At the recent New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference, the little Borough of Highland Park stood out in a big way. Highland Park was awarded the prestigious Innovations in Governance Award for the “HP Gives a Hoot” campaign. In addition, Highland Park’s Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler was elected to serve on the NJ League of Municipalities’ executive board.
The Innovations in Governance Award, sponsored by the NJ Department of Community Affairs and the NJ League of Municipalities and presented annually each November at the league conference in Atlantic City, highlights exemplary local programs that are both innovative and practical in their approach to solving municipal issues. “HP Gives a Hoot,” created in 2015, is a nonprofit community-wide fund formed by the borough to contribute to the wellbeing of Highland Park students in need of nutritious meals.
With nearly 31 percent of children living in poverty in New Jersey, many children have no access to healthy meals when schools are closed. Thirty three percent of Highland Park’s school children participate in the free or reduced cost lunch programs. Donations to the fund are used to provide lunches to these students when school is not in session and offer other opportunities to ensure student success in school and in life.
“Highland Park is not only ethnically diverse, but also economically diverse. It was an honor for me to accept this award on behalf of the entire governing body, the HP Gives a Hoot volunteers, and the borough employees that work so hard on behalf of our children,” said Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler.
“HP Gives a Hoot” was created in 2015, after the mayor and borough employees noticed a group of young children wandering outside the municipal building on days that schools were closed. At lunchtime each day, these children would enter the building and ask employees for snacks – over 33 percent of children in Highland Park participate in free or reduced school lunch programs. The fund, which started as an appeal from the mayor to a select group of Highland Park residents and businesses, soon became an initiative generating broad community support. To date, “HP Gives a Hoot” has raised more than $6,000, and has served nearly 400 lunches. Additionally, the fund enabled 10 children to attend our Highland Park Recreation Camp on scholarship. And over the last two summers, the HP Gives a Hoot Fund sent nine high school students to the YouthROOTS mentorship and leadership camp.
The borough initially partnered with Elijah’s Promise Soup Kitchen to provide lunches for our children. As the program grew, the borough forged an arrangement with the Global Grace Café in Highland Park. Thanks to donations from our community food pantry to the café, the program was able to secure discounted vouchers for lunches when school is not in session and throughout the summers. This program not only provides lunches to school-aged children who would otherwise go without lunch when schools are closed, but also provides the culinary students at Elijah’s Promise and the new immigrant and refugee employees at the Global Grace Café with a chance to earn money by preparing these lunches. A committee comprising borough employees and resident volunteers runs the “HP Gives a Hoot” fund, and the mayor plays an active role in the program.
The mayor was honored in another way at the league conference when the mayors elected her to serve on the Executive Board of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. As a member of this body, Mayor Brill Mittler will help lead the association representing New Jersey’s 565 municipal governments. She and the other board members will represent the interests and needs of New Jersey’s local elected officials to county, state and federal governments.
The New Jersey State League of Municipalities is a voluntary association created to assist communities do a better job of self-governing through pooling information and resources. All 565 mayors and 13,000 elected and appointed officials of member municipalities are entitled to all the services and privileges of the league.
For more information about the NJ League of Municipalities, please contact Michael J. Darcy, CAE, Executive Director, at (609) 695-3481, ext. 116 or cell 609-510-9472.