Nearly a decade in, Rent Party thrives

For nine years, SOMA nonprofit has partnered with community to combat hunger, food insecurity

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ — For nine years, Rent Party has been providing the South Orange-Maplewood community with “good music and cold beer at a reasonable price.” The nonprofit organization, founded by friends Chris Dickson and David Wagner, not only brings stellar live music to The Woodland in Maplewood one Friday each month, but fundraises for and administers multiple charitable initiatives to fight hunger in the community.

In addition to raising funds for area food banks, Rent Party created the BackPack Pals program, which ensures area schoolchildren will have food during the weekend, and collaborated to create the South Orange Elks Rent Party Garden, which grows nutritional food to donate to food banks.

But Rent Party did not spring up overnight. The creation of Rent Party actually evolved from Dickson and Wagner’s ongoing volunteer work to help the hungry.

“Chris Dickson was running a charity event called Battle of the Basement Bands when I moved to Maplewood,” Wagner recently told The Villager. “‘Battle’ was a yearly event and Chris had an idea to do something similar on a monthly basis in order to fight hunger locally. Thus, Rent Party was born!”

Dickson also fondly recalls Rent Party’s growth from a yearly event, to trips to the food bank, to becoming a staple charitable and arts event in the two towns.

“David Wagner and I were involved with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey for many years as volunteers. We would throw our daughters and their friends in the car a couple of times a month and head over there to sort cans or whatever else they had for us,” Dickson recently told The Villager, also discussing fundraising through Battle of the Basement Bands. “Rent Party was an offshoot of that event. We became more aware of the challenge of hunger in our community and we wanted to do something closer to home.”

Before finding its home at The Woodland in 2014, Rent Party began presenting shows at the South Orange Elks Lodge in October 2009.

“We were supporting two food pantries when we started. As the shows grew in popularity and the community got behind what we were doing, we started to look for other ways to fight hunger locally,” Dickson said, adding that the group attained nonprofit status in 2012, allowing it to do additional fundraising for the cause. “We launched the South Orange Elks Rent Party Garden and BackPack Pals in the same year. The garden has raised thousands of pounds of fresh produce for the local food pantries we support, and BackPack Pals has distributed more than 14,000 packs to food-insecure children in our community, helping to bridge that gap between free lunch on Friday and a free breakfast on Monday morning. We now support three local food pantries.”

BackPack Pals, which provides packs of food to identified food-insecure students to ensure they have food during the weekend, is overseen closely by Wagner.

“BackPack Pals program feeds between 80 and 100 kids every weekend during the school year,” Wagner said. “These kids are typically on the free- and reduced-lunch program and often don’t get enough to eat over the weekend. The BackPack Pals program gives them a bag of shelf stable food to help them through to their Monday breakfast and lunch. The children are identified by the school social workers and are kept anonymous. We receive a number for each school and they distribute directly to the children. We’re also extremely fortunate to get support from the company The FruitGuys in the form of fresh fruit every Friday morning to put into the kids’ bags.”

According to Wagner, BackPack Pals currently assists children in South Orange and Maplewood middle schools, and Clinton, Jefferson, South Mountain and Seth Boyden elementary schools. The program currently provides 82 bags of food per week, though that number fluctuates throughout the year.

“It’s always wonderful to get a note from a social worker letting us know a family has gotten back on their feet and no longer needs the weekend bags,” Wagner said.

The idea for BackPack Pals actually came from Wagner’s sister-in-law, Karen, who was visiting from North Carolina in 2011.

“The Rent Parties had become so successful we were ready to branch out and find more ways to fight hunger while still funding the local pantries. Karen told us of a weekend bag of food idea — it was called Backpack Blessings in her town — that her church was involved in,” Wagner said. “As fortune would have it, I found myself the next night running the high school play’s box office with a social worker from the school system. I ran the idea by her and she assured me it was needed and put me in touch with the perfect people, and off we went.”

But BackPack Pals did not just fall into place; it took a lot of work from a lot of different people — and still does.

“BackPack Pals is a weekly dedication and there’s always something to do. Juggling my time and efforts can be quite tricky and there’s almost always a point when I feel burned out and am ready pass the torch,” Wagner said. “However, after every single packing event I am refueled and re-energized by the enthusiasm and goodness of the families and people who give up their time to come and help.

“Since we never see the gratitude or the expressions from the kids and the families receiving the bags, I would have to say the most rewarding aspect is how grateful the parents of my young volunteers are when I let them know about food insecurity during our packing events,” he continued. “To let them know there are kids in our community struggling and we can help them is very satisfying.”

