For these LIers, volunteering's not just at holiday time
Giving back isn't just something that happens one time a year for these four remarkable Long Islanders - it's a way of life. From giving to the homeless to working at disaster zones, these volunteers have used their free time to make a difference on Long Island and in the world.
Charles Russo, 59,
For a quarter-century homeless Long Island families have gotten help and gifts for their children at the holidays thanks to a massive volunteer effort led by attorney Charles Russo.
This year, the need is staggering - unlike anything Russo has seen before. For the first time, he said, volunteers who in the past gathered gifts for others are themselves asking for presents to put under the tree.
"It's tough out there," said Russo. "We are overwhelmed."
Russo's nonprofit, Holiday Magic, starts preparing in September.
The organization relies on more than 500 businesses, amateur sports teams and individuals, who donate money and time to make sure the wish lists are filled. In the two days before Christmas, Russo opens up his command center to any and all in need of gifts. This year, the operation is working from vacant office space in a Hauppauge building where Russo has his law practice.
Wednesday morning, Russo directed the action under bright ornaments dangling from the ceiling. In side rooms, black plastic bags were piled, stuffed with gifts.
Families, bundled against the cold, came in to browse and gather, as volunteers selected bags for delivery.
Russo took another last-minute call on his cell phone from a vast network of helpers. A child didn't have a present.
"Hey Dennis," Russo called across the room, "see if you can find something for a 3-year-old boy."
Nearby, Sandreen Bradley of Wyandanch, 30, a disabled single mom, sorted through folded clothes, choosing for her three kids. Bradley had already grabbed dolls and toy race cars.
"To be honest, I think it's a blessing," she said. "Without this, I don't know what I would do."
- Will van sant
Ruthven Hoyte, 62, Medford
On a cold Tuesday morning this week, Ruthven Hoyte hoisted boxes of food onto a pickup truck destined for a food pantry in Wyandanch. As a 20-year volunteer with the American Red Cross, Hoyte said he's ready to do anything to help people.
"I feel the need to give back," Hoyte said. "I think if everyone does this, we'd have a much better world."
Hoyte said he started off volunteering with the Red Cross in Brooklyn, then switched to the Suffolk County chapter when he moved to Long Island 10 years ago. But whether it's the Red Cross or the food bank, Hoyte said, the important thing is to give back.
"It doesn't make a difference what organization you use, as long as you help," he said.
Born in Trinidad, Hoyte is married with two adult children. He's trained as an electronic service technician, and spent his vacation days from his job at Toshiba not on the beach, but volunteering at disaster zones with the Red Cross.
One of his most memorable trips was to Texas, which last year was reeling from the effects of Hurricane Ike.
"We drove around feeding people in shelters," Hoyte said. "We stayed there for two weeks."
Claire Bock, 74, East Norwich
Claire Bock heard a saying once that stuck with her: "Do what you can, where you can, when you can."
With that mantra in mind, every month, Bock joins others at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Shelter Rock in Manhasset in preparing a meal for four emergency shelters on Long Island.
Bock, the coordinator of the group, has been chopping vegetables, peeling potatoes and seasoning meat for the meals for more than a decade.
"This is very hands-on, and I think that's what appeals to me," Bock said.
But Bock has another reason for taking on this project.
"There was a time in my life that I was facing some extreme difficulties and people helped me," she said.
As a divorced mother struggling to raise four children by herself, Bock would wait gratefully for deliveries of donated groceries from a social services agency.
Today, Bock is remarried and doing well. But every month, she continues to work to help feed the hungry, knowing how much it means to them, and what it once meant to her.
"I think we all now know from reading the papers that you can be in great shape one minute and be in desperate need very quickly," she said. "We all need to do what we can, when we can."
Phyllis Prosnitz, 93, Floral Park
Phyllis Prosnitz began volunteering at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park during the Eisenhower administration. Fifty-one years later, she's finally taking a break.
"I've been lucky," Prosnitz said, explaining why she volunteered for so long. "I felt I had to repay it."
The hospital estimates Prosnitz has spent more than 17,000 hours volunteering, a number that makes her clasp her hands to her face to think of it. She stopped volunteering at the hospital in November, after she gave away her car and stopped driving.
During her time at the hospital, Prosnitz worked on a cry study, gently poking babies on their feet, then recording the resulting wails so doctors could study the ways typical and developmentally disabled babies cry.
She also volunteered for two decades in the hospital's advocacy department, working with people who came into the emergency room with no medical insurance.
She recalled one woman who had a leg amputated, but had no money for a prosthesis.
Prosnitz went to the LIJ Medical Center Service guild and got it to donate money for the woman's prosthesis.
"It makes you feel good," she said of her work. "It's a wonderful feeling. They [patients] throw their arms around you and say 'God bless you, Mrs. Prosnitz.' "
After Prosnitz stopped her volunteer work, the hospital rewarded her with a luncheon in her honor. But even after 51 years, she's not sure she can stay away.
"I'm getting stir-crazy," she said, laughing. "It's ridiculous. It's time I stopped."