Project Just Because continues kindness after 21 years

By John Buday – August 21, 2019

Colette Cronin (left) and Laura Poovakad sort clothes at the Project Just Because center on South Street.

Project Just Because has played the part of Good Samaritan for 21 years and counting, extending a variety of free resources and services to those in need throughout the state of Massachusetts.

From a biweekly food pantry to a book-distribution program to a support system for domestic abuse victims, the nonprofit strives to help all those who make requests on its website.

While Hopkinton is a thriving community, with household income on a steady rise over the past few decades as developments have popped up all over town, there remains a need for the services PJB provides.

“It doesn’t matter what a town looks like,” operations manager Collete Cronin said. “There are people struggling, and there are many reasons they could be struggling. We had somebody who had to go through an operation and couldn’t work, and did not know how he would have fed himself during the time he was not working if he wasn’t able to use our food pantry.”

Cronin keeps inventory of the nonprofit’s supplies and also manages the programs the group runs throughout the year. She joined PJB more than three years ago so she could “be of help to all the people struggling” in Hopkinton.

“It’s being able to give somebody something that they are in need of and especially are not able to find or get anywhere else,” she said. “Just the joy and thankfulness that they show — even sometimes if it’s a small item, it makes a big difference to them.”

Cronin and PJB president Cherylann Walsh recalled social encounters with families in need that have inspired their work and given their charity a feeling of purpose.

Colette Cronin looks through some of the food items donated to Project Just Because for distribution to those in need.

Late August of last year, Walsh met a little girl and her mother who arrived at the PJB building at 109 South St. in need of food for the girl. The family was new to town, directed to PJB by another family that had used the charity’s food pantry.

“It happened to be me there that day and I walked into our place,” Walsh said. “This little girl just really loved bagels, and it just happened that we’re getting bagels and muffins now year-round. So I opened the refrigerator and I had a couple kinds in bags for her to pick. She took those bagels and she just hugged them.

“If you ask what the biggest gratification of my job is, it’s to know that I could connect a child in our community — or anybody that we serve — with some basic food or needs.”

The PJB food pantry operates twice a month as the only Hopkinton-exclusive program. Originally only able to provide non-perishable dry goods, the pantry expanded last year to frozen and refrigerated items through a town grant.

PJB also now has access to gluten-free foods.

“That has been big,” Cronin said. “Gluten-free food can be three to four times as expensive as food that’s not gluten-free. So people that are struggling but need this food have a hard time.

PJB has been adding breadth and functionality to its existing programs each year, thanks to the people who donate funds and physical resources.

That same girl Walsh provided with bagels also was gifted with free back-to-school supplies after Walsh learned the family had not made it into the charity’s back-to-school supply program.

Back-to-school for fall 2019 began last month. Interested parents still have time to request backpacks by filling out an online form. They then receive a time to pick up their supplies. PJB also accepts back-to-school donations of all kinds of school supplies, which ensures it has enough for everyone to make it through the school year.

Cronin remembered a mother of a deaf child who approached the organization in need of a gift for that child’s upcoming birthday. PJB’s birthday program provides cake and presents to those who cannot afford them.

“We had gotten a gift for her, and when [the mother] looked at it she almost started crying,” Cronin recalled. “It had something to do with monkeys … and that was [the girl’s] favorite thing in the world. That she was able to give her a gift that was a monkey, she was almost at a loss for words.”

PJB also has a general request program, a monthly service that provides clothing, bedding and other basic necessities of living.

“People come in, it’s freezing cold and they have a light sweatshirt on, don’t have jackets for their children. To be able to give them a bag of warm items — hats, mittens, a warm coat — they’re at a loss for words,” Cronin said.

Walsh said she approaches running the charity on a day-by-day basis, with the needs for the day not necessarily predictable. People in need can request help on the PJB website by filling out an online form, a process created to be as simple as possible for those going through a rough time.

“It’s heartbreaking to me that after 20 years, there’s still people that have fallen between the cracks, not just in our own community but in others,” Walsh said. “It bothers me because I have children in this community and I live in this community, and I want every child, every parent, every aunt, uncle, sister and brother to know we’re here, and we work to give you anything we have if you are in need.”

While the Hopkinton community overall is financially strong, there are pockets of poor and hardship-strained people. Yearly donations from corporations and a recent move into an 11,000-square-foot warehouse have not fully bridged this gap.

PJB relies almost completely on word of mouth to spread familiarity and outreach, not paying for any advertising or marketing.

The organization relies on the gift of giving back to the community, with Walsh noting those who have donated to PJB in its 20-plus years do not always see the impact of their contributions.

“I don’t think people sometimes realize,” Walsh said. “It may just be a water bottle, it may just be a backpack, but it is something to someone that goes directly to [those in need] and it’s a gift. So I’m very appreciative, because without us all working together this thing would have never taken off nor would we be able to continue it.”

For more information about Project Just Because, log on to projectjustbecause.org or call 508-435-6511.

PHOTOS/JOHN CARDILLO

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