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Amid pandemic, Atlantic City Rescue Mission continues Thanksgiving tradition

Amid pandemic, Atlantic City Rescue Mission continues Thanksgiving tradition


ATLANTIC CITY — The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Americans to deviate from their holiday traditions over the past two years, but for the staff and volunteers at the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, the need to help others has only intensified.

The Rescue Mission hosted its annual Thanksgiving dinner Thursday — its second held during the pandemic. Staff and volunteers fed people who were homeless, low income or otherwise in need of a meal. An estimated 1,500 people were expected to attend the dinner over the course of four hours.

John Pagenkopf, a member of Island Baptist Church from Beach Haven, was volunteering at the dinner with his wife. He said he felt it was important to give back to those in need during the holidays.

“It’s a fortunate day to be able to help out,” Pagenkopf said.

The entire dinner was run by two Rescue Mission staff members and six volunteers. It featured key Thanksgiving staples, like turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, alongside lamb shanks and other items. Bob Franklin, the Rescue Mission’s partnership development officer, said all the food was donated by individuals and churches interested in helping the mission, with the staff chefs then assembling the meal from what they were given.

“Our cooks have a unique challenge, because they can’t sit back and be like, ‘Let’s order this, this and this.’ It’s about what’s donated, what we have,” Franklin said. “It’s almost like the Food Channel show where they challenge people and say, ‘OK, here’s your ingredients, do something with it.’”

The Rescue Mission was founded in 1964 to provide food and shelter to a small number of men who were homeless. It has since grown to house about 270 people per night, and to serve hundreds of thousands of meals per year. People who live at the Rescue Mission are entered into a treatment or work-readiness program, which Franklin said is designed to help them become healthy and secure a livelihood. People from across the state and even some from out of state are referred to the Rescue Mission for help. All the food is donated, with major businesses in the state, such as Wawa, ShopRite and Acme, working with the mission to keep its pantry stocked. Businesses and nonprofits also donate clothing for residents.

The Rescue Mission is a Christian organization and emphasizes spiritual healing, but it does not proselytize and helps people in need irrespective of their religious beliefs.

The pandemic downsized the scale of the event last year, with only 1,000 people in attendance — about two-thirds of the normal 1,500 people the event draws. Franklin speculated that some attendees were taking precautions about coronavirus infection and wanted to minimize their use of public transit, which they would have to use to attend the event. While Franklin said attendance had rebounded from last year’s pandemic low, organizers were still taking precautions. Indoor seating was limited, with only four people to a table, instead of the usual eight. Take-out boxes were available in the event the dinner began to overflow its limits, although Franklin said the mission would not turn anyone away.

COVID-19 has not only put stress on the mission during Thanksgiving. Franklin said that over the past two years, the mission has stopped using volunteers for most events to lower the chance of coronavirus spread. The Rescue Mission also has been slightly short-staffed in terms of paid work, with only 28 people on staff instead of the normal 32 or 33.

And while Franklin said demand for the Rescue Mission’s services has actually decreased — owing to the series of federal eviction moratoriums that were implemented during the pandemic — need is still higher than it was in pre-pandemic times. He noted that the need of the “housed poor” — people who are housed but have low incomes — had risen dramatically during the pandemic. Need was especially acute among those employed in the casino and hospitality industries, which laid off thousands of workers in early 2020.

Beyond its Thanksgiving capacity limits, the mission has strived to keep its residents and staff safe from coronavirus spread. Signs outside the mission advertise the availability of COVID-19 tests, and Franklin said sanitary guidelines are well adhered to. He said he was especially proactive about preparing the mission for the pandemic, due to warnings from members of his wife’s family who live in China, the country in which the pandemic originated.

Pagenkopf said the stress and grief caused by the pandemic presented a special opportunity to show others the holiday spirit.

“I often pray for opportunities to serve, and then I watch that opportunity go by,” Pagenkopf said. “So now I pray for the opportunity to serve, and then the boldness to step in and serve, and with that conversation we’re here today.”

Franklin urged any interested individuals to step up during this holiday season.

“One of the messages then was everyone can make a difference,” Franklin said, reflecting on an assembly he held for elementary school students. “Don’t think any problem is too big.”

Contact Chris Doyle

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