MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Maplewood’s Memorial Park wasn’t empty as the sun rose on Aug. 13, with residents rolling out their yoga mats for an early-morning session hosted by East Orange–based homeless shelter Isaiah House, followed by a morning dance party. Proceeds from the fundraiser went to both the shelter and the family of Moussa Fofana, the 18-year-old Maplewood resident who was murdered in June. It was the first outdoor event in more than a year and a half for Isaiah House, because of COVID-19.
“We normally do a bigger event in February, and we were thinking we would do smaller individual ones,” Isaiah House Executive Director Zammeah Bivins-Gibson said in an interview at the event. “With this we were able to have more people. We’re grateful that we could do it.”
The event, called SunUp, was organized by Elizabeth Kubany and Kristen Beveridge after they learned about Daybreaker, a popular morning rave party that happens around the country.
“We were looking for an outdoor activity, and this worked,” Beveridge said in an interview at the event. “The community is really supportive in South Orange and Maplewood, so we’ll make some adjustments and try to do it again next week.”
About 100 people showed up for yoga and the ensuing dance party; the money raised for the shelter will support the many families it serves. Homeless youths lacking family support can stay at the shelter, and families can stay there together. According to Bivins-Gibson, shelters often force fathers to stay at a men’s shelter, separating members of a family. Isaiah House doesn’t do that.
“We’ve been able to offer a lot of services, and we’ve still found ways to do them,” Bivins-Gibson said about having to adapt during the pandemic. “We don’t separate families. We have single women with kids, people struggling with substance abuse, others with mental illnesses and women with HIV. We had a very low positivity rate, and anyone who did get COVID hasn’t gotten it from the shelter.”
The shelter had a vaccination clinic — anyone who wanted to be vaccinated could receive the vaccine. Through 2020, Isaiah House provided $285,000 in rental assistance to East Orange residents, and the food pantry served 12,000 people from 6,000 households in the area.
SunUp was part of the Isaiah House’s House of Love summer series, a fundraising program that invites supporters in the area to open their homes and yards for fundraising events. So far, the events have raised $16,000.
“Fundraising is pretty much nonexistent in the summer,” Bivins-Gibson said. “So we thought, why don’t we stretch it through the summer?”
“South Orange–Maplewood has been a really dominant force in our ability to stay solvent,” Bivins-Gibson said. “This community really steps up, and we’re grateful to them.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic