Rita Dentino did not stay home on March 21 last year, the day that many New Jerseyans went into lockdown to guard against the spread of Covid-19. Dentino was in her office in Freehold Borough, organizing a food drive for low-income immigrant families and anyone in need.
Dentino’s organization, Casa Freehold, serves the needs of the borough’s large population of immigrants and their families. In addition to its food drives, the nonprofit, volunteer group educates Freehold Borough’s undocumented Latinx workers on their fundamental rights and protections, including workplace safety rules, and advocates on their behalf with other organizations like the ACLU and the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice. Dentino, 76, is Casa Freehold’s executive director, and its oldest fulltime volunteer.
As restaurants closed and daily-wage jobs dried up during the lockdown, immigrant laborers—including landscapers, construction workers and housecleaners—were among those hardest hit. Many lost their jobs; those who kept working risked exposure to coronavirus. Despite the heightened threat posed by the pandemic to older adults like herself and her husband, Tony, Dentino never backed off her efforts to assist those in need. She credits Tony’s support for making her years of volunteerism possible, but when it came to Covid-19 he was alarmed because he is in a high-risk group. “You work, I die!”, she recalls him saying, half-jokingly.
Calls for help were pouring in. Some workers fell sick. Some needed money to help cover prescriptions after they were treated for the virus. Since undocumented workers did not receive federal aid, Dentino had to rely on grants and gift cards from organizations like the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Although they are not always defined as such, Dentino considers many immigrants to be essential workers. “These are the people,” Dentino says, “that allow all those other people to stay home and quarantine, to receive their Amazon boxes, get the food put in the back of their trucks.”
Casa Freehold’s food drive has been ongoing throughout the pandemic, with other organizations partnering to meet the growing need. According to Fulfill, the food bank for Monmouth and Ocean counties, more than 44,000 meals have been distributed through Casa Freehold. Volunteers deliver to quarantining families and coordinate appointments for those who pick up their supplies. Wagner Menendez, 25, volunteers to deliver food and medicine for Casa Freehold. “Seeing Rita’s spirit for so many years, “ says the Guatamalan native, “motivates me to help other people, not just Hispanics. She helps everyone.”
The pandemic prompted collaborations between Casa Freehold and government agencies for contact-tracing among Spanish-speakers and food distribution. That kind of cooperation represents a step toward Dentino’s broader goal of social justice. “I do this work to create a better world for my grandchildren and for the Casa Freehold families,” Dentino says. “I want to see a world of love not hate, where all people are valued.”