On any given day, you’ll find the Rev. Kim Gaines-Gambino, president of Helping Hand Rescue Mission, presiding over the Huntington Station nonprofit organization, which serves about 250 families each week.
There, Gaines-Gambino might be setting up the food pantry, praying with patrons, picking up food donations, networking with other agencies, posting updates on social media or plotting future outreach.
"Need is never very far away," said Gaines-Gambino, 55, of Huntington Station. A member of the Full Gospel Fellowship of Churches & Ministers International, Helping Hand Rescue Mission has grown over the years to serve area residents through its food pantry, community closet (filled with clothes, toys and household items) and various outreach programs.
In an about-face as they were set to move to Amarillo, Texas, to pastor at Faith City Mission, Gaines-Gambino’s parents, the Revs. Rose Marie and J.A. Gaines, instead founded the mission 57 years ago.
While waiting to depart for Texas in two months’ time, the couple had learned from a local pastor about a Huntington family in dire straits: the children were malnourished, their mother sick and father drinking to excess.
After providing food, cleaning the home and ministering to the family, the Gaineses wondered whether there were other needy families in the community. Her father reasoned, Gaines-Gambino said, " ’Why are we going halfway across the country when there’s need right here in Huntington?’ "
Broke, but bolstered by the belief that God had called them to their life’s work, the couple opened Helping Hand Rescue Mission in November 1965 in a storefront on New York Avenue in Huntington Station.
With assistance from friends, family and members of nearby churches, Helping Hand began to provide families with food, clothing and school supplies through small donations and a $50 monthly stipend toward the $120 monthly rent from Bob Vanelzas, a resident who drove past the mission each day on his way to the train station. Vanelzas supported the mission for years until he retired to Florida.
Gaines-Gambino said her parents "wanted to be able to have the mission, so they did whatever it took." Her father also worked as a chef and night watchman; her mother, as a saleswoman.
From the time she was 6 weeks old, Gaines-Gambino was a regular at the mission. "Our family life and mission life were pretty much one and the same," she recalled. After school, on weekends and during summer vacations, Gaines-Gambino and her brother