less pay, the higher costs of living, diminishing healthcare, an unforeseen emergency or medical expenses – so many working families are struggling. Many families cut back on food and basic needs in order to afford their monthly bills and expenses,” Stearns said.

 Volunteers Sandy Ajamian, left, and Janet Smith put away groceries at Bentley Community Services in South Brunswick on Aug. 8. The organization provides supplemental food for the struggling, working class.  SCOTT FRIEDMAN Volunteers Sandy Ajamian, left, and Janet Smith put away groceries at Bentley Community Services in South Brunswick on Aug. 8. The organization provides supplemental food for the struggling, working class. SCOTT FRIEDMAN The new 2,500-square-foot location on Route 1 in the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick provides healthy, nutritious, wholesome, sometimes organic products to the underserved. There is a minimum monthly charge for membership.

Starbucks, Trader Joe’s Bonefish Grill, Stop & Shop, ShopRite, Wawa, VonThun Farms in Monmouth Junction, Giamarese Farm & Orchards in East Brunswick, Norz Hill Farm & Market in Hillsborough, Farmers Against Hunger and Griggstown Farm in Princeton donate their unexpired, surplus stock of fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen meat and seafood on a daily or weekly basis. “Our families are eating really well. I thought, if we were going to do this, we would do it the way we would eat,” Stearns said.

In addition, PetSmart sends pet food and Bed Bath & Beyond provides household items such as bedding and coffee pots.

Families must sign in upon arrival, but then can take their shopping carts up and down each aisle. There are canned goods, baked goods, fresh and frozen vegetables and meat, toiletries and even fresh flowers to choose from.

There is no limit on items except for ones that are in short supply, designated by a sign on the shelf.

Stearns said the 52 families currently enrolled leave with a total of about 100 pounds of food each week.

Since, on average, each family has four to six members, Stearns said that each family saves hundreds of dollars on food each week, money that can instead be put toward a mortgage, car payments, gasoline and/or utilities.

“The money they save on crucial staples we give out, they’re able to apply to their monthly expenses,” she said.

There are “no boundaries,” Stearns said, so residents in need from anywhere may take the drive down Route 1. An application process does exist, but she said she has clients who come from as far away as New York and Pennsylvania.

Any overflow of products is redistributed to 17 other agencies, such as the South Brunswick Food Pantry, Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, the Cornerstone Community Kitchen at Princeton United Methodist Church, the Crisis Ministry of Mercer County and the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.

A hand up, not a handout

Weekly volunteering is mandatory for all members who visit Bentley since the organization’s motto is “a hand up, not a handout.”

“We feel that true charity is given when we empower somebody to become, again, self sufficient,” Stearns said.

Stearns said a level of accountability leads to a mindset of sustainability, with the ultimate goal of having members leave the program, signifying that they are back on their feet, out of debt, able to get a better paying job and accumulate emergency savings.

“We’ve graduated 14 families in less than two years who have reached financial solvency,” she said of the 52 families who currently utilize Bentley’s services.

Bentley also requires that clients attend workshops to help them move forward. Topics include budgeting, controlling savings, mental health, diet and nutrition, and work-life balance.

“We feel that 90 percent is people, 10 percent is food,” Stearns said. “We are more focused on the human condition.”

In addition, through “A Grateful Heart,” clients write letters of gratitude to the dozens of food providers so that the donors realize the impact they are making on the community.

“We are grateful for what we receive,” Stearns said.

Since Stearns’ other passions are gardening and cooking, she provides recipes for the clients to make. There is also a garden on the property to teach clients how to grow on their own. This, too, she said, fosters a sense of community togetherness.

The roots of volunteerism

Stearns and Holmes were watching NBC Nightly News on Sept. 29, 2012, intrigued by the “Making a Difference” segment about Birch Community Services in Portland, Oregon.

“We got hit with a lightning bolt,” Dorothy Stearns said of being inspired by an organization that was not a food bank, but instead a location for families to rebuild after hardship.

“What would we do if this happened to us?” Stearns said, based on the fact that her husband works for Dell and she had a corporate job in marketing, meaning their income would be too high to qualify for government assistance.

“With the unstable economy we wanted to know, where do people like us go?” she said.

The couple flew to Oregon soon after to learn more about Birch, which has provided $12 million worth of product to 700 families each month for more than 20 years out of a 30,000-square-foot corporate complex, Holmes said. They tweaked Birch’s business model for the central Jersey area.

Thus, they began their operations out of their three-car garage.

In May 2013 they secured Costco Wholesale as their first provider for the officially established Bentley Community Services. The first family came into the program the following month.

“From there, it just snowballed and escalated,” Stearns said.

In the first six months of 2013, Stearns said Bentley redistributed 40,000 pounds of food. By the end of 2014, the number grew to 480,000 pounds.

Stearns believes Bentley moved more than $500,000 worth of product last year.

“We’re so blessed to help so many organizations and so many families in the community,” she said.

Then, through a connection with Donald Sears, the township attorney for South Brunswick, Stearns and Holmes were able to find their current space in Monmouth Junction. New Year’s Eve weekend 2015 served as move-in, but Stearns said they are already limited in space.

“We are outgrowing this very rapidly,” she said.

By the end of June, the distribution rate was 30 percent higher than the same time last year, she said.

Becoming part of the Bentley community

Stearns said that any family wishing to take advantage of Bentley Community Services must fill out an application she provides after speaking with them. Each adult must supply a copy of his or her last two paychecks or unemployment checks.

The only payment to Bentley is $40 per month, which is due by the 15th, to help with Bentley’s utility, gas and maintenance costs because Bentley is 100-percent volunteer. It is a private organization, receiving no federal subsidies, though Bristol- Myers Squibb, Bloomberg and the Johnson & Johnson Family of Consumer Companies are corporate partners – and to teach philanthropy, send their employees to volunteer at Bentley.

Donations from individuals and organizations are welcomed. They are usually accepted Saturday through Wednesday.

“We are as thankful for one orange as for the six to eight tons of food we distribute each month,” Stearns said. “Every box, bag, palette of food is a gift. We treat [everything] with respect and value.”

Stearns said the organization is in desperate need of walk-in units with cold storage equipment because the current building is overloaded by its six freezers and six refrigerators.

She also mentioned that she was lucky enough to have a 14-foot box truck donated about three months ago, because they were using their two personal vehicles for pick ups and deliveries.

More volunteers are also needed to drive the van, secure the food and help break down and store items. Stearns herself left her corporate job to follow her calling, and is in the process of writing grants to secure some subsidies and stipends.

Bentley Community Services is located at 4064 Route 1 north, between Whispering Woods Boulevard and New Road, in the Monmouth Junction section of South Brunswick.

For more information, visit www.bentleycommunityservices.org. For an application, call Stearns at 908-227-0684.

Contact Jennifer Amato at jamato@gmnews.com.