NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—On February 17, Jim Zullo officially commenced his role as the new executive director of Elijah's Promise, a charitable organization that has served the Middlesex County community for more than two decades.
Zullo has big shoes to fill, following the departure of longtime organization leader Lisanne Finston late last year.
Under Finston's leadership the organization grew from just a soup kitchen into a full-fledged social services organization that provides job training and other programs seeking to make the city healthier and more stable.
Zullo says he brings to his new postition both expertise and connections developed while working for the New Brunswick Parking Authority, the New Brunswick Development Corporation, and New Jersey Transit.
According to his LinkedIn profile, for the past six years he worked as a Vice President at Timothy Haas & Associates, an architectural and parking consulting firm based in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania.
Before becoming executive director, Zullo also served on the Board of Advisors of Elijah's Promise.
Zullo replaced Finston, who served as the former executive director for twenty years. As we reported, she departed the organization in December 2013 to embark on a new career in Massachusetts.
Michelle Wilson, the associate director of Elijah's Promise, said that although supporters of the organization were apprehensive at first, the transition has been a success.
Wilson said Zullo's extensive experience in the community has been a “tremendous asset” to Elijah's Promise.
“We've really gone from strength to strength,” Wilson said. “I can say on behalf of the staff and the Board of Directors, we couldn't be any more thrilled that we had such an amazing candidate, and that he is our new executive director.”
After submitting his resumé to a search committee and undergoing an interview process, Zullo embarked on a daylong visit to the facilities of Elijah's Promise, participating in many of the organization's operations, including working in the soup kitchen, located at 18 Neilson Street.
Pam Johnson, head chef at the soup kitchen, said she knew immediately that Zullo was the right person for the job.
“The first day, I said to the Board that came in, 'He's our guy.' I knew, instinctively, that he was going to be a great fit,” she said.
Johnson said Zullo helped cook and serve food, as well as do the dishes on his first visit to the facility.
"He's very hands-on. He's not afraid to work; he works very hard… and that's what I love about him," she said.
"He has the quality of, 'You know what? I can get my hands dirty, too.' And that's what we need for this type of organization; you need to have someone who is just not afraid to get down and dirty if necessary.”
Zullo reflects on the experience positively.
“I really got a sense of how committed the staff was here, and how special they were, and it was the event that really convinced me that this is the job that I wanted to have,” Zullo said.
“It was really a rewarding experience to really understand not only the operations, but to relate it to staff and volunteers.”
According to Johnson, since starting as executive director, Zullo has been responsive to the kitchen's needs, quickly ordering repairs for fixtures such as the air conditioning and the outside doors to the soup kitchen.
In addition, he has participated extensively in outreach to the local population, helping staff members and volunteers distribute coats and blankets during the most recent winter season.
Zullo's tenure began as the winter, one of the most severe in recent memory, was coming to a close.
The heavy snowfall presented challenges for the nonprofit. During so-called "Code Blue" events, when outside temperatures drop below twenty degrees Fahrenheit or snowfall reaches more than six inches in height, the soup kitchen is opened as an emergency overnight shelter.
According to Wilson, the severity of the past winter resulted in a record number of Code Blues, an increase in meals served, and a resulting strain on resources.
But despite the constant struggles of serving the community here, Elijah's Promise continues to address some of the most critical needs by providing services such as housing and social work, in addition to the soup kitchen and the culinary school.
Wilson stated that economic setbacks over the past few years have negatively affected many members of the community.
“There's hunger and issues of poverty that have not improved for the folks that we serve, and so we are busy doing the best job we can,” she said.
But the staff and volunteers at Elijah's Promise will continue to provide these services passionately.
“It's always been a joy to come work here and it continues to be a joy to work here. I think that I feel, much like most of the staff, that we are the luckiest people that we get to do this as a profession, and it's a real pleasure and honor,” Wilson said.
Zullo said the dedication of his staff, volunteers, and supporters was inspiring.
“What's most rewarding is that so many people put their faith in this organization… and that the entire organization is really committed to delivering the services that we do in a very cost-effective and a very dignified manner,” he said.
“It's really rewarding to see the entrepreneurial spirit of the employees… every dollar is really watched over here, like it's our own.”
Zullo has a positive outlook on the future of Elijah's Promise.
“We want to make sure that we maintain the organic roots that Elijah's Promise has sprung from, and continue to grow and expand, but really stay focused on the mission… to fulfill very basic needs to those most in need in the New Brunswick community,” he said.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.