“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed that’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Nowhere is this sentiment realized more fully than in the remarkable achievements of HomeFront and in the efforts of the organization’s equally remarkable founder and director, Connie Mercer.
HomeFront’s mission is to end homelessness in central New Jersey and break the cycle of poverty. Established 23 years ago by Princeton area resident Connie Mercer, it has become a multi-faceted organization that helps homeless people and those in need in numerous ways. It provides emergency shelter, food, clothing, affordable housing, educational opportunities, and job-training and placement.
“I thought I knew about HomeFront, but I really had no idea of the extent of its services and the help and hope it has brought to so many individuals and families,” says a Princeton resident, who recently became a volunteer in the HomeFront ArtSpace program.
And, as Ms. Mercer points out, the individuals and families affected by poverty cover a wider spectrum than many realize. “At least once a week, we have clients who come in and say, ‘I never thought this would happen to us.’”
The economic downturn beginning in 2008-9, set in motion a tidal wave of unemployment (including a 124 percent increase in New Jersey), in the worst cases, followed by homelessness (a 40 percent increase in New Jersey between 2008 and 2010) and a struggle for the very basic needs of life.
So often, people hear or read about such statistics and say ‘I wish I could help’; other times they say they are sorry, but move on to their next activity; occasionally, others, like Connie Mercer, see a problem and find a solution.
Who is Connie Mercer and why does she care?
“When you consider the impact Connie has made in improving the lives of those most in need in Mercer County, starting out with a grassroots effort in her garage to provide hot meals, to building a comprehensive community for hope and healing, it is nothing short of amazing,” comments Princeton resident Anne Battle, founder and former director of Familyborn Birthing Center, and founder of One Room At A Time, a volunteer group that refurbishes and decorates apartments for HomeFront clients.
“Connie is humble yet powerful, always moving forward to serve the population she represents. I like to believe that we have angels in our midst. Connie Mercer is one of them, whose light shines brightly for those who need it most.”
Adds Bernard Flynn, president and CEO of NJM Insurance Group, headquartered in West Trenton, “I consider Connie Mercer to be the Mother Teresa of Mercer County. She has an amazing work ethic, and is exclusively dedicated to the individuals and families that she serves. She is passionate, doesn’t take no for an answer, inspires those she works with, and she is a terrific leader and role model.”
Reflecting on her life decisions, Ms. Mercer offers a grateful acknowledgment of her own childhood experience and family life and how it influenced her to reach out to others.
“We were blessed kids,” she points out, referring to herself and her two brothers Paul and Rick. “There was a huge amount of love in our family, I had such a happy time growing up, and I felt that a secure childhood and family life is fundamental for everyone.”
Born in Newton, Mass. to Bernice and Morris Roud, Connie was the oldest of their three children. It was indeed a happy childhood, and included regular visits to grandparents in Toronto, Canada and Boston.
Connie attended public schools in Newton, and school was a pleasure for her. “I loved school. I loved everything about it,” she recalls. “I just loved learning. So many of the teachers were a gift to me. It was an excellent education. The Newton public school system was a laboratory school for Harvard University.”
Connie demonstrated her leadership form early, and was frequently elected to positions in school government and organizations. As she says, with a smile, “I was often president of the school organizations, student council, etc. I think it was because I was the tallest!”
After school, on weekends, and during summer vacation, she and her brothers helped out in the stores her father owned. “He had small shops focusing on jokes and fun items for kids and adults in Newton, Wellesley, Mass., and Maine,” recalls Ms. Mercer. “It was a successful small family business, and when he opened the store in Maine, we went up there in the summer.”
Connie was also a Red Sox fan, and enjoyed attending the games in Boston. “It was 50 cents to sit in the bleachers and see Ted Williams play.” She is still a fan today, she adds.
Always aware of the wider world, however, she developed special admiration for women who worked to help others and achieved important goals, often in the face of adversity.
“Two people I most admired when I was a girl were Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir. When I read Golda Meil’s autobiography, I loved learning that even when she was struggling to create a new nation, she insisted on having fresh flowers on the table. She felt that even under those trying circumstances, you can’t lose your humanity.”
After graduating from high school in 1965, Connie received a scholarship to the University of Chicago, where her intellectual curiosity continued to be honed, and her social consciousness was intensified.
“We didn’t have majors at the University of Chicago,” she explains, “and at first I resented that. I wanted to focus on psychology, but the university’s point was that you can spend the rest of your life being a specialist, and for four years, we’ll introduce you to the world.
