Every Wednesday morning, Judy Lewis drives from her home in Riverhead to the Salvation Army community center in East Northport. By 10 a.m., 10 to 14 seniors have arrived and are ready for Lewis to reveal the activity she has lined up for them.
One week, it's cupcakes. She tells them they'll be decorating treats for Armed Services Day and Memorial Day and in honor of veterans who served in the military. Many of the other activities she's planned are aimed at making the seniors feel included and relevant to society: Christmas visits to nursing homes, valentines for veterans and sorting donated clothing in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.
Lewis worked at the Salvation Army for 19 years before retiring in September. Her official title was bookkeeper, but she also led programs for youths and seniors. Lewis said she connected most intimately with the seniors, who came each week seeking companionship.
Now, she treks 80 miles round-trip at least one day a week as a volunteer to work with the same group she's cultivated over the years. Most are women, age 80 and older.
"It's more than just a job," Lewis said. "You get to become part of people's lives."
For the cupcake project, Lewis checks to see what's available in the center's food pantry. She finds two boxes of cake mix and one container of frosting, then uses her own money to buy other needed items at the grocery store. To keep things simple, Lewis bakes the 72 cupcakes in the center's kitchen the day before her group meets.
By the time the seniors arrive, Lewis has an assembly line ready and members take turns slathering on vanilla or chocolate icing. John Todino, 83, of Commack, spoons sprinkles on top and notices that someone can't wait to devour a cupcake.
"Somebody is going to eat the table," Todino joked.
By the time they're done, 72 cupcakes dwindle to 65. And that's just fine with Lewis. Everyone is happy and engaged, and there are still plenty left for the veterans.
"The thought that someone is enjoying what we made, it's nice," said Carrie Ann Piampiano, 91, of East Northport. "It makes you feel like you are doing a little bit to help the veterans."
Making a contribution
Decorating cupcakes seems to energize the group members, who said that even small gestures like frosting cupcakes for veterans makes them feel as though they are "contributing," in some small way. And, they added, it's a way to show the veterans they matter to someone.
That's Lewis' objective when working with her Wednesday seniors: letting them know they matter. And they have grown to care about her, too. "When we heard Judy was retiring, we said, 'Oh, my. What are we going to do?' " said Mae Nicosia, 95, of Commack. "She goes out of her way for everybody."
A commercial artist by trade, Lewis grew up in Northport, attended Farmingdale State College and raised two children as a single mom. Lewis went to the Salvation Army church in East Northport for guidance, and there, she found a job and a calling, working with the community of seniors and youngsters for years. When it came time to leave her job, she decided she couldn't let her seniors down.
After the cupcakes are frosted and sprinkled, the seniors are served a hot lunch and are gabbing away. Lewis packs three trays of cupcakes into her car and takes them to the Northport Veterans Residence. She's been making these deliveries long enough that one Veterans Affairs staffer nicknamed her the "Cupcake Lady."
Lewis warmly greets some of the 45 men and women who currently call the shelter home. Her arrival draws approval from Deborah A. Rodriguez, program director at the residence run by the Salvation Army.
"It's important for the veterans to know that somebody outside the grounds cares about them," Rodriguez said. "They come in here street-homeless. I feel very fortunate to work with them because there is so much support." And the cupcakes were a hit. The veterans "raved about the cupcakes," she said.
Richard Sanchez, a Salvation Army captain and pastor who runs the East Northport community center, said that when Lewis is in the room, he defers to her. "People know her," he said. "They love her. It's something you can see and feel."
The organization is aware that the growing number of aging seniors may mean a larger demand for its services. The Salvation Army has six community centers in Nassau and Suffolk, including East Northport. The services offered vary according to the community's needs and resources available, said Major Jim Betts, general secretary of the Greater New York Salvation Army in Manhattan.
"We'll continue to serve everybody who needs us," Betts said, "but with the aging population, boomers retiring and the changing demographic -- not only on Long Island, but all across the region -- we're looking at different options for seniors. We recognize that's a vulnerable population."
The East Northport program offers door-to-door shuttle service as needed for residents in the Huntington area; coffee hour is followed by an hourlong activity session led by Lewis. There are music and games, crafts, exercise and guest speakers. There's also Bible study, though anyone of any religion can be part of the group. A $3 hot lunch prepared by volunteers also is offered.
When regulars in her group miss a week, Lewis calls to check on them, and she visits the hospital or nursing home. But numbers are dwindling; just last year, three members died. A 20-panel quilt hangs on a wall in the community center -- a group project from a time when there were many more seniors.
Members say they know Lewis cares about them, and she keeps them hopeful and occupied.
"If it wasn't for Judy, a lot of people wouldn't be here. She's a very friendly person, and she's caring," said Mary Kotzer, 81, who lives with her son in Greenlawn. Kotzer has been coming to the group for 15 years, calling it an "escape" from her daily routine and a chance to interact with other women.
"They talk about their problems," Lewis said. "They talk about their joy and sorrows, the birth of a great-grandchild or the death of a child. Whatever it is, they get support here."
Lewis loves being with the group, but she's not sure how long she'll continue to volunteer in East Northport. Her long commute creates wear and tear on the car, and now that she's retired, her budget is tighter.
One thing that's certain: Her contribution to the community center is appreciated. Sanchez's wife, Lolita Sanchez, a Salvation Army captain and an administrator in East Northport, said of Lewis, "She really is the heart of a lot of our programs here. Anything she does is with pure love."
The Salvation Army seniors group in East Northport meets each Wednesday from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at the community center. Anyone 65 and older is invited. Transportation is available within the Town of Huntington, and a hot lunch is served for $3. Call 631-368-1170.
There are five other Salvation Army community centers in Nassau and Suffolk that offer various services for those in need. Call for information.
Blue Point 631-363-6100