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How Long Islanders came together with kindness, one year later

Mary Kate Tischler, Alexis Cino, holding her dog

Mary Kate Tischler, who was featured in Newsday's Acts of Kindness in December 2020 when she started The Sharing Table, talked about how several people have reached out to her about starting their own tables. As of March 2021, there are 46 Sharing Table locations. Credit: Deborah Egan-Chin; St. James Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center, Newsday / Steve Pfost; Photo credit: Mary Kate Tischler, Dorothy Santana

The first Newsday LI Acts of Kindness story was published March 19, 2020. The goal was to highlight Long Islanders, whom we labeled as neighbors helping neighbors, facing a once-in-a century coronavirus pandemic.

Thanks to dozens of Long Islanders, good news wasn’t hard to find. The stories poured in — through email, social media and those we interviewed, who knew of a friend or neighbor doing another good deed.

The series itself brought unprecedented challenges. Interviews, often emotional, were done over the phone or via Zoom, with the lead reporter writing stories of compassion, caring and strength from her childhood bedroom.

Those stories lifted the spirits of readers who shared feedback and words of encouragement such as: "Keep cheering us up. We could all use it!"

And we did, for a full year. We wrote about a nurse donating thousands of dollars worth of equipment to treat respiratory patients; teens making masks and face shields; children sending cards to nursing home residents. One story focused on a mother and daughter creating a big, colorful message on their fence, in chalk: "Thank U Essential Workers."

Some of the good deeds we’ve written about have grown from a moment into a movement, or changed with the needs of the pandemic.

Even as life starts to feel normal again, and the rainbow messages of hope fade, Long Island’s many acts of kindness will be remembered.

Sharing is caring

It started with one Sharing Table. Mary Kate Tischler set it up on her front lawn in Seaford last November. It was filled with nonperishable food, toiletries and cleaning supplies, and Tischler had a simple goal in mind: for her neighbors to take what they need, and leave what they can.

"I just thought it was such an easy yet effective way to help local people," Tischler said late last fall.

Long Islanders, from Manhasset to Patchogue, agreed. There are now 46 (and counting) Sharing Tables — mostly on Long Island, with a handful in Queens, upstate New York and California. The Sharing Tables of the USA is now a not-for-profit organization.

"It’s amazing that as soon as that article went out, that’s really how the momentum got started," Tischler said last week. "People started reaching out to me, saying ‘I want to start a Sharing Table, too,’ and it just really caught on."

Tischler runs The Sharing Tables of the USA Facebook page. She set up an Amazon wish list of supplies needed for new Sharing Tables to get started.

Then she formed a partnership with FREE, or Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc. Based in Old Bethpage, the organization offers vocational training, employment and more to people with disabilities.

FREE clients do plenty of community service, but the pandemic has made that challenging. But with the expansion of Sharing Tables came new ways for Long Islanders to help.

Whenever Amazon wish list items are delivered to a member of the Sharing Table Facebook page, individuals from FREE pick them up and deliver them to Sharing Tables across Long Island. It’s a "huge help," Tischler said.

She added there are also several tables waiting in the wings, and more than 60 inquiries she still has to go through.

And to think it all started with that one table in Seaford.

"I definitely never expected it to grow this much," Tischler said. "It’s almost become a snowball, rolling downhill and growing and growing. I think people are realizing how much need there is out there."

From COVID tests to vaccinations

As the pandemic evolved, Dorothy Santana recognized a need: Spanish language interpreters at COVID-19 testing sites on Long Island.

Her organization, Latina Moms Connect, volunteered at a health center in Wyandanch. After nurses tested Long Islanders from their cars, the drivers could pull up and talk to volunteers about what happens next.

Santana and her fellow moms did this in May. The coronavirus was still new, and many people they spoke with were scared.

"To be able to connect with someone who speaks your language, it’s invaluable," Santana said last spring.

Now, Latina Moms Connect has teamed up with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office on a new endeavor: vaccination awareness. Santana and five volunteers have been going to delis and bodegas throughout Brentwood, Bay Shore and Central Islip to talk to employees about the COVID-19 vaccine. They provide literature, dispel myths and offer information.

"The county executive recognizes that these bodega owners and workers are more open to receiving this information from community members that might look like them and relate to them in some way," said Santana, of North Babylon.

The volunteers have found there’s a spectrum of awareness in the people they’ve met. Some are optimistic about the vaccine and encourage their co-workers to listen, some are more hesitant, and some don’t have access to the technology needed to make an appointment.

"As a group, being bilingual and being Latina, for us to deliver that message to them is really powerful," Santana said. "We have a dialogue about the vaccine, raise their awareness and offer education."

Going forward, Latina Moms Connect is also helping families transition from homeless shelters to permanent homes by collecting and donating houseware essentials. Their community service hasn’t stopped, despite still not being able to meet in person.

"We want to spread ourselves out, and we’re hoping to reach lots of areas," she added.

The lift they needed

Eve Miceli lives just a few blocks away from her mother in St. James. But with the restrictions on nursing home visitation, it seems like miles.

Last April, Miceli’s husband, John, wanted to bridge that gap. He got in touch with a friend over at Xterra Tree Service in Wading River, and they provided a cherry picker bucket truck.

Miceli was able to visit her mother, Lorraine Sayler, from her second-floor window at St. James Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center.

"That was a big adventure, to get the truck there," Miceli said, looking back with a laugh. "It was a special day."

Last month, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced new and expanded guidelines for nursing home visitation in the state. The department of health directive states visits can resume if the nursing home facility has been free of COVID-19 cases for 14 days.

Miceli still hasn’t been able to see her mother inside since these guidelines were announced. But last week, she got to do the next best thing (besides going up in a cherry picker): the center started offering something called "window visits" for the first time since last December. The residents can use a staff member’s cellphone, stand by a window and call their loved one, who can stand outside to chat.

Besides that, "I get to speak to her," Miceli said. She helped install a landline in her room right before the pandemic started. "I just couldn't see her unless I got on a ladder."

Now, Sayler has been vaccinated. It’s only a matter of time before Miceli can hug her mother again.

"She is so resilient," Miceli said. "She really is incredible, but she’s lonely."

What’s the very first thing they’ll do together in person? "We’re going to play cards," Miceli said. "Crazy Eights — that’s her favorite."

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