“I came to be so grateful that the university knew better, and I learned so much more. I had wonderful professors, including David Bakan in psychology. He was a Freudian psychologist, and was interested in placing Freud in the Jewish mystical tradition.
“Professor John Cawelty introduced me to the humanities. I had never really listened to music before, never looked at paintings, and never looked at a building from an architectural standpoint. He opened my world.”
During her college years, Connie became active in a variety of outreach programs. For example, as she reports, “I started a volunteer program to visit patients at the state psychiatric hospital. At one point, the hospital staff went on strike, and I organized busloads of college kids to help the patients with meals. It seemed like such a natural thing for me to do. I was always comfortable talking with or being around people who were different. But I discovered that it was so profoundly difficult for some of the other kids to deal with this.”
The 1960s were a time of turmoil in many ways, and Chicago was the scene of protests against the Vietnam war and racial unrest, especially after the assassination of Martin Luther King. “I watched Chicago burn after Martin Luther King was killed and again during the Democratic Convention,” says Ms. Mercer.
While still an undergraduate, she married classmate Marc Mercer, and after graduation in 1969, they moved to Toronto. “It was mainly because I was against the Vietnam war, and I felt I had to get away,” she explains. “I went to York University and got a masters degree in clinical psychology. I also ran group homes for disturbed delinquent boys, and my husband and I were in charge of group homes for both boys and girls. We were in Ontario for eight years, and we established a network of 19 group homes across northern Ontario, including for delinquent Indian boys in the far north.”
After being divorced in the late 1970s, Ms. Mercer returned to the U.S., and found her way to Princeton.
“At the time, I was working for the Commissioner of the Department of Human Services for New Jersey, and it was part of an interstate consortium on residential childcare. It was fascinating for me. The standards in childcare we established were adopted in 17 different states, and I saw that having appropriate regulations could help ensure how kids are cared for.”
In 1980, Ms. Mercer met Howard Myers, who had a farm nearby her home on the grounds of the Institute for Advanced Study. They married two years later, but soon after, she was recruited to serve as deputy commissioner for child welfare in Illinois. For the next four years, she lived in Springfield, Ill. and Chicago, commuting to Princeton on weekends.
“I was in charge of setting up foster homes, adoptions, and residential treatment centers,” explains Ms. Mercer. “It was now the 80s and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I was really the legal guardian for 18,000 abused and neglected kids in Illinois.”
After returning to Princeton in 1986, she changed direction for a time, and established her own executive recruiting firm. “It was a head-hunting company,” she observes, “and focused on filling environmental positions all over the country.”
Then, one day in 1990, fate intervened, and a new opportunity presented itself, one that would have a profound effect on Ms. Mercer’s life, on the Princeton area, and most of all, on those suffering from homelessness and loss of hope.
“A friend of mine, Chris Hanson, a pediatrician with DYFS (Division of Youth and Family Services) came over one day, and said he wanted to show me something. He took me to see the motels on the Route One corridor, where we saw all the horror of people being warehoused in those motels, where there was no place for kids to play, or have space for their own private thoughts.
“He said to me: ‘These are hungry, homeless people in your town. Fix it.’ He really challenged me. At first I thought, ‘Okay, all I need to do in this wealthy town is to let people know, and it will be taken care of.’”
It turned out to require a bit more than that. It was due to Ms. Mercer’s unceasing efforts and leadership, along with the help of dedicated friends, colleagues, and concerned citizens that HomeFront came into being.
“Initially, I talked to friends, and we took food to the motels. We organized people, and as we got more and more volunteers, it began to grow like Topsy. First, we gave the people in the motels food, and then we saw that they didn’t have coats. Then, we saw pretty quickly that the children weren’t getting to school, so we had to figure that out.”
Every time one problem was addressed, another presented itself, and Ms. Mercer and her volunteers found themselves continuously facing new challenges.
“There were hundreds of these families involved from Trenton to New Brunswick and beyond,” she points out. “These were pretty much awful places, and the plight was so God-awful, with conditions so horrifying. There was such depression. We saw depressed three-year-olds, and so many kids not in school.”
As the years passed, HomeFront grew into a highly important, effectively functioning organization, helping thousands of individuals to earn high school diplomas, college degrees, find work, and become productive members of society. With funding and support from individuals, corporations, foundations, and organizations, HomeFront has been able to live up to its mission statement everyday:
• “To end homelessness in central New Jersey by harnessing the caring, resources, and expertise of the community.