While food insecurity in the two towns is far from vanquished, Rent Party has certainly made a dent in it.

“We have raised more money than we could have ever dreamed of when we rolled into the Elks on that very first night and we’re humbled by the impact we’ve made in our community,” Dickson said. “I also think that, equally important, Rent Party has helped raise awareness of this issue in our community. I have always felt that people may not think that hunger is an issue in towns like ours. One of our volunteers likes to say that our shows are a sort of billboard for the fact that this challenge exists.”

In Rent Party’s quest to continue shining that light on hunger and combating it, the organization continues to work closely with the South Orange Elks, despite moving venues in 2014. The South Orange Elks Rent Party Garden began in 2012 and flourishes today in front of the Elks Lodge on Prospect Street in South Orange.

“Our goal is to grow nutrition-dense, delicious food that does not necessarily have to be cooked, since everyone may not have a kitchen. We also select vegetables that can be easily distributed. So, for example, rather than growing squash that produce large but fewer fruits, like zucchini, we choose a variety that produces many smaller fruits, like patty pans. We also select vegetables that travel well. This year we are planning to grow: beets, bush beans, carrots, collards, cucumbers, edamame, kale, peas, parsnips, pole beans, spinach, Swiss chard, tomatoes and turnips,” master gardener Karen Rutberg, the garden’s director of operations, recently told The Villager.

As she is a master gardener, Rutberg also reserves one bed in the garden to be used as a teaching opportunity as part of the Essex County Master Gardener program. Once gardeners learn the ropes, they can not only keep home gardens, but return to help with the Rent Party Garden. The garden’s planting and maintenance is provided solely by volunteers from South Orange, Maplewood and nearby communities.

“The garden has a great vibe of peace and strength and wholeness,” Rutberg said. “For me, each part of the operation is very rewarding: planning how to maximize yield, preparing the garden, planting, meeting and working with others in the community, caring for the plants, harvesting. Being able to craft and witness the lifecycle of the garden is very satisfying.”

Just last year, the garden raised more than 2,000 pounds of produce, which it then donated. But according to Rent Party’s founders, none of this would be possible without community buy-in.

“The community has supported us in countless ways, but it has also inspired us,” Dickson said. “Rent Party is a 100-percent volunteer organization, so everything we have accomplished has been a ‘community effort.’ The support comes in all shapes and sizes. We have been the beneficiary of a lot of local, grassroots support from lemonade sales to bar mitzvahs. We are also very grateful to the hundreds of musicians who have supported what we do by donating their time and talent. We also have a handful of local businesses and civic organizations that have sponsored us over the years.”

Wagner is also incredibly grateful for the community’s support and enthusiasm in working with Rent Party.

“Rent Party’s success is directly related to the kind of support we have received from the community. It’s been tremendous,” Wagner said, praising the overflow of volunteers seeking to help with BackPack Pals. “The hunger we set out to fight was physical, but we quickly learned there was a deep hunger to help and to be of use. We believe Rent Party has been successful in satiating that hunger in many ways.”

Dickson is consistently awed by how supportive the two towns and their residents are.

“I love the community that has sprung up around what we do. I use that word a lot, but that’s what it is: community. People that care about making a difference. I am talking about our volunteers, the musicians and the folks who come to our shows,” Dickson said.

Both founders discussed how the community has really united to combat an issue that many were unaware even exists here.

“A friend of mine who grew up poor once told me he never knew he was poor,” Wagner said. “Since everyone in his neighborhood was poor, he had no idea. In our community, the diversity of incomes from family to family can be quite different. I believe growing up when your family is struggling and seeing so many other families around you flourishing can be quite debilitating to a child and their self esteem. If we can provide a child with a feeling that they are important, and their community is there for them in a time of struggle, that is very important to me.”

Rutberg agrees that no one should have to struggle with food insecurity, especially as it can be conquered through compassion and community.

“There are many in and around this community who are hungry,” Rutberg said. “That is absurd. No one should go hungry, especially when we all have the power in ourselves to fight it.”

For some, Rent Party may just be a fun Friday night where they can get a cold beer and hear some excellent live music; but, whether they know it or not, by supporting Rent Party, they are supporting their neighbors.

“I think that Rent Party combines so many things that are part of the unique fiber of our towns: music, service, community and fun! For me, it is the most rewarding thing that I have ever been involved with,” Dickson said. “This is a community effort. I have met so many wonderful people in connection to Rent Party. David and I were talking at Friday’s show, marveling at the people who are part of this that show up month after month to make it all happen.”

For more information on Rent Party and how to become involved, visit www.rentpartylive.com.

Photos by Yael Katzwer

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