Evelyn Benton spent 16 years as executive director of the southern branch of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey before she quit in 2009 to move north for family reasons: Her husband got a job in New York.
But those family reasons changed when Benton’s marriage broke up. And just a month or so after she sold her Monmouth County house, which had been on the market for two-plus years, a call came from a former food-bank colleague offering Benton her old job back in Egg Harbor Township.
She took it, and started back to work at the food bank last month. But you can’t say she’s back in her old office, because the organization built itself a new home in the nearly five years Benton was away. She said she’s thrilled about the change.
“It’s like I was driving a Vega, and they handed me the keys to a Mercedes” she said on a tour of the warehouse that opened in 2012 off the Black Horse Pike near the Shore Mall. “This is spectacular.”
Benton admitted that if she’d never left her old job, she probably wouldn’t be in this new “state-of-the-art” warehouse today.
“There is no way I could have torn that building down,” she said — meaning the old warehouse, a converted lumber yard whose ceilings were too low and condition was too bad for it to be useful as a modern food-distribution center. It also had no loading dock, another major shortcoming, but the building’s exterior did have a mural that made it a local landmark.
The mural was made of shards of glass and mirrors and pottery, and it was lovingly, painstakingly installed, piece by piece, over more than a decade by artists Bobbie Heisman and Bootsie Weiss. They finished the project in 2007, about two years before Weiss died.
“I watched those ladies work for 12 years,” Benton said, adding that her old bosses were after her for several years before she left to replace the old building with a more functional warehouse.
“But I’d say, ‘I just need a loading dock,’” Benton said, sitting in an office that has a hunk of the old mural hanging on one wall and looks out at hallways lined with dozens of detail pictures documenting the artists’ work.
When the old building was knocked down, the contractors saved several large sections of the exterior walls with plans to install them in an exhibit at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
To Benton, the loss of the glass mural is “heartbreaking.” She added that the current and future tributes “still (don’t) feel like enough. Twelve years is a long time to work on anything, especially as volunteers. ... But the organization knew it had to be done,” in part because the old warehouse had major structural problems under that artful exterior.
The main advantage the food bank gained with the new building was height. The footprint of the 29,000-square-foot warehouse isn’t much bigger than it used to be, but the ceiling is so much higher that the building can hold 130 or so more pallets of food on elevated racks, by Benton’s quick count. The old building had no walk-in refrigerator. Mainly because of that new height, the freezer area has about six times the storage space of the old one.
The new capacity is needed: Benton said the Egg Harbor Township branch distributed about 4.5 million pounds of food her last year there, but increased need in South Jersey has nearly doubled the amount of food the organization handles today.
Margie Barham, who led the transition to the new warehouse as executive director after Benton’s departure, said Sunday that she left the organization in January to “pursue marketing and sales on my own,” and is “in the early stages of working with Greate Bay Country Club (in Somers Point) as director of business development.”
Benton had stayed in touch with some of her old colleagues after she left the food bank. She actually lived just a few miles from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey’s headquarters, in Hillside, Union County. She shopped every now and then in a thrift shop run by that branch and usually visited friends when she did.
Plus, her old job never was far from her mind. When Hurricane Sandy slammed New Jersey — including Benton’s then-hometown of Keyport — in 2012, “I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, the food bank must be going crazy.’”
She was right about that. She now knows that the hurricane knocked a few local emergency-food pantries out of business — and the southern branch of the food bank responded by starting a mobile pantry that delivers food to towns that lost those distribution spots.
At the same time, Benton was going through plenty of upheavals in her own life.
Since she left her old job and home in 2009, “I’ve moved six times, had three jobs, divorced my husband and met the love of my life — and I have stepchildren for the first time,” she said.
She still commutes more than 80 miles to her office but is looking to move to Ocean County as a convenient center for her work and personal lives.
Kathy Corbalis, the vice chairwoman of the southern branch’s advisory board, knew Benton in her first round in the job. By telephone Sunday, Corbalis called the director “a tremendous asset to the food bank.”
Benton’s three North Jersey jobs were all food-related, which is fitting for a woman who trained as a chef and cooked professionally for 12 years, then sold food commercially before she started at the food bank. That was in 1993, when the southern branch was based in an even smaller warehouse in western Atlantic County, near Vineland.
After she left in 2009, Benton worked as a college dining-hall manager and a nursing-home dietary manager before she got back into selling food to institutions for a major distributor.
And she was doing well with that job when she got the call asking if she wanted to go back to the food bank — right after her house sold.
When she told her employers she was leaving the food-sales job, Benton remembers a work friend saying, “You’re so lucky to be able to do a job that makes a difference.”
“I never had a problem working hard,” she said. “But I’m thrilled to be able to put all that effort into something that makes a difference again.”
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