• “To lessen the immediate pain of homelessness and help families become self-sufficient.
• “To give people skills and opportunities to ensure adequate incomes and to increase the availability of adequate affordable housing.
• “To help homeless families advocate for themselves individually and collectively.”
The children are particularly close to Ms. Mercer’s heart. “I feel the most important work is with the children, giving them a vision of a different future. Once they have a dream, then the other things can happen.
“I never ever thought we’d be running a pre-school program, but we are,” she continues. “Our kids don’t come with shot records or from families who always keep track of things. No existing day care program will take them. We work together with the Prince of Peace Church in West Windsor to help with the day care program.”
In addition, HomeFront offers tutoring, summer camp, children’s arts programs, and basketball teams, among other activities for kids.
Ms. Mercer and HomeFront have been the recipients of numerous awards and honors from the state, county, and local organizations, as well as accolades from elected officials.
“Connie is a living example of how the leadership of one driven, dedicated person can transform a community,” says Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert. “With HomeFront, she has tackled the problems of the homeless in an ambitiously holistic way, and has created a soup-to-nuts organization that helps nurture distressed families not just by providing temporary housing and meals, but also through work force education, financial literacy, childcare, transportation, the arts, and more. The more I have learned about HomeFront and the multitude of programs they run, the more impressed I am.”
And HomeFront shows no signs of slowing down. It will open an expanded facility next year on eight acres near the Mercer County airport, which will replace many of the services at the Family Preservation Center currently located on the grounds of the Katzenbach School for the Deaf in West Trenton. Its flagship headquarters will continue to be located in Lawrenceville.
“Always remember that HomeFront grew out of working with individual families, families that needed to claw their way out of poverty,” states Ms. Mercer. “HomeFront is about putting the pieces together and helping to create an environment where no homeless family and kids don’t have a shot at the future. We are really the only county in the state that does work like this on so many levels. I am especially proud that we have created 90 units of permanent affordable housing for our clients.
“Of course, it takes the efforts of many people to accomplish this. We now have a staff of more than a hundred and over 1200 volunteers. It’s due to the incredible caring of this community. For example, we feed 6000 families over Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is special caring in this community, and we can harness that. I especially admire those unsung people who do the right thing day in and day out, whose names you never hear. All heroes to my mind.”
In addition, it is a testament to HomeFront’s success that many former clients regularly return to sponsor and help current clients.
Ms. Mercer’s focus is clearly on HomeFront, but when there is a rare chance to take time off, she enjoys traveling with her husband. “We love Australia and New Zealand and many places in Europe,” she reports. “Also, Howard wanted to visit all 50 states in the U.S., and the last one on the list was South Dakota. This wasn’t number one on my list, but I fell in love with it, especially the Badlands, which are incredible.”
In addition, Ms. Mercer likes Tai Chi, which she practices regularly, and finds it to be “beneficial for body and soul.”
She is enormously proud of her son Michael Myers, 22, who is currently serving as a second lieutenant in the army, and undergoing Ranger training in Georgia. “He came to us later in life, and he was very much a wanted child,” she reflects. “I could not be prouder of him.”
With HomeFront always in the forefront of her efforts, Ms. Mercer is determined that it continues to reach its goals, yet she tends to underplay her own accomplishments and contributions. “To be successful personally and professionally,” she observes, “you need compassion, motivation, determination — and don’t forget — luck! The only real talent I have — and I am very good at it — is identifying talent.”
That may be, but as HomeFront board member and former Princeton Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand, points out, “Connie’s contribution to the community has been enormous. There are only a few agencies, when mentioned over decades, that bring to mind one person’s name, and HomeFront is one of these. HomeFront is Connie Mercer, and Connie Mercer is HomeFront. Connie would not endorse that for she is very aware of the loyal and hardworking staff and volunteers she works with, and is quick to acknowledge them.
“Margaret Mead’s quote ‘never doubt that a small dedicated group can change the world’ applies here to that one person — Connie — who has not only changed the world, but literally the ‘worlds’ of the hundreds and hundreds of people who have come through HomeFront’s doors. Her unyielding passion to end homelessness has made her the incredible moving force behind HomeFront. The benefits it has brought to her clients and to society are incalculable. Connie Mercer is HomeFront, and HomeFront is Connie Mercer.”