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LifestyleHolidaysWinter Holidays

After natural disasters, the giving season focuses on victims

From across the Island, churches, clubs, businesses and individuals dig deep for charity

Students at Long Beach Middle School have organized a bracelet sales drive to raise funds for victims of natural disasters this year. They are also collecting food to be distributed to needy families in the community. (Credit: Newsday / Yeong-Ung Yang)

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Margarica McGowan, 18, was among the throngs of young people at Roose velt Field mall in Garden City. You could say the Holy Spirit and the holiday spirit brought her there.

She wasn’t scoping out items to put on her Christmas list, though. Soon, she and a group of several other youths from her church, Holy Ghost Restoration Revival Ministries in Westbury, will start hunting for books, toys and other holiday gifts for children in Westbury, making selections at thrift stores, Target, TJ Maxx and other retailers. They will pick up gifts from nonprofits, as well, and help deliver them to needy children for the holidays.

“I do this every year. I grew up in church; this is what we do,” said a bubbly McGowan, of Hempstead, clearly excited and looking forward to the annual tradition, which this year has turned her thoughts to children in Puerto Rico.

“My church did a fundraiser, and my great-grandmother, who is Puerto Rican, went there to take the clothes and cash we collected. Hopefully it will help make the holidays a bit better.”

What inspires Long Islanders and others to give more? Any number of reasons, but the year’s mix of deadly and destructive hurricanes, earthquakes and fires has been a catalyst for many.

“The idea of charitable giving is going to be front of mind for many people this year because of the unfortunate natural disasters over the last few months,” said Jackie Enterline, a spokeswoman for Giving USA, a provider of charitable-giving data. “We think it could make donors more charitable because giving is top of mind. We will have to wait and see what the data tells us.”

For Elmont’s Duenez family, gratitude has spawned heightened generosity. Relatives in Mexico City were spared during the September earthquake that killed hundreds of people.

“I’m just motivated to do more this year,” said Ileana Duenez, 27, who was at Roose velt Field with her husband, Adali, 32, and children, Alison, 10, Sophia, 8, Jaden, 6, and Jacob, 2, to take a family photo with Santa Claus. They will spread holiday cheer and gifts by donating to efforts at a school one of their daughters attends in Elmont.

“We’ll bring canned goods and donate jackets and shoes that our kids grow out of so quickly that they are like brand-new,” she said.

Vincent Rasulo’s motivation is paying it forward. “The economy improved, it was a good year for me financially,” said the East Patchogue resident and business manager for a preventive maintenance company. “I can do more this year. What better way to spend money than on worthy causes during the holidays?”

Rasulo, 36, hasn’t started his holiday shopping yet, but he knows he will buy several toys to take to three fundraisers he plans to attend. He’s a member of the Great South Bay Republican Club, which is joining several other GOP clubs for a joint fundraiser. “Rather than paying to get into the event, people will bring a toy,” he said. His GOP club is also donating money to buy turkeys for Thanksgiving.

This holiday season, Gloria Miles has been guided by memories. She lost her home in Far Rockaway during superstorm Sandy in October 2012 and now lives in Brooklyn. She was quick to join others at her church to gather items for distribution to hurricane victims. Ever the shopper, Miles, 54, had some clothes still with price tags on them that she can’t wear, so she brought those, as well as coats and canned goods, to go in the shipment.

She may as well be one of Santa’s elves with her mission to lift spirits. At Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station on a recent weekend, she was intensely browsing the Abigail Jewelry kiosk, asking the sales associate question after question. Miles is serious about shopping and giving, especially to strangers.

“I plan to buy at least 50 gifts, trinkets, perfume, socks, underwear, bracelets, earrings, books,” she said. “Today, I’m shopping for the homeless. It’s not what you give, but what comes from the heart. I gave a man a pack of undershirts one year and he was so happy. Giving is about showing love.”

HOLIDAY OPTIMISM

The holiday buzz is in the air. Parking is already hard to find at malls, and Black Friday is just days away. Despite political and economic uncertainty, the National Retail Federation is forecasting a 3.6 percent to 4 percent increase this year in holiday spending, totaling as much as $682 billion, up from $655.8 billion in 2016.

While family and friends will be shopping for each other, they also will help drive a philanthropic spirit that has persisted in the wake of hurricanes Maria, Irma and Harvey from August to October, the October wildfires in Northern California and the earthquake in Mexico City.

“We have seen an increase in giving in 2017 that can be attributed to both disaster-relief giving and in response to the 2016 presidential election,” said Steve MacLaughlin, vice president of data and analytics at research firm Blackbaud, a supplier of software to charities. “Through September 2017, overall giving was up 1.6 percent on a year-over-year basis. That is based on more than $29 billion in charitable giving analyzed by Blackbaud.”

According to Thomas Doochin, co-founder and CEO of Daymaker, which bills itself as a child-to-child giving platform helping parents share the benefits of philanthropy with their children, estimates show 33 percent to 40 percent of charitable giving is done in the last eight weeks of the year.

“It’s when people are thinking about giving, and it’s when organizations are putting the most forward in terms of requests,” Doochin said.

The holidays are often the highlight of the year for children, but even they have taken note of Mother Nature’s wrath. Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that ravaged the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, caused billions of dollars in damage and left thousands of residents homeless. The devastation reverberated to Long Island, where memories of Sandy’s destruction five years ago are still fresh, especially for those who live in Long Beach, one of the hard-hit South Shore communities.

Students at Long Beach Middle School hope to raise at least $2,000 for disaster victims by selling colorful $2 bracelets. One side of the bracelet says “Long Beach Cares” and the other reads “Stay Strong.” Each is a different color representing specific locales battered this year by natural disasters: Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, California, Mexico, Bermuda, the Carolinas. The money raised will be sent to Habitat for Humanity, arriving in time for Christmas and to go toward a family in need of a new home for the holidays.

Seventh-grader Noah Robinson, 12, who is helping sell bracelets, had relatives in areas affected by hurricanes and fires. “The past year has been eye-opening for me,” he said. “I have a grandmother in Texas, another grandmother in Florida and an aunt in California,” all of whom survived and are OK.

During a season that’s all about family and friends, it’s been tough for employees of Bedgear, a Farmingdale-based bedding company, where about 15 percent of the employees are Puerto Rican, and many have family and friends there, or just feel connected to the island.

“I was looking for a way for them not to feel hopeless. I wanted them to be able to do something,” said Eugene Alletto, founder and CEO.

Bedgear is putting together emergency kits containing soap, hand sanitizer, food, solar flashlights and other items. Donors can go to https://tinyurl.com/BedgearPuertoRicoFund to purchase a kit with a minimum donation of $50. Bedgear uses the proceeds to purchase items for the kits. They are also donating dry dog and cat food. Once the items are collected on Long Island, employees at the company’s Rock Hill, South Carolina, facility will package and ship them.

“While we aren’t providing traditional Thanksgiving foods or Christmas gifts, we’re providing essentials to help them rebuild and ultimately create a happier holiday season,” said Alletto, who said the company plans to send a container every month.

PUERTO RICO RELIEF

Spencer Edelbaum and his wife, Sue Seel, frequently give to charitable causes. The owners of Made to Move, a small community club in East Setauket that offers yoga, personal training, fitness classes, tennis instruction, children’s summer camps, life and nutritional coaching and educational seminars, are collecting money for relief efforts in Puerto Rico.

To date they have raised nearly $10,000, primarily from people who use their facilities, and as promised, the couple is matching that donation, bringing the total to about $20,000. But with the devastation on the island so great, they decided to keep fundraising until Dec. 31 to collect more and to take advantage of the fact that people often make charitable contributions this time of year. All money raised will be given to UNICEF, which has an agreement with Edelbaum and Seel to use 100 percent of the funds for victims in Puerto Rico.

“We went with UNICEF because we thought it important to work with a well-known organization, which we also researched on our own,” said Edelbaum, 54.

Margaret Espada, founder of Teatro Yerbabruja, a nonprofit in Central Islip that uses visual and performing arts to promote constructive social change among Long Island’s diverse youth and other residents, is revved up for part two of the organization’s giving campaign for Puerto Rico. The group already sent products and now will focus on fundraising.

“Next month, we’re having Bohemia Night for Puerto Rico at the Arts Center,” Espada said. “Artists are excited to donate their work for an auction at the event, and we’re working with Adelphi University on having a salsa dance where proceeds will go to Puerto Rico.”

For some, the holidays are a welcome distraction from all else going on in the world and a chance to focus on family, friends, happy times and delicious food.

Trish Yasinsky and her daughter, Alissa, both of Huntington, were giddy while browsing at Walt Whitman Shops recently. Alissa, 24, works at an elementary school that will hold food drives and bake sales. She will participate in the giving tree and buy a gift for a needy child. “No kid should be without a gift,” she said.

Her mother will give through her company, transportation provider Huntington Coach, where employees each donate $50 every month to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Wounded Warriors. At Christmas, workers boost the amount to $100 each. To come up with extra cash, employees empty their closets and participate in a gift swap. Proceeds go toward the $100 contribution. Giving need not be extravagant, but every effort helps, said Trish Yasinsky.

“If everybody did one little thing, where would we be?” she said.

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