Ever since she was growing up, our Homegrown Hero Jessica Cruz-Breeman had one thought in mind: "How can I help people?" It’s been part of her nature for a long time and now more than ever she’s been put to the test with Jersey Cares in finding ways to help out those in need and get more people involved in the community.
“As soon as I graduated college, I really wanted to find something where I get to work with people, and I get to help them along their career path, but also inspire them to get out and to help others along the way,” said Mrs. Cruz-Breeman. “Whether that's volunteering at a food bank, participating in a collection drive, whatever it is, that's something I get really excited about, and I always want other people to get involved in.”
Since the pandemic started, Jersey Cares has created over a dozen brand new programs.
“For our corporate partners, we have developed new programs to engage employees from the safety of their homes. These programs include: Senior Citizen Pen Pals, Healthcare Appreciation Videos, Education Videos, Professional Development, Senior Reader Series, Virtual Art Projects, Seeds of Hope, and a Healthy Meal Delivery Program,” listed Mrs. Cruz-Breeman. “For individuals, our online Volunteer Opportunity Calendar is being updated daily. These opportunities include the Rao’s #sauce4cause Challenge, the Senior Shoppers Program, Mask Mayday project, Food Distribution, Amazon Wish Lists, Diaper Collection Drive, and more.”
In her position as Corporate Service Manager, Mrs. Cruz-Breeman has taken initiative in not only advertising these programs, but to also take part in them, so she can lead by example.
“We also have our Diaper Drive, we're collecting thousands of diapers for families across the state, that's a collection drive we started, but I also have taken time just to participate just because I think it's super important to lead by example, to not only help folks to promote the Diaper Drive, but also participate,” she said. “And it's actually been super fun. I've gone all over Morris County, Essex County and Hunterdon County picking up diapers from people, from their front porches, and then bringing them and delivering them to families in like Newark and Paterson, partners that really, really are struggling and have that need.”
One of the first projects she led with Jersey Cares and worked alongside the New York Red Bulls was at the Camden Street School, where she met Principal Garrison, someone whom she looks up to for everything he does for his students.
“Honestly, the projects that we do, there are some really amazing organizations and some really amazing people I get to work with every day, said Mrs. Cruz-Breeman. “When I first started, my first school transformation project, and it actually was an opportunity I did with the Red Bulls, which is funny enough, we worked at Camden Street School in Newark. Some of the projects we've done included like repainting the hallways, building picnic tables, doing all these fun things and workshops for the kids. I met Principal Garrison, and he's one of the first principals I've ever worked with from a volunteer event planning position, and he is one of the most inspiring people I've met just because his personality and his love for the students and his flexibility when it comes to, you know, working with us at Jersey Cares.
“He's always available, but he's also excited about what we're going to be doing, and he always brings the students to us, so we can have the volunteers meet with him, meet with the students and get that real impact of the projects we're doing. He's just an amazing person to work with.”
Not so long ago, about two weeks ago the Jersey Cares team returned to their offices. They’ve had to work remotely since March 19, and they faced challenges along the way, for example figuring out how to properly use Zoom and do conference calls. Before the pandemic hit, all these meetings would take place in-person to talk over every single project on schedule, but all of a sudden they had to adapt to new ways of working together.
Mrs. Cruz-Breeman has also had to work on rebranding Jersey Cares’ social channels like Instagram and Facebook in order to keep everyone up-to-date on what they’re doing. Virtual ways of getting volunteers involved has been an idea that has grown in the past months.
“We've created a lot of virtual ways to get involved, we've created a lot of collection guides, and now we're really excited to be promoting the first ever Jersey Cares Virtual Walk,” she said. “So we're doing a Virtual Walk for Justice. The pandemic has certainly been the number one priority, but at the same time, we also have the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been a real topic of discussion over the past couple of weeks, so we've been doing that, we've been trying to figure out how can we help out the Black community? How can we raise awareness?”
With all that she’s seen and experienced in the last months, Mrs. Cruz-Breeman believes it’s important not to take anything for granted.
“I would say the number one lesson is not to take anything for granted, and that kind of just is like an umbrella statement because during these past couple months, we've seen so many people that are struggling with food insecurity, that are struggling to provide diapers to their children, which is such an essential thing you don't think about that,” she said. “When I think about like my sister who has two young kids, she has a job and she has a husband, and he has a job, so they're not struggling to provide diapers to their two kids, but there are thousands and thousands of people throughout New Jersey that literally cannot provide something so essential to their own child."
She continued: “When you think about that, like I never want to take for granted something that's just like an everyday thing for my family, so I try to think about that when I'm working, the things we're doing, these one-day projects or these small opportunities for our corporate partners, they may seem like a one-hour project for a corporate partner or a one-day opportunity, but really they're making a lifelong impact. And over these past couple months, we've seen that we've been able to distribute 30,000 diapers to families that really need them.
“So just reminding people and keeping in mind that like these things that we have, not to take those things for granted, especially during these times where resources are low, people can't go grocery shopping, there's all these crazy, crazy challenges and difficulties coming out because of the virus and because of all the things lately, it just reminds you of how important it is to take care of one another and to take care of our community."
Working alongside the Red Bulls have been experiences Mrs. Cruz-Breeman always likes to look back at as examples of how much excitement is being put in helping out communities.
“The Red Bulls, they're one of the best groups to work with, working with Gianna [Sopko] and working with Christina [Giunta-Quarino] and their team because they always have a campaign that promotes volunteerism and community to their employees and their players,” said Mrs. Cruz-Breeman. “So finding companies that ingrain the importance of community and volunteerism into their culture, that is something that's super important and being able to work with the Red Bulls, which they do and makes it so much easier to plan, and it just makes it so much fulfilling when you're actually out on the project with our team members because they're excited, they want to give back, they do a great, great job.”