By Ryan Dobrin
Dozens of people bundled in coats and scarves wait in a line that stretches past the blue awning of the Mary Brennan INN Soup Kitchen and down Madison Avenue in Hempstead.
It’s drizzling and cold, and they are hungry and wet.
With children out of school for break and the holidays here, this go-to-spot for hot meals and warm clothes is filled within minutes of its doors opening. Inside, all 200 of the seats are claimed, with more guests arriving from the back.
Director of Communications Cynthia Sucich, enthusiasm exuding from her smile, greets people she recognizes as she passes table after table of patrons ranging from elders to toddlers. Here they sit, smiling with their families, not because they are receiving presents or meeting Santa, but because they are receiving a piping hot lunch.
The holidays are a time for family and celebration, when one gathers with their kin in an exchange of gifts and love. Not all have the luxury of buying presents for each other, however, or even of obtaining a Christmas meal. These seasonal joys are too often taken for granted, especially in a place as affluent as Long Island, with its opulent Gold Coast and myriad affluent neighborhoods.
It seems impossible that people here could be living below the poverty line. Yet as many volunteers know from working in soup kitchens, food pantries and participating in clothing drives throughout both Nassau and Suffolk counties, these misperceptions couldn’t be further from the true reality for far too many local families.
The INN is just one of several places here on Long Island where those in need can find refuge.
Originally a single soup kitchen at a church in Hempstead, the Interfaith Nutrition Network [INN] began spreading in order to reach as many people in need as possible. Now boasting a total of 14 soup kitchens in 21 locations, the INN serves anyone who needs food, while staying true to their motto—that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.
The INN expanded its services in 1984, when volunteers noticed many impoverished clients were also homeless. Since then, the INN began opening emergency shelters. The group has continued to be involved in the lives of those who need a place to sleep by offering long-term housing, veteran’s housing and independent living programs.
Though the INN’s packed dining room of families on one recent afternoon is testament to the need of such missions during the holiday season, Sucich stresses that theirs is a never-ending quest. Food is a major component of what the guests need, she explains, but so much more is necessary.
The Hempstead location provides showers to those in need and a bagged lunch program for those not ready to sit in the soup kitchen, while volunteers constantly work to help in any way possible in order to make guests’ lives even a bit easier.
Traditionally, the INN distributed donated toys to families who could not afford Christmas presents for their children, says Sucich. This practice also evolved. For the holiday season, in addition to toy donations for the younger guests, the INN accepts donations of winter outwear and non-perishable food.
“This year, we really realized that families are in need all-year round,” she tells the Press during a recent walk-through of the Mary Brennan Soup Kitchen. “And what it is that we do is no different in the holidays and the middle of March.”
Hunger is prevalent here, and Sucich explains how, unlike New York City, poverty is not as evident on the streets of Long Island.
“The biggest misconception is people can’t see it so they think it’s not here,” she says, adding that there is an ever-changing population of those below the poverty line. “The face of hunger is changing. What people think it looks like, it does not look like. We are seeing middle-class people who are coming in, we are seeing different nationalities that we have not seen before coming into the soup kitchen. There are just more and more people who are in need.”
One need only look out at the faces of those seated around the INN’s dining room tables to see her statement’s truth. The crowd observing a recent lunch’s pre-meal Moment of Silence is as diverse as can be. No person looks like same. The 200 people in the room run the gamut.
Toddlers in oversized jackets await their meals alongside the elderly. Mothers calm their children next to single guests. A child shifts uncomfortably in his seat, desperate to get a peek of what’s on the plate today. The only connection between all these people is that they are in need of a meal. This need and the diversity of whom it affects exist throughout Long Island.
Long Island Cares is another Island-based organization dedicated to ending local hunger and poverty. It was founded by the late “Cat’s in the Cradle” singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, who was determined to further this mission. Chapin died in a tragic car accident in 1981, just one year after creating its first food bank, but his determination and vision for the future of Long Island continues to inspire Long Island Cares to this day.
Headquartered in Hauppauge, Long Island Cares annually distributes more than six million pounds of nutritious food.
Determined to not just feed hungry people but to end hunger completely, Long Island Cares also provides educational programs designed to teach students, local businesses and other organizations about food insecurity, poverty and nutrition, as well as distributing free school supplies for children in low-income families.
Robin Amato, the group’s chief development officer, echoes Sucich’s explanation that poverty is a year-long issue.
“There is a heightened awareness [of hunger] during the holiday season, but I think what we’ve seen is that the need has gotten greater throughout the year,” she tells the Press. “At our Freeport location, [we’ve] been seeing an increase in usage of about 25 percent year to year for the last three years.”
Holding true to its mission of helping the community, Long Island Cares is accepting donations of gently used coats, and new hats, gloves, scarves, socks, blankets and sleeping bags until February 1.
Sucich stresses that no help to too little.
“Anyone can help,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a monetary donation. If you have time, if you have a smile, everyone has something to give.”
This is certainly true at the INN, where a woman, shortly before beginning to serve guests, explains she has been volunteering at the site for eight years.
“That’s nothing compared to these two,” she says humbly, motioning to two other women sitting beside her. The pair is on their 20th year of selflessly offering their services to others.
The truly altruistic nature of volunteers has astounded Amato as well.
“We all meet so many wonderful, giving, generous people here on Long Island that are so willing to help their neighbors who are struggling,” she says enthusiastically. “That’s the best part of working here. That’s the best experience.”
Island Harvest, headquartered in Mineola, was similarly founded by a person fed up with the state of hunger on Long Island.
In 1992, Linda Breitstone noticed that local convenience stores threw away uneaten food at the end of the day, despite a safe house for women and children in close proximity. Since then, Island Harvest has delivered surplus food to those in need and marches toward their goal of ending hunger and food waste on the Island.
Due to their relentless resolve and commitment, Island Harvest has succeeded in supplementing close to 66 million meals and delivering 71 million pounds of food since its inception.
Due to the intense need for food during this season, Island Harvest has been hosting a Turkey and Trimmings Collection Campaign, which began in early November and is running until December 30. All Panera Bread and Bristal Assisted Living locations on Long Island are accepting turkeys and non-perishable items, and all McDonald’s, Roslyn Savings Bank and Nassau County Police Department locations are accepting only non-perishable items toward this cause.
The INN, Long Island Cares and Island Harvest are united in a shared mission: to end hunger and poverty on Long Island. Thus, they also share similar needs. There is always a demand for volunteers and donations, and all three’s very existence is testament that hungry and homeless families across Long Island need more help now than ever before.
Sucich receives her fulfillment by seeing the guests at the INN enjoying a hearty meal, receiving donated clothes, or anything else that may help make their lives even a little bit easier.
“The biggest joy is when you can fulfill the simplest need of a guest, whether it’s for a toothbrush or for a pair of socks, or to see guests come in and be full over a hot meal,” she says. “It could be the only meal they get for the day.”
Below are the links to the organizations and their volunteer contact information. Reach out and help if you can. The INN, Long Island Cares and Island Harvest will not forget—neither will those fellow Long Islanders in need.