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Pantries Provide for Hicksville’s Hungry

National Crisis Tackled

With Food and Heart

Unemployment strikes and a new job is elusive. Soaring gas prices produce pain at the pump. Utility bills rob money from the food budget. Making do with less leaves little left to get by.

Poised to come to the rescue are local food pantries. Residing quietly, they provide both a lifeline for people in need and a support system for people who are struggling – perhaps for the very first time in their lives.

People come seeking food.

They leave with much more.

Besides cereal, canned vegetables, peanut butter, jelly and other items that line the shelves, pantry staples include a warm embrace, an open heart, words of encouragement, sometimes professional advice. To a person, pantry providers express gratitude, even awe, at a guest’s courage and a donor’s generosity.

Joe Samodulski, director of Human Services at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, said simply, “This job teaches me humility.”

As a brisk wind blew on a recent cold yet cloudless Thursday morning, except for the chirping of birds, it was quiet at St. Ignatius. The food pantry was closed. Cars and trucks, visible through leafless trees lining the church grounds, passed silently along Broadway. Life along the busy thoroughfare was slower than usual as President’s Week wound down. Pantry hours – usually mornings and afternoons on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday – were scaled back. But the previous afternoon the pace was hectic as a line stretched out the bright yellow door. Hunger knows no holiday.

Joe Samodulski, whose job includes managing the pantry at St. Ignatius, is clearly a beloved figure among people who minister to the area’s poor. Judy Frankson, who runs the pantry at Hicksville United Methodist Church with a band of devoted volunteers, has spoken fondly of Joe’s help during and after their organizing efforts. Joan Echausse, director of Outreach at St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church in Westbury, said of Joe, “He is precious.” Sean Getty, rehab director at the drop in center at 459 South Broadway of Central Nassau Guidance and Counseling Services (CNGCS), where it operates a pantry for its mental health clients, has deep praise for Joe’s dedication.

The admiration is mutual. “People are so generous,” Joe said of others who perform similar work, as well as his 30 volunteers and countless donors. He shared his thoughts, as he sat in a warm meeting room near the pantry and offices, including a room that provides computer training, on a morning that had been designated for the heavy cleaning and organization that is postponed constantly because of the urgency of his job. A smile came to Joe’s face as he remembered an early winter clothing donation when a man dropped off an armful of brand new warm coats that he had just purchased during the final days of Goldman Bros. located just up the street. “People are so generous,” Joe reiterated.

Beginning as a volunteer at St. Ignatius in 2002, Joe found himself giving up his publishing career in New York City when the church hired him. That was nine years ago. “It is important that people know that hunger exists,” Joe said. On a recent surge in need he observed, “Our numbers jumped between 2007 and 2008,” when the bottom fell out of the housing market. Pausing to reflect, he added, “Our numbers doubled.” He pointed to “pockets of poverty” that exist in Hicksville and the “homeless population that lives mostly near the train station.” Their special needs are not forgotten. “We have a separate pantry,” he said, “for the homeless that is stocked with easy to eat food.”

Tall and dignified, Joe is fluent in Spanish and able to converse with many guests to assess their needs and desires. “I want to make them feel good,” Joe said. “Oftentimes there is nothing I can do but I listen to their stories. People want to be heard.”

If a person is in need of a hot meal, Joe said he will give them a Metro Card to take the bus to Hempstead where The INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network) operates Long Island’s largest soup kitchen. A homey setting, whose nutritious meals warm souls as well as stomachs, The Mary Brennan Inn began in a smaller location on Front Street when The INN was founded more than two decades ago. When the need spiraled and the space became too small, it moved to its present location on Madison Street, which is complete with a restaurant kitchen. During the week ending Feb. 18, The INN served 2,157 lunches, up slightly from the 2,136 lunches recorded that same week last year. Lunch is served five days a week at the Mary Brennan Inn and is always a five course balanced meal.

Jean Kelly, executive director of The INN, and one of the original volunteers, said in a phone interview, “Back in the ’80s when The INN got started, there were no soup kitchens.” Now The INN operates 19 in Nassau and Suffolk, including The Mary Brennan Inn. Jean said, “For people who have never gone to a pantry or soup kitchen, it is a hard concept to swallow.” But with her ever-present grace and concern she added, “If you need help, please don’t be afraid to ask.”

Echoing Jean’s plea was Ximena Aravena, who runs the food pantry at St. Brigid Roman Catholic Church in Westbury and whom Outreach Director Joan Echausse called “my heart, my soul.” Sitting with Joan in their office, a door away from the pantry, Ximena spoke of the “new face of poverty” that includes pantry visitors who are unemployed in fields such as teaching, telemarketing and computers. Their close working partnership became clear as Joan finished Ximena’s thought, “People in their 50s, men who sit quietly, are torn to tears because they have to come.”

St. Brigid’s pantry, described by Ximena as a “mini market,” was neatly stocked, shelf-by-shelf, with kitchen basics, including cereal, canned vegetables, soup, pasta and even pet food. Ximena noted the importance of dogs and cats to all of us, not only people in need. She said donations for all the food come from businesses and organizations and “people of all religions.” Joe Samodulski of St. Ignatius later underscored the same thought when he said feeding and clothing people in need “has to be an ecumenical effort.”

The TIKKUN Alliance of The North Shore (TANS) is an example of generosity at its greatest. Spokeswoman Susan Berman of the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation said in a telephone interview, “The TANS organization started out as a mission to help the poor, the hungry and the environment. It is a collaborative effort of 11 synagogues and two Jewish Centers. There is so much poverty and the face of poverty is changing,” she said. With enthusiasm for her work and concern for the crisis in her voice she added, “There are young families and mothers who we need to provide with healthful food.”

TANS’ Campaign Against Hunger is in its second year and growing steadily. “Last year,” Susan said, “We went to Hempstead and Glen Cove. This year we went to Westbury, Port Washington and Wyandanch in addition to Glen Cove and Hempstead.” Plans are to expand to at least Freeport and Huntington Station next year. The Campaign Against Hunger is a complex one-day event that takes many more days to organize. On a day in January soup kitchens are set up between 1 and 3 p.m. at participating synagogues. Nutritious meals, including a main course, fresh fruit, vegetables and dessert are served. In addition, donated clothing, including shoes and boots and personal items, are distributed in the participating communities.

As the need grows, Susan said, so does their desire to address it. “We do everything with dignity and respect,” she said, adding, “We have no other agenda but to help. Throughout the year we do food drives for pantries as well.”

Central Nassau Guidance and Counseling Services operates a busy pantry at its drop-in center at 459 South Broadway in Hicksville. This pantry, which serves the agency’s clients who come from the mental health community, accepts both perishable and non-perishable food and Sean Getty, rehab director, expressed gratitude to Island Harvest for the fresh fruits and vegetables it delivers.

“The population I serve is always in need and always well below the poverty line,” Sean observed. But he said the tough times have brought a change. In a telephone interview he said, “We have been seeing more and more common-folk,” whom he defined as “people who lead everyday lives but who never sought out a program before … people who have depression because of the economy.”

Later, speaking at the busy drop-in center before its evening hours of four to seven o’clock, Sean spoke with pride about the work his clients perform at the facility that includes cooking in the kitchen. A tall man with a warm manner and a smile that immediately puts a stranger at ease, Sean said preparing the meals allows the clients “to develop work skills.” They serve a nutritious lunch Monday through Friday and when the drop-in center is open for evening hours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, they prepare dinner. “They are so grateful,” he said, “They have a desire to give back.”

The pantry at the CNGCS drop-in is dependent upon donations from individuals and organizations. “We accept everything,” said Barbara Frank, assistant program director who oversees the pantry. This includes personal hygiene products, paper, soap, “things which are expensive,” she said. Barbara scurried from the spotless kitchen to her office and back again, bringing a copy of that week’s menu. Baked lasagna one day, baked fish the next; five days of balanced nutritious meals shared in a large and comfortable dining room around the corner from the kitchen.

Clients at CNGCS range in age from ages 22 to 60, men and women who come from Hicksville, Wantagh, Plainview, Bethpage and Massapequa. A 10-year veteran of the agency, Barbara has observed the season’s trends and expects their numbers to increase as the weather gets warmer and people get out more.

Praise for the community is a common refrain among pantry coordinators, as is respect for the guests and their needs. St. Brigid Outreach Director Joan Echausse observed after eight years on the job, “We have to be more humble than the person coming.”

Reflecting on the generosity she has long witnessed, United Methodist Church pantry director Judy Frankson said in a telephone interview, “We have been blessed with donations and volunteers. Over and over again the community has opened its eyes to the need and graciously helped,” she said with deep gratitude in her voice.

“People want to give,” said INN Executive Director Jean Kelly. On the work she clearly loves and sees as a blessing, Jean observed, “We just have to get through this. For 28 years we have seen things happen. Yes a problem exists and it is daunting.” But with wisdom born of a life’s dedication to hunger, homelessness and poverty, she added, “It is solvable. There is absolutely hope. We get inspired every day.”

For more information: St. Ignatius R.C. Church, 129 Broadway, Hicksville

Pantry Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday: 9:30 a.m. to noon, 1 to 3 p.m., 935-8846

United Methodist Church of Hicksvlle, 130 Old Country Road

Pantry Hours: Fridays: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., 931-2626

St. Brigid R.C. Church, 75 Post Ave., Westbury

Pantry Hours: Monday: 6 to 8 p.m.; Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday: 10:30 a.m. to noon, 1 to 3 p.m.; Thursday: 10:30 a.m. to noon, 6 to 8 p.m., 334-0021

The INN (“Serving Hungry and Homeless Long Islanders With Dignity, Respect and Love”)

For information about programs, donations and volunteering please consult www.TheINN.org or call 486-8506.

For information on Central Nassau Guidance and Counseling Services, centralnassau.org, phone: 822-6111. For Pantry donation information: Barbara Frank, 938-7568, ext. 328.