Long Islanders lend helping hand

Audrey Ellis is a volunteer at the LI

Audrey Ellis is a volunteer at the LI Council of Churches food pantry in Freeport. (Nov. 18, 2011) (Credit: Steve Pfost)

They come from different walks of life. Some are retired, others have more free time these days. But they all share one desire -- the urge to help.

And in this season of thanksgiving, when many Long Island residents are facing economic hardship, these volunteers are a linchpin, say those from nonprofit agencies who run programs assisting people in need.

"We have several programs that are dependent solely on volunteers," said Joyce Mullen, spokeswoman for Mineola-based Family and Children's Association. "A lot of the staff here work part-time because of budget issues, so volunteers allow us to reach many more people."

And they can bring an added dimension of "creativity and motivation we couldn't do without, really," said Eileen Smith, program director of the Family Service League, which helps individuals and families throughout Suffolk County.

The Rev. Thomas Goodhue, executive director of the Long Island Council of Churches, said volunteers across the Island have grown "more than a ton of food" for the council's food pantries this year, they've collected food from supermarkets who have donated, and their actions have encouraged others to give.

"We couldn't do any of that stuff without volunteers," Goodhue said.

Volunteers themselves say if feels good to help others, especially these days. As one noted, "we're all in this together."

These are six people who have become volunteers:

DEBORAH WALLACE

Home: Wading River

Age: 60

About a year ago, Wallace noticed an item in a church bulletin seeking volunteers to help with the annual Community and Migrant Thanksgiving Dinner, held the Tuesday before the holiday at Riverhead Middle School.

The Long Island Council of Churches was looking for people to cook turkeys, Wallace recalled recently and, coincidentally, she was seeking a way to be "more productive with my life" in retirement.

Wallace retired four years ago from the Hauppauge School District, where she had been a high school media specialist. In retirement, she and her husband, Tom, left Huntington for the East End, where Wallace had grown up.

Once Wallace found out about the dinner -- which fed around 500 last year -- and the fact that she favored the council's mission, she was on board.

"I like the idea of cooperation among different faith groups," said Wallace, who also donates funds to the council.

She cooked a turkey for last year's festivities, and for this year's, too, which occurred Tuesday. "I cooked a 26-pound turkey for the dinner," she said. "I have a car full of onions, celery, sausage and milk" she was preparing to deliver for the dinner.

Although Wallace feels good that she's doing something, "I don't feel like I'm doing anything special," she said. "I feel like I could be doing a lot more."

This annual dinner, and her once-a-week volunteering stint at the Council's Riverhead food pantry, has opened her eyes to the depth of need.

"You don't see it. You don't realize it," she said, until you come upon people visiting the pantry and learn something of their stories: those who were laid off from their jobs, others who "need a little help to make ends meet. The working poor aren't making enough money to afford what they need."

DAVID OBEY

Home: Huntington

Age: 64

Obey counts himself among the "lucky" ones.

The semiretired magazine publishing consultant said of his family and friends, "We're not going to lose our homes, we're not going to miss a meal."

But media reports tell him that many on Long Island aren't so lucky. They show "somebody in need, somebody's who's fallen on hard times," Obey said. "I do believe -- and I'm of a generation that believes -- we're all in this together."

Volunteering was something that had been in the "back of my mind" for some time, Obey said. With his consulting business winding down over the past year -- a victim of the bad economy -- Obey saw an opportunity to ratchet up his volunteer work.

He had heard of the work of the Family Service League, a nonprofit human service organization, through a friend and reached out. "I wanted to help my neighbors on Long Island."

Obey does that by volunteering at the Community Thrift Shop in Huntington, run by a partnership of six not-for-profit organizations, including the Family Service League. (The others are Huntington Hospital, Cancer Care, Daytop, which is a substance abuse treatment program, Planned Parenthood and Visiting Nurse Service). He also volunteers as a tutor for the league's after-school homework program in Huntington.

Obey said the thrift shop provides an important service.

"Number One, it raises money for those six organizations. Number Two, it provides an alternative shopping experience for people in the community who need it," he said.

Even though Obey said the shop has been running a 50 percent off sale for many weeks, "Our revenues have actually gone up . . . Times are bad, people are going to be looking for ways to save money. And by the way, there's some terrific stuff here."

For Obey, volunteering to help others is an important element of society, particularly as governments at all levels cutback.

And, he added, "It's just simply the right thing to do, and I feel better doing it. You could always do more, for Pete's sake. But I feel good I'm doing something."

KAREN FEINBERG

Home: Bethpage

Age: 61

ELEANOR WERNER

Home: South Setauket

Age: 85

Feinberg and Werner are a mother-daughter duo whose colorful, handmade quilts and pillow cases are a hit with children living in a youth shelter run by the Mineola-based Family and Children's Association.

Both also participate in the nonprofit human service agency's Adopt a Family program, providing financial assistance and an array of items for the families and others helped by the association.

Feinberg, a wife, mother and grandmother who works full-time as a bookkeeper, said the "spiritual path" she has embarked upon in recent years was the catalyst for pursuing volunteer work a year ago.

"I feel I'm on a spiritual path. I've been very blessed in my life. I think we're all here to help each other out," she said. "Sometimes you're the one that gives, and sometimes you're the one that receives."

Werner, who said she follows "Catholic teachings pretty closely," added, "We're trying to spread the word to others" to help also.

Werner taught her daughter to sew and Feinberg said she decided to use that talent to help someone else.

"I love, love sewing," Feinberg said at her home, as she displayed her handiwork. Werner said their pillow cases usually have a theme. "We try to get a stuffed animal" to match the colors because, added Feinberg, "I'm a matchy person." She said she was told by a worker that some of the kids actually use the pillow cases as "suitcases" to carry their belongings.

"It feels good to be able to make a difference," Feinberg said, "that you can use a talent for a good purpose, rather than just making it and sticking it in a drawer or something."

DARRYL LAPP

Home: Merrick

Age: 51

Lapp, a paralegal who works out of her home, said her volunteer work as a Family and Children's Association "ombudsperson" helping seniors stems from "gratitude and appreciation" for things in her own life.

"My own sons are now happily married and my husband is happily retired." she said. "I can't count my blessings every day without acknowledging that I am truly blessed."

Helping older family members and friends has been a mainstay of her life, Lapp said, and now she's intent on making it her "life's work."

Lapp said she wants to be there to help fight "the battle" on behalf of an elderly person in need. As an "ombudsperson," her task includes advocating for the resident of a nursing home or assisted living facility to resolve any concerns, and to alert authorities of fraud and abuse.

Lapp saw an ad in the paper last spring seeking volunteers for the association's Long Term care "ombudsprogram" and soon went after it. She underwent 36 hours of training over a six-day period, and received her state certification in July.

She was placed at the A. Holly Patterson nursing facility in Uniondale, where she said she's required to make a weekly commitment of four or five hours. "That would just be one afternoon. You can't get anything done in one afternoon." So she goes up to three afternoons a week, she said.

"My own personal opinion is these residents don't get enough visitors," Lapp said. "Yes, they have social workers, occupational therapy and speech therapy, arts and crafts and bingo. But what they really need is somebody to talk to, to really listen to them."

"I want to be that someone else" to help fix a problem in someone's life, she said.

AUDREY ELLIS

Home: Valley Stream

Age: 66

Ellis has seen the impact a stagnating economy has had on many Long Islanders, observing visits increase to the Long Island Council of Churches' Freeport food pantry. "Lots of clients we haven't seen for a long time" have since returned, coming from across Nassau County.

"There's more need now," said Ellis, who has been a volunteer at the pantry since June, though her association with the pantry goes back four years earlier.

As a participant in the Urban League's mature worker program, Ellis received a stipend from the league for doing data computer entry and other clerical functions at the pantry. The program enabled her to "keep my skills going," said the former medical secretary, who had been laid off.

Her contract with the league ended this summer, but Ellis remained at the pantry, this time as a volunteer. She often goes two days a week, and more as Thanksgiving approached.

"I didn't have to stay" at the pantry, Ellis said, "but the people we work with are very kind and giving and very dedicated to the mission of helping. We could all be in the same place at any time. It's about caring about the people that you serve, who are in need. This pantry provides that service."

And Ellis said she wanted to "give back . . . I feel good when I volunteer."

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