Before she founded Beacon of Hope in 2012, a nonprofit that helps low-income people in Mount Holly, Pastor Darlene Trappier ran her own discount outlet, called My Dollar Store.

She noticed that senior citizens in Burlington County would buy dog food starting the 21st of every month, but never before. Trappier realized these people didn’t have animals; the food was for them, because meager monthly food-stamp benefits and Social Security checks would run out by the third week.

Appalled, Trappier instituted a wish list for folks to write down what they needed. She’d stock those items on the 20th, then invite customers to take what they wanted, and pay only if they could. There was one rule: No seniors could buy dog food after the 21st.

“People tell me all the time I don’t think normally,” said Trappier, 60. “That I see life differently: I see the hurt, the loneliness, and I can identify with it. So, I try to help.”

Her efforts are working.

Trappier, a former insurance claims adjuster who grew up abused and lived as a hungry and homeless single mother, re-invented her life to become a benevolent force of nature in Burlington County.

She grew Beacon of Hope from a tiny food pantry in her Hainesport home that fed 80 people to a dynamic social outreach enterprise that offers food to 7,000 clients a month in a storefront in downtown Mount Holly. In addition, she provides clothes, emergency housing, mortgage and rental assistance, and emergency transportation.

‘Doing God’s work’

“She’s a mover and a shaker,” said Fred Wasiak, president and CEO of the Food Bank of South Jersey in Pennsauken, which supplies food to Beacon of Hope and scores of other pantries in Burlington, Gloucester, Camden, and Salem Counties. ”She’s authentically real about changing, saving, and enhancing lives.

“Pastor Darlene is doing God’s work, and the times I spend talking to her, I feel better even after leaving her presence.”

Trappier acknowledges that all her good acts originated from bad beginnings.

“My mother was very abusive,” she said. “She was a single parent with eight kids, and was addicted to gambling.”

The family moved from Illinois to Los Angeles when Trappier was 7 years old. Trappier’s mother ran poker games out of their house with table stakes running as high as $10,000. One night, when Trappier was 14, a gambler tried to molest her, but her mother blamed the teenager for “enticing him.”

“My heart was broken,” she said.

Not long after, Trappier’s mother assaulted her and threw her out of the house. “To this day, I can’t say why,” Trappier said. Her mother also helped herself to Trappier’s public-assistance checks. She died of breast cancer in 1989.

Trappier became pregnant and, at 19, wound up sleeping in a park with the baby. It was then that the young woman made an appeal to God. “I cried out from the bushes,” she said. “I said, ‘God, if you help me, I promise to do what I can to help others and lessen their feeling of what I am feeling now.’”

She and her boyfriend had another child. Family members took in Trappier and the children. Soon after, she met her husband, Torrence, and the two have been married for 37 years.

Trappier finished high school and graduated from a community college in Santa Monica. She and Torrence, who was in the Air Force, moved around the country, and eventually settled in Burlington County.

A ‘tugging’ inside

Getting a job in the insurance industry, Trappier worked her way up to the executive ranks, augmenting her salary with smart investments.

One day, as she was walking to her office in Center City, she met a man who was living homeless. He needed a sweater. That night, Trappier asked her husband for one — “‘one of your best sweaters,’ I said, ‘not one you want to throw away.’ I didn’t want to give the man garbage.”

After that, something began “tugging” inside Trappier. “I’d made some decent money, and I could have made myself rich, but now I wanted something else,” she said.

Trappier started the dollar store and instituted the wish list. Then, she began distributing clothes she’d gotten as donations. Tales of her good works spread through word of mouth. She became an ordained nondenominational minister in 2006. A year later, Trappier had to close the store because of the recession.

But a fire had been ignited in her, and Trappier remembered her promise to God in the California bushes. The need to help grew stronger within her. She started a food pantry in her home and within five years opened Beacon of Hope.

Trappier accepts no salary. She has a staff of eight, some paid, some volunteers. She receives grants and donations from Burlington County and other sources, public and private.

“She had a calling,” noted Malikah Morris, deputy director of the Burlington County Department of Human Services. “She was obedient to it. And through that obedience, she’s been able to change so many lives.”

Morris called Trappier “one of the most reliable and consistent providers of housing” for people in need of shelter in the county, where more than 600 residents live homeless, according to the Board of County Commissioners.

Trappier “motivates individuals to make positive choices despite what has transpired using her own stories to influence them,” Morris said.

“But,” she added, “Pastor Darlene is very much a tough-love intervener. She doesn’t play the sad violin for people who aren’t ready to make the choices that will improve their lives.”

Trappier’s help has been needed in Burlington County. Before the pandemic, one in 11 county residents lacked enough food to live healthy lives; that number rocketed to one in seven since COVID-19 struck, according to figures from the Food Bank of South Jersey. The agency has increased its distribution of food from 15 million pounds in 2019 to 22.5 million pounds last year.

The hard times have been eased a bit by Trappier.

“Pastor Darlene gives and gives and gives,” said Sadia Vazquez, 59 of Mount Holly, who lost her job as assistant manager of a Burger King when she injured her back. “I caught COVID, but I was able to get food for myself, my daughter, and grandkids because of Pastor Darlene. What can I say, she’s always there for people. She’s a beautiful soul.”

Rudolph Williams, 54, also of Mount Holly, agreed.

“I was homeless and needed food and clothes and Pastor helped me find a place,” said Williams, who works as Trappier’s office manager. “It’s hard to find people who stand by what they say, but she does. So now, if I get the chance to help, I do the same to others. It’s like a chain, a process that doesn’t stop the love from coming.”

Aware that need only seems to escalate, Trappier said she’s planning to move Beacon of Hope to a larger, 10,000-square-foot warehouse in Hainesport to continue her work — and her long-ago promise to help.

“It doesn’t matter whether people are broken, homeless, drug addicts, or selling themselves on the corner,” Trappier said. “Society makes too many of these people invisible.

“I see them. And I try to help them come out into the light.”