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From grief to generosity: Husband's death inspires Sharing Table in Commack

Rachel Gentile talks about the sense of renewal

Rachel Gentile talks about the sense of renewal she's experienced through volunteer work — and having her husband's shirts upcycled to be worn by family  — since his death in November 2020. 

When her husband, Bruce, died unexpectedly this past November after minor surgery, Rachel Gentile was devastated.

"They sent him home from the hospital within 24 hours," Gentile said. "And, within 12 hours of that, he never woke up on Thanksgiving morning."

An autopsy revealed that Bruce, 69, who had gone in to have a growth removed from his foot, had an enlarged heart that had stopped beating.

"When he died, I was lost," said Gentile, 59 of Commack. "It was right before Christmas. I had no holiday spirit."

Days later, Gentile read a post from Barbara Turtel on the Commack Moms’ Facebook page saying that she was looking for a prominent location to set up a Sharing Table, a location of the grassroots organization, started in Seaford by Mary Kate Tischler in November 2020, where people bring food, toiletries and cleaning supplies for others to take. Now a 501(c)(30) organization, Sharing Tables of the USA has grown to dozens of tables with locations on Long Island, in New York State and California.

As a single mother raising two sons who was on public assistance at one point, Turtel felt compelled to start a table because she empathizes with people in need.

"I just didn’t want anybody to suffer," said Turtel, 52, a designer who lives in Commack. "It was really about the community coming together."

Though she had never heard of Sharing Tables, Gentile answered Turtel’s post and volunteered what Gentile considered an ideal spot: the front of her home.

Recalling that early in her marriage she and her husband had experienced a few lean years, Gentile said, "With COVID and everything that it destroyed, I knew people were in need. I knew that a lot of people had been out of work for the year and don’t know which bills to pay first and what to do first. I know they have families to feed."

About a week before Christmas, the Sharing Table of Commack began with one table, five cans, two boxed mixes and two signs: "Sharing Table of Commack" and "Take What You Need and Leave What You Can, If you Can," the organization’s motto.

Too big for home

The initial plan was to run the table for a few weeks, to help people secure food for the holiday season.

"People started donating toys for kids and it evolved way beyond us," Gentile said.

Soon, people were showing up with cars full of donations, from diapers to supermarket gift cards, baby formula, cleaning supplies, paper goods, toiletries, and lots of food, even perishable items, which stayed fresh outside because of the cold winter.

"It was like the field of dreams: Build it and they will come," remarked Gentile.

Before long, the Sharing Table of Commack was no longer merely one table.

"We got one tent," Gentile said. "Then we got a canopy. Then we got another canopy. And then we got a carport. And, then my neighbors complained to the Town of Huntington."

When the town served them two weeks’ notice to vacate the space because of traffic safety concerns, Debbie Fields, a volunteer at the table, reached out to the Suffolk YJCC of Commack, where she also volunteers, to see if they could help. A meeting among Gentile, Turtel and Tina Block of the YJCC led to moving the table next to the organization’s food pantry.

"We are able to welcome each shopper with so many more options now for food, personal care items and links to social services that we never would have been able to without the Suffolk YJCC," said Fields, 63, a retired advertising executive who lives in Dix Hills. "In the end this all began from a seed of an idea, one small table in front of the Gentile home, and Rachel Gentile’s huge heart."

Since the YJCC had been running a food pantry, including delivering meals and groceries to seniors throughout the pandemic, incorporating the Sharing Table into its operation made perfect sense, noted Block, chief program officer for senior adults for the Commack organization.

"Our feeling was, this is a great extension of what we were already doing," Block said, adding that they have social workers on hand to help people who visit the Sharing Table access other support, such as medical, legal and counseling services. "For most people, if they’re coping with food insecurity, there are other things that they’re coping with: That’s not their only stress."

Volunteers can sign up to work at the table through the Suffolk YJCC’s website, which also has information for donors about what items are needed. The organization is in the process of finding sponsors for regular donations of milk, eggs and other staples, to ensure there’s a regular flow of items to the table and pantry.

Though the Commack table, which serves 30 to 40 people daily, is no longer at her home, Gentile stays involved.

"I go there every day, at least for a few hours a day. I try to volunteer as much as I can, because it’s medicine for me," Gentile said, adding that her brother died from COVID-19 in January. "So, it was a lot of losses, and it was a good way to turn lemons into lemonade and do something positive. I diverted all my attention to that."

Shirts and support

Another salve for Gentile’s and her family’s grief has been her husband’s old denim shirts, which she has had upcycled by a local business. Appliqués of a peace sign and poppies decorate the shirts, honoring her husband’s love of music and Woodstock.

"It’s so cathartic for my daughter; she doesn’t take them off," Gentile said. "And for myself, I love it, and my daughter-in-law even has one. When we wear it, it’s almost like his arms are wrapped around us. It’s amazing. They’re so special and so beautiful."

Charlotte Boutarel, Gentile’s daughter, has two of her dad’s shirts: One with an "evil eye" symbol, believed to protect the wearer from a curse; another with the Chanel double-C logo fashioned out of colorful butterfly designs,

"When my dad died, I had a really hard time with it — and I still do, it’s very fresh," said Boutarel, 30, an event planner who lives in Norwalk, Connecticut. "It gives me a small piece of him. He was a super simple man; he used to wear those shirts every day. It’s kind of like wearing a part of him."

Jodi Schubert, owner of Over the Edge boutique in Commack, who affixes the appliqués by hand and machine on the shirts, was happy to oblige.

"There’s so much negativity all the time that doing something nice for someone, and to get the response that I did from her, just makes you want to keep doing it and doing it," Schubert said.

Gentile, who was married for 35 years, also find solace through the YJCC’s bereavement group, which meets Monday evenings.

"It’s a very small, intimate Zoom meeting every week. And, that’s been extremely helpful," Gentile said. "I have the support of family and friends, obviously. Every day is a challenge, but it gets a little easier as the days progress."

"It’s a whole new experience that I didn’t think I’d be having so soon in life," she added.

It takes a village

Through social media, the YJCC’s network and students from local schools, a dedicated group of about 120 community members regularly chips in with the Sharing Table of Commack operation.

Among the groups is Sawmill Intermediate School in Commack.

In January the student council’s soup drive filled an entire SUV with instant noodles and ramen, said Michelle Dick, a third-grade teacher at the school.

"From there, I asked Rachel, ‘So, what more can I do?’ " said Dick, 49, of Hauppauge. "Because every weekend I bring food and supplies there myself. She said, ‘We’re really low on diapers.’ "

Dick responded with a successful diaper drive in February run by her class and school staff that was followed by an April drive, which resulted in another filled SUV — this time with boxes of cereal.

In June, the school will host another drive for whatever the Sharing Table needs at the time.

"There’s need all over the world, but there’s need right around our area," said Dick.

For her latest project, Gentile has added an outdoor, pop-up farmers market on the grounds of the YJCC that will run once a month.

"It’s going to be all produce. And, it’s all free," Gentile said.

Recently, Gentile said she experienced an epiphany while working at the Sharing Table of Commack when Kara, a mother of four who frequents the table, thanked her. By helping other people, Gentile realized, she is helping herself.

"I said to her, ‘Kara, can I please say thank you to you? Because without you, this wouldn’t mean anything to me.’

"It’s people like her that make it so worthwhile: people that are so grateful. It’s random acts of kindness each and every day. It’s an incredible feeling."

Give and take

WHAT Sharing Table of Commack at the Suffolk YJCC

WHERE 74 Hauppauge Rd., Commack; 631-462-9800; syjcc.org

WHEN 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday

MORE INFO To find other Sharing Tables on Long Island, visit facebook.com/TheSharingTablesUSA

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