Marlene Laneader remembers a story on social media that led her to dedicate most of her spare time, ever since, to helping those in need.
“A teacher posted on Facebook that a second grader was homeless, and I couldn’t get that out of my head,” Laneader said of the 2012 post.
The story sparked an urge in Laneader - a native of Camden’s Fairview section - to help those living in dire straits. She started by soliciting donations of coats, one of the critical items needed by those dealing with housing insecurity. A few friends helped her.
“So we gathered some coats one time, and then another, and it escalated" from there, she said.
Her grassroots effort eventually culminated into a group of big-hearted volunteers, led by Laneader, who created a nonprofit called Friends of Fairview Give Back. The volunteers distribute food, clothing, and other items to those who struggle financially in the Camden region.
“Marlene and her group have been phenomenal,” said Kevin Moran, the volunteer coordinator for Joseph’s House, an emergency shelter that also offers day-program services to people who are homeless. The group has also worked with Home for the Brave, which houses homeless veterans. “We inform them what our people need, and they are wonderful as far as providing needed items for our people.”
In addition to their work with nonprofits, Laneader and her group delivers essential supplies directly to those in need. In September, for example, they distributed more than 900 sandwiches in Camden, starting with emergency-food supplier Cathedral Kitchen and the Ronald McDonald House. After the scheduled drop-offs, there were still some sandwiches remaining.
So, said Laneader, “We went up and down Broadway [Street] until they were gone."
While Laneader is at the forefront of the group’s efforts, she said many volunteers have contributed time and resources over the years. One of her most dedicated volunteers is Maria Merlino, 70, a former social worker in Camden.
Merlino has been touched by how often those who are on the receiving end of Friends of Fairview’s services take time to ask about her own family.
“We have come in contact with so many kind and considerate people,” she said.
Belinda Kellicker and her boyfriend, Kareem Wilson, were homeless when they first met Laneader and the Friends of Fairview several years ago. They were able to move into an apartment in nearby Pine Hill in August 2017, but remain in contact with Laneader.
“She is the most unselfish person I have ever met in my life,” Kellicker said. “She has given coats off her back" to people in need.
Laneader, 61, who is widowed and has two grown children, seems uncomfortable with the praise. Over the years, she said, so many have helped her, including graduates from her high school alma mater, Haddonfield’s Paul VI High School (she’s a 1977 alum), who have donated time and items.
She chose to help the people in Camden due to her deep sense of loyalty, she said. “I never forgot where I came from,” she said modestly.
While Laneader shies away from attention, it recently found a way to shine on her. Last month, The Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Camden named her a Disciple of Mercy Award winner. The annual honor recognizes Catholics (Laneader is a member of the Church of the Incarnation in Mantua, NJ) who “exemplify mercy by reaching out to those who are poor and vulnerable on a local level here in the Diocese of Camden.”
Specifically, Laneader was praised for bringing “the corporal works of mercy to life and leads by example as she puts her faith into action. ... She has continually organized collections and drives to meet the needs of the homeless, hungry and marginalized individuals and families in the diocese... In addition to serving the poor, she assists with accompanying individuals who struggle with addiction into rehab and detox facilities.”
Importantly, the diocese noted, Laneader “has a talent for mobilizing young people and instilling a sense of charity in them, showing them the importance of loving and serving their neighbors.”
Laneader’s mother, Elaine Miller, couldn’t be more proud of her daughter.
“She is a wonderful kid, and I am so happy she has received this accolade,” said Miller, who now lives in Deerfield Beach, Fla. “She finds time to help all these people, she is so caring of others.”
Laneader said she never expected her organization to grow the way it has, even receiving contributions from all over the country.
“I never thought I would be doing this eight years" after that long-ado Facebook post tugged at her heart, Laneader said. “We have been able to enlighten some people and show that people care. That is what we need to do.”