Happy Birthday, Mercer Street Friends

Mercer Street Friends (MSF) in Trenton, New Jersey, turned 50 in 2008, a milestone that for people typically marks a time of pausing, taking stock of what’s been accomplished and what is yet to come. Though it is fitting to reflect on MSF’s impressive first half-century, there has certainly been no slowing down for this vibrant human care agency. As energetic and compassionate today as it was when it was founded, it offers an array of programs that were not even dreamt of when the Mercer Street Friends Center first opened its doors to the neighborhood. What has been, and what will remain a constant, is an understanding of the considerable needs of the greater Trenton and Mercer County area, together with a dedication to providing services to meet them.

Mercer Street Friends began with the healing of an old wound. After over a century in which the Religious Society of Friends was split into two major branches—the Orthodox and Hicksite Friends—the rift was mended in the mid-1950s. Two Trenton meetinghouses were no longer needed, but because of its adjacent burial ground, the unused 1857 Orthodox meetinghouse on Mercer Street was unlikely to attract a buyer. Members of Trenton Meeting, concerned by the decay of the Mill Hill neighborhood in which the meetinghouse was located, decided to open a community center.

The first order of business was to make the old meetinghouse suitable for its new purpose. Privies made way for modern conveniences like running water and a heating system, and the interior was reconfigured to house classes and other gatherings. Following the model of Friends Neighborhood Guild in Philadelphia, the young Mercer Street Friends Center became a place where Trenton’s forgotten people, many of them recent immigrants, could learn the skills to survive and gain the pride in self and community they would need to succeed. Donors and volunteers, especially members of Trenton and Princeton meetings, provided both resources and time to the fledgling center.

Many of MSF’s early programs were specifically for women and children. Classes ranging from nutrition to English were offered, as was a babysitting co-op for working parents. Woodworking skills were taught in the basement with donated equipment. Clothing and food were given to those in need. The Friends Homemaker Service provided job opportunities for local women, and friends of the center who had houses with swimming pools opened their hearts and their homes to an informal summer program that gave urban children a safe recreation option. When neighbors expressed concern that young people were playing and hanging out in the center’s cemetery, the practical Quakers laid the headstones flat and paved them over, making way for a playground and, eventually, the garden that now grows on the building’s upper terrace.

It wasn’t long before the center’s all-volunteer work force no longer sufficed, and Wilbur Kelsey, the first director and paid employee, was hired. Executive directors and dedicated staff members too numerous to name have all left their mark. With an entrepreneurial spirit, they accomplished many great things and weathered hard times, including a fire and the sudden departure of one director. According to Odie LeFever, a former board chair associated with the board for 20 years, "The quality and longevity of the staff is extraordinary. The understanding and love they have for people is so beautiful."

Ironically, the Mill Hill neighborhood that was disintegrating in 1958 is stable, desirable, and thriving today, while other areas of Trenton and Mercer County have not fared as well. Though a rear addition was put on 151 Mercer Street to house a Head Start program, eventually the need for new services—and the need to locate them near the people who required them—made the old meetinghouse an inappropriate home for MSF programs. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s, it now houses the agency’s administrative offices, while services are offered around the capital area.

Other notable initiatives in MSF history include help in getting Trenton’s Village Charter School, modeled after Friends schools, off the ground in the 1990s. Today Mercer Street Friends’ four divisions—Children and Youth Services, Parenting and Adult Services, Home Health Care, and the Food Bank—offer childcare, food distribution, recreational opportunities, nutrition education, the teaching and modeling of nonviolent conflict resolution, home health care, literacy and job training, parenting support, counseling, mentoring, and advocacy. Lunch and Learn events, open to all, are great opportunities to learn about Mercer Street’s programs.

Fifty years since its humble beginnings, Mercer Street Friends is still helping neighbors in need raise themselves up, and building futures by rebuilding lives. Thanks to its dedicated staff and volunteers and generous donors, MSF has built a strong foundation for its own future. Though all would be happy to see a capital region that no longer needs the agency by 2058, that seems unlikely. In the present economic climate, the challenges have never been bigger. With sharp rises in the cost of necessities like food, people who used to donate are now coming to food banks. The need for a high school diploma or GED in order to obtain work is greater than ever. Collaborating with other local organizations, Mercer Street Friends is dedicated to addressing the issues facing the area’s disadvantaged—child health and well-being, hunger, family development, the health needs of seniors, and increasing youth violence—and being on the lookout for new ones. As long as the need exists, so will Mercer Street Friends.

Andrea Lehman

Andrea Lehman, a freelance writer and editor, is a member of Newtown (Pa.) Meeting.