Sunday in the park with, well, community heroes
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FIRST PERSON 

Sunday in the park with, well, community heroes

Donated items for the Center for Food Action.
Donated items for the Center for Food Action.

Let’s get something straight. I’m not claiming that the police officers and mental health professionals I met on Sunday can fly, but I’m impatient with the blanket use of the word hero and doing my bit to reassign it to people who deserve it.

That said, let me explain that I spent Sunday, June 30, at Overpeck Park in Ridgefield Park, helping to staff a booth for the Center for Food Action. The organization is based in Englewood but has pantries in Hackensack, Mahwah, Ringwood, Saddle Brook, and at Bergen Community College. I had the pleasure of sharing the booth with CFA professionals Kelly Sirimoglu and Nicole Davis.

Staffing a booth at a countywide fair can be extremely gratifying, especially if your employer — in this case, the Jewish Standard — is one of its sponsors. It’s also especially rewarding if the purpose of the fair is worthy — in this case, raising awareness of programs that foster positive relations between law enforcement agencies and mental health providers.

While every organization represented at the “Unity in the Community” fair deserves mention, my feet inevitably carried me to the booth of Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, staffed by Jessica Fleischer, the organization’s chief operating officer, together with her two daughters.

Actually, this was very much a family event. The many police officers, first responders, firefighters, etc., in attendance brought along their kids for face painting, pony rides, and bouncy activities.

The program was organized by New Jersey’s Crisis Intervention Team, particularly by graduates of its training program who are eager for the community to know more about them. Bergen County police officer and CIT program graduate Sara Toro was indefatigable, running back and forth to help in whatever way she could.

According to its literature, New Jersey’s CIT program “is a collaboration of county based professionals committed to improving their local county’s law enforcement system’s response to persons experiencing a psychiatric crisis who come into contact with law enforcement first responders.” In the CliffsNotes version, it means that law enforcement officers interact with mental health practitioners to learn how to recognize when unusual behaviors are due to mental illness or addiction, and deal with them accordingly. Clearly, this enhances community policing and benefits consumers by removing the stigma of unnecessary incarceration.

CarePlus New Jersey, headquartered in Paramus, organized the mental health aspect of the program. It was CarePlus New Jersey that reached out to CFA, inviting them to bring a food truck to gather up the food donations organizers solicited from attendees.

So why is this Jewish? Just as we refuse to let people leave our homes unless they have eaten a little something, we recoil instinctively at the thought of families going without food. “Synagogues have been wonderful,” said my boothmate Kelly, mentioning also the JFNNJ’s March Mitzvah Madness, which produced hundreds of snack packs for food insecure children. She also spoke excitedly about a new federal program under which summer meals are served free to children and teens 18 and under in communities throughout the state. [Visit summerfoodrocks.org/sitefinder to find a site, or call 1-866-3-HUNGRY.]

What did I learn?

l. Parenting is still the best way to teach. Many families bringing food or making donations let their kids put the food into our bin.

2. People enjoy doing good. The smile meter was off the charts.

3. Law enforcement wants to both protect AND serve — a point made eloquently by a speaker from the Englewood Police Department. To serve well means to know more about the community.

4. Sundays in the park are lovely.

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