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Daughter Of Late Bergen Pizzeria Owner Turns Grief Into Giving Through Mental Health Chats

Braden and Steve Renke
Braden and Steve Renke Photo Credit: COURTESY: Braden Renke

If you knew Demarest Pizza owner Steve Renke, you wouldn’t be surprised by an organization created by his daughter to help those struggling with mental health issues.

That it’s happening amid the COVID-19 pandemic just makes “The Pizza Project” created by Braden Renke that much more important.

Before social distancing, members of Braden's group met every Friday night for pizza and frank discussions at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania, where she's a junior student athlete majoring in Psychology.

Now they Zoom.

"I saw a major gap in mental health awareness for a lot of people,” said Braden, of Norwood, whose father committed suicide at his Hardenburgh Avenue shop two years ago. “I felt like people wanted to get involved but didn't know how.”

It’s only fitting.

Her dad “always gave away free pizza to the high schoolers or the band or local churches or sports teams," Braden said, "and that's kind of like my way of tying him into it while also giving back."

Braden got rolling by finding a job on campus, hitting up her mom and bankrolling the startup herself.

The load got lighter once “The Pizza Project” was officially recognized as a campus organization at the start of this semester. Not only does Braden not have to shell out for pizza anymore: Nearly 50 other students at the residential liberal arts college in Lancaster have enlisted.

"People would much rather hear what you have to say than wonder about it if you're not here," she said. "So definitely reach out if you need to."

Steve Renke, 49, didn't reach out for help, making his death even more painful for loved ones and friends alike.

One thing Renke always did was help others.

The Haworth native routinely took up the causes of anyone who needed funding help -- advertising their campaigns at his shop, urging others to give what they could -- during the three decades that he built Demarest Pizza into a local institution, especially among the kids at nearby Northern Valley Regional High School.

Renke was a senior at Northern Valley when he and three partners bought the storefront in 1987. He  began working behind the counter full time after graduation, then made deliveries in his pickup truck before buying out his partners two years later.

That wasn’t all. The man hustled – working as a general contractor and real estate agent, owning his own snow plowing and painting business – to provide for his wife, Moira, and their children Braden, Jack and Riley.

Renke, who was a constant sports booster, played football himself as teen. He also developed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (better known as CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that causes severe and irreparable brain damage as a result of repeated head injuries.

Braden Renke is channeling both the best and saddest of her father's circumstances toward the good of others.

What she's been doing has become ever more important amid the pandemic-dominated holidays.

“Students feel extra pressure to perform in extremely unknown circumstances,” she said. “Many students are at home in unstable environments, are struggling with financial hardships and are struggling with the lack of a ‘normal’ routine.”

Braden and her fellow “Pizza Project” members are doing all they can to cope with, and overcome, those circumstances themselves. All the while they're providing a rundown of mental health and student resources on campus, in the Lancaster community and online.

And, yes, "The Pizza Project" still provides pizza, holding biweekly slice giveaways on campus.

LEARN MORE: The Pizza Project

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The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Or text CONNECT to 741-741.You are not alone.

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