Taking Hunger to TASK
Jaime Parker '05 works with Sidney James of Hightstown, N.J., on GED test preparation at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.
The middle of December has seen the mercury plunge well below freezing, but inside so many warm, safe homes all over Mercer County and beyond, kitchens are well stocked with good food and drink for the upcoming Christmas and New Year holidays.
But in the shadows, just beyond this cornucopia of good fortune, hunger and homelessness encroach upon more and more of the people we see every day. As the city of Trenton continues to be pummeled by factors that only begin with the economic recession, residents of the capital city and beyond find their own lives increasingly askew with the images of bounty seen on television.
It’s easy to avert your glance from this reality, but Jaime Parker ’05 will not. Since her days as a Bonner Community Scholar at Rider, the Bordentown, N.J., resident has been invested in the betterment of those around her, and today, she helps give voice – literally – to the very people the at the front lines of hunger, the patrons of the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, or TASK.
These patrons – the homeless, elderly, working poor and newly unemployed – come to the center seeking supplemental meals and hygienic items, but also benefit from such programs as one-on-one tutoring and GED prep classes, according to Parker, who says that their troubled experiences also provide a rich texture to the already creative penchants of many.
“There is a lot of talent here,” said Parker, the coordinator of Community Relations and Development for TASK, who recalled many TASK patrons passing their own works of original poetry to volunteers and employees there. “So, thinking of my own experience, our director gave me the opportunity to start a performing arts program to showcase that talent.”
Parker, who double majored in Theater and Political Science on Rider’s Lawrenceville campus and also plays drums in a local indie-art rock band, The Timid Roosevelts, organized The Share Program, a performing arts outreach program, to provide a developmental avenue for the creativity already being expressed at TASK. Established in 2009, The Share Project meets once a week so participants can write new poems, songs, short stories, and plays before sharing their works with the group to receive feedback and constructive criticism.
“Share really builds the self-esteem of the participants,” said Parker, who recently took a group of about 15 members of the program to Rider’s Gill Chapel to perform and talk to students about the plight of homelessness. “But there are also a lot of misconceptions about the population we serve at TASK, and this goes a long way toward dispelling those. Their poems, in their own words, relate directly to you, removing those barriers.
“The trip to Rider was great,” she continued “It’s easy for a college student to live in a bubble and not be aware of the need that exists only a few minutes away.”
Earlier this year, Parker noticed a call for entries for the ShopRite Partners in Caring “Expressions of Hunger” video contest. With the New Jersey-based supermarket cooperative, along with General Mills, looking to shine a light on the issue of food insecurity, Parker knew The Share Program had found its platform.
“It was the perfect thing for us to enter,” she said.
Parker began collecting works of poetry from TASK patrons and integrating them to form a cohesive script for the three-minute film. After compiling a rudimentary story board, she called on the talents of a friend from her days at Rider, Frank Lettieri ’06, to shoot and direct the video.
“Everyone selected what they’d contribute, and then Frank really brought it to life,” explained Parker of the film, which features stanzas read by their authors. Filming took place in and around Trenton, with another month of editing and post-production work.
The result was The Red, a stark, haunting amalgam of verses that personalize the pain and hopelessness of hunger though the voices of those who know. The fabric of The Red is woven through the repeated phrasing of Share Project member Derrick Branch, who contributed his Dog with a Jones, a poem written a number of years ago:
The thoughts of bones keep my mind in the red.
I’m starvin’, man, and I’ve got to be fed.
‘Cause for a bone? My stomach rumbles and groans.
So out of touch, I’ll be a dog with a jones.
The Red was one of just six grand prize winners chosen, with Parker and members of The Share Project appearing on the back of boxes of Cheerios, a General Mills product, sold at ShopRite.
“I’m proud of the fact that we are a soup kitchen, but produced that quality of video,” Parker said, citing the difficulties of putting the project together. “With the population we serve, it’s hard to get people together. If it’s raining, some have to walk miles in to that rain to get here. We made participation in the film project very open, and put it out there for everyone, but this is only portion of the talent that exists at TASK.”
Parker said that a number of Share Project members also participate in TASK’s A-Team, a prolific group of painters whose works not only line the walls of TASK’s main room, but appear in a number of area galleries as far north as bucolic Frenchtown, N.J.
While The Red provided a notable, visible victory for The Share Project, the realities of TASK’s mission remain. Formed in 1982, TASK has expanded its headquarters and even runs two smaller satellite locations in the city. In spite of its name, Parker says that TASK is wholly committed to meeting the needs of the population it serves.
“People hear ‘soup kitchen,’ and they think we only serve soup,” said Parker, whose facility, located not far off the elevated overpass of the Route 1 Trenton Freeway, contains a number of large storerooms for food, clothing and toiletries. “We actually provide a very balanced diet, but also, an adult education program with GED prep, a computer lab, a kids program and holiday programs.
Pausing, Parker reflected on the larger purpose of her work at TASK. “Our whole thing is, we not only try to help hunger, but to improve the self-sufficiency of our patrons,” she said. “We love what we do, but we’d love to put ourselves out of business.”