Even before their mother, Rita Ungaro Schiavone, died two years ago, her sons had been figuring out how best to continue Aid for Friends, the visit-and-feed-your-neighbors charity she started in 1974, and the work of its thousands of volunteers.
One of the sons, Steven, a lawyer, had already stepped up as the charity’s chairman, to keep things going in his mother’s last years. He and brothers Vincent, a tech entrepreneur; Michael, a doctor; and Joseph, a Philadelphia police sergeant, along with longtime volunteers who had taken on leadership roles, wanted to see her legacy put on a more professional footing.
“We needed to replace Mom," Vincent says. “It wasn’t going to shut down. It just needed to be modernized.” That meant professional fund-raising, grant writers, an executive director to run things day to day, and “reconnecting with all the people better through technology” — starting with email.
The group marks its 45th anniversary with a party at the warehouse in the 12000 block of Townsend Road on Friday, Oct. 11, with comedian Joe Piscopo, dinner, and a recognition program where the charity will change its name to Caring for Friends, says Jeannette K. Fournier, the new executive director.
The grassroots charity has been around long enough to adapt to social change.
Back in the 1970s, with big families still crowding Northeast Philly rowhouses, an announcement in a church or school bulletin could bring out armies of volunteers with bags of groceries. Now, employers seeking to build teams are a major source of volunteers, as young people move to different neighborhoods and are less likely to attend religious services.
“We still have tremendous church participation, but the companies are really what’s growing, because they get a lot out of it,” Vincent says. “Every company’s HR department now has team-building budgets. They use it for things like cooking in our kitchen. They want to experience something that helps people. It keeps their employees engaged."
That works for Mike Ford, human resources chief at Reed Tech, the Lexis/Nexis affiliate that employs 950 people in Horsham.
“We offer two paid days off a year to do community service,” Ford says. Reed Tech employees can do what they want, but group projects at Caring for Friends are a top choice. “Folks immediately sign up,” he said. Feeding people, “they also feel good about themselves. Making meals is tangible. It’s perfect for us.”
He says having a new full-time executive director at the charity makes "a huge difference, as opposed to working with people where it’s not the main thing they do.”
Fournier, 40, ran Playworks Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia chapter of the national anti-school-bullying organization.
“There, I worked with a lot of AmeriCorps members. Here, I’m working with thousands of volunteers from our area, people with heart, working with food and friendship, and for folks that don’t have a voice," she told me.
“This organization started as a Catholic and a Christian endeavor; it has grown far beyond,” Fournier said. "My generation is exercising faith through community service more than in the pews. But I need more bodies. I need three corporate groups in my kitchen a day, and I need 4,000 breakfast bags a week. We’re at 1,000. We are scratching the surface.”
“We make it easy for companies to give," she added. "We can drive a truck up to Morgan Lewis” at its Center City headquarters, “we bring in the supplies, and in 2½ hours, we have 1,000 breakfast bags for Hub of Hope,” the drop-in center for the homeless in the Suburban Station concourse.
Dudnyk, the Horsham health-care advertising agency, took on Aid for Friends as a pro bono project, said president Chris Tobias. “We made 300 meals in their kitchen, and we made their Anytime lunch bags. Then we helped them rebrand with a new name and logo,” creative director Laurie DiBartolomeo said.
“And we helped them digitize everything through the website. They were doing everything with forms and papers. It was unwieldy. They didn’t have the money to pay for marketing. For us, the advertising agency life can be really grueling. So this has been really meaningful for us, for our people to use their skills for people who really need it.”
Employees of Liberty Property Trust and other Philadelphia companies have set up dry-breakfast and snack bag assembly lines with Caring for Friends at their own offices. Groups at Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, Janssen, UPS, FedEx, Merck, Catalent, Sam’s Club, Giant supermarkets, Target, and the Fred Beans auto group are among those who have volunteered.
Caring for Friends’ yearly budget will top $900,000 this year for the first time, and roughly double that in food donations. The charity prepares and delivers 250,000 meals and thousands of bagged snacks and breakfasts for 1,500 regular “friends” and many others on a casual or occasional basis, partnering with organizations like Catholic Social Services, Deliverance Evangelistic Church, and the Salvation Army.
The group’s founding story is a Northeast Philly legend: how Rita Schiavone met a woman from the nearby Frankford neighborhood whose fridge and cupboard were bare. She went home to make dinner for her own husband and four growing sons, then filled a tray with extra servings and took it to her new friend. She also made sure there was always food in that house. “No one should be hungry or alone in a world of caring people,” she told her family.
Rita worked for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, so she knew a lot of people willing to help. Word got around, spread by volunteers, pastors, and schoolteachers. Rita’s model made it easy by matching donors with regular recipients so they could become friends.
Later came the warehouse and the Caring Kitchen, where groups could prepare food together, and practical systems for prepping hot or bagged meals at volunteers’ office or factory. They mainly used agencies that work with the elderly, shut-in, and homeless. The Schiavones calculate the group has by now served 16 million home meals, not counting breakfast and snack bags.
“Mom was an amazing social entrepreneur before it was fashionable,” Vincent told The Inquirer when she died. “She was smart, driven, tenacious, demanding, and tireless.” Make a little extra for dinner and bring it to your new friend, she said.
“Mom couldn’t do it by herself, and she knew that,” her son said. “She got a lot of people who joined her, and they were good people.”