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When New Jersey went into stay-at-home mode, Kristen Rivera knew that wasn’t an option for her. The 36-year-old spends her days in Camden handing out meals, clothes and Narcan – an opioid reversal drug – to those in need. For people living on the streets, she says, coronavirus is just one more challenge they face.

“There are times when people recognize us and come chasing after the car because they haven’t eaten yet,” says Rivera. “Even if we’re just giving a pair of socks or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it makes a difference.”

For the Bellmawr resident, this work is personal.

“I’ve lost people,” says Rivera, whose brother Kenny died in 2018 from an overdose after a 20-year battle with addiction. “Grandparents, friends. But my brother was different. I didn’t know what actual grief was until I lost him.”

Kenny thought he was buying heroin, but he got fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger that stopped his heart. In his memory, Rivera created the Fentanyl Poisoning and Awareness Facebook page to share stories of people who have lost their lives. She goes out on the streets to help people before they’re a remembrance post.

“Kenny told me he felt most comfortable being homeless in Camden,” she says. “He didn’t expect a lot from people, or society. I want people to expect something from me.”

When COVID-19 struck, her work became more important than ever.

“With shelters and soup kitchens closed for a while, there wasn’t a lot of help out there,” says Rivera, who wears a mask and disinfects everything she is handing out.

She turned to her Facebook community to set up a fundraiser on Facebook and Amazon to help pay for supplies.

“There are times when my basement, garage and dining room are completely overrun by boxes,” she says.

For her, this is a way to heal.

“I could sit in my sorrow and cry because my brother isn’t here anymore,” says Rivera. “But this is my therapy. It gives me purpose. I want people on the street to know that society really does care about them.”

June 2020
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