Simran Bhatia (far left) and other student volunteers from St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church assembled 200 snack bags and 500 utensil packs from the over $800 she raised for Elijah’s Promise Community Kitchen & Social Services.

Student mobilizes support for New Brunswick homeless and hungry

Stories of resilience, resourcefulness & responsibility.

Some people try to avoid or ignore the less fortunate, not Simran Bhatia.  Before the COVID-19 pandemic, as she made her way from East Brunswick to Rutgers Business School on the New Brunswick campus, Bhatia would often give $5 to a homeless person, look her or him in the eyes and say “hello.”

“These are people in my community,” Bhatia said.  “They are not just a statistic.”

From an early age, the Rutgers Business School senior majoring in Finance and Business Analytics and Information Technology learned that volunteering at Elijah’s Promise Community Kitchen & Social Services and helping others was just something one did. “Years later, as a college student, I would give money to someone on my way to class, and I felt more connected to the reality of the New Brunswick community,” Bhatia said.

When the coronavirus pandemic forced everything to shut down, Bhatia left campus and began attending classes remotely. “At the end of summer, I visited New Brunswick and was shocked by how dire the homeless situation had become," she said. "Businesses had closed their doors, people had lost their homes, and giving someone five dollars was no longer enough. I had been so far removed during quarantine; I hadn't thought about how much worse COVID had made life for people living on the street.”

Using her Instagram account, Bhatia reached out to her family and friends. “I knew that most of my friends are students, and they do not have much extra money to give,” Bhatia said, “but if 50 people give just a little bit, it adds up.  I asked for money if someone could give, or assistance if they could not afford a donation.  If they wanted to give directly to Elijah’s Promise rather than me, fine. If they want to do something completely different, please do, but do something to help our community.”

Simran Bhatia delivered 200 snack bags and 500 utensil packs to Elijah’s Promise.
Simran Bhatia delivered 200 snack bags and 500 utensil packs to Elijah’s Promise.

Within a few days, Bhatia raised more than $800. “It was an outpouring, and I wasn’t expecting that at all,” she said. Bhatia purchased the supplies that Chef Curtis at Elijah's Promise wanted for snack bags, and she purchased plastic utensils and napkins to pack for handing out with every meal. On a beautiful and uncharacteristically warm November day, Bhatia and other student volunteers from St. Mary Coptic Orthodox Church met in a parking lot, spread out for social distancing, and donned masks to assemble 200 snack bags and 500 utensil packs in two hours.  “That would have taken me a week,” she said.

Bhatia kept posting updates to her Instagram account to show what she purchased and did with the donations. People could see precisely what they enabled with their gift.  “I kept all my receipts and detailed accounting, but nobody asked for it," she said. "I felt very good that they trusted me with this responsibility.”

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Chef Curtis told Bhatia that he needed more turkeys.  Bhatia spoke to a friend at Shop-Rite who arranged to donate four large holiday turkeys.

“I told Chef Curtis that I had some money left and asked what he needed.  He said supplies for kids.  It broke my heart.  He told me the ages of two children, and I purchased clothes, diapers, and baby wipes.”

“Chef Curtis seems to know every guest who comes into Elijah’s Promise. It is a soup kitchen and more, offering ten different programs in education, social services, jobs in the food industry,” Bhatia said.  “I don’t see my efforts to help ending anytime soon.”

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