Updated Mar 31, 2020;Posted Mar 30, 2020
Tanya and Matthew Veltz, of Tree House Cares in Newark, continue their work feeding the hungry in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
There are days Tanya Veltz simply doesn’t have the energy to help people in their darkest hour with the non-profit she started four years ago. She is rundown, the phone calls keep coming, and the problems seem endless and insurmountable.
There’s a mother of seven with no food for her children, or an infant drinking soda from a baby bottle because the family has no formula, or a disabled neighbor who can’t get out and hasn’t eaten in days, or dozens of seniors who are relying on her for a hot meal.
She is exhausted. But in that moment, Veltz, 52, remembers the three slices of bread that were her Thanksgiving meal one year and the countless hardships she has endured. She remembers standing in food lines when she and her husband, Matthew, lost their jobs and sent their kids to school for an education -- and for breakfast.
Suddenly, there is a surge of energy.
As the coronavirus spreads and many struggle as she once did, Veltz remembers the promise she made to God, too.
“When He pulled me out of those situations, I promised him that I would do this," Veltz said.
She and Matthew are relentless. They take phone orders, read text messages, prepare dozens of meals and hit the road to distribute the food that’s been donated by individuals, organizations and food stores. It’s wearying work. I spent a few hours with them, and they stopped moving only long enough to pose for a photo for this column.
“Whew, that felt good," she said. “We’re not used to that.”
She answers the phone whenever it rings, and now, as she also grieves the loss of a friend to Covid-19, the calls for food have been unyielding. In the past three weeks, Veltz, an East Orange resident, has taken only one day off from running Tree House Cares, her Newark based non-profit known for showing up with whatever her neighbors need.
Take Friday, for instance. By 3 p.m., the couple already had made five stops to pick up food and donations. In a beat-up yellow van, they scooped up banana pudding in Clifton; pasta and salad in Newark and food containers in Irvington. Two stops in East Orange yielded bread, rice, fresh vegetables and canned soup.
She is running on fumes, sleeping about four hours a night after 12-hour days. This is her passion, and Matthew, works right beside his wife of 21 years, occasionally trying to get her to slow down. It’s no use.
“She’s non-stop, 24/7," he said.
And here’s why: “This is definitely my calling," she said.
They’re pumping $250 a week in gas into the van with income from his job as a laborer for Local 55. She was a per-diem nurse, but left John F. Kennedy Hospital in Edison last year to operate her non-profit full time.
The Unified Vailsburg Services Organization, a non-profit community group in Newark, allows Veltz to use part of its building for free. In one room, Veltz stores clothes, shoes and linen; another room, lined with tables, is where she normally would serve food to 500 people a week.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, however, Veltz has stopped people from coming inside -- except those picking up food for an emergency delivery or dropping off a donation. Shanida Carter of Newark, for instance, donated 300 Styrofoam containers on Friday when Veltz was running low. Carter had seen Veltz on Facebook, making food runs, and wanted to help.
“It’s the least we can do," she said.
At Unified Vailsburg Services Organization in Newark, Pamela McElveen (right) and husband Gerald McElveen bag meals to go for members of Cathedral of Love Church, in Irvington. From the left are Isaiah Smith, Pastor Stephon Love and Zami Ford.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance MedMichael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
Into those containers went 24 meals ready for a women’s shelter in Montclair and a special order for a hungry senior in Newark. From large tin trays, Veltz and her husband dished up spaghetti sauce and pasta, green beans, chocolate cake, banana pudding, salad and yams.
On Friday, Pamela McElveen and her husband, Gerald, helped to pack food. McElveen, president of the Palm Street Block Association, met Veltz and partnered with her three years ago to fill the social cracks that many in New Jersey’s cities fall through. She and Veltz are “on the same level,” she said. “I’m all about realism.”
The realism of people in need. And the sobering realism that unless someone fills that need, people will go hungry.
Bishop Stephon Love of The Cathedral of Love Church in Irvington remembers when the Veltzes first started out as a mobile pantry, pulling tables from the van and serving food to the needy.
“They don’t do it for recognition," Love said. “When they go out, large crowds come because of their reputation of how they treat people."
Word travels fast. A young couple up showed up Friday after hearing they could get something to eat. Veltz had enough food left to make them plates while Matthew was loading up the van.
When they reached Montclair, the women’s shelter hadn’t received clearance to accept the meals Veltz had prepared. No problem. That just meant disabled and wheelchair-bound seniors in Newark’s North Ward would get a second visit this week. Barbara Fox was waiting outside with a shopping cart -- and a big smile -- when the van pulled up at the Casa Mia Apartments on Summer Avenue.
“These are my people right here," said Fox, who looks out for the seniors in her building. “When I reached out see if she could help, she remembered who I was. I love them so much."
Veltz knows tomorrow will bring more phone calls, more desperation, more challenges to be met. Bone-weary, she vows to keep going until she drops.
“I promised God I would be a testimony," she said. “And that testimony is serving.’’
Matthew and Tanya Veltz, married 21 years and the operators of Tree House Cares, a non-profit in Newark, continue their work feeding the hungry in spite of the coronavirus pandemic.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance MedMichael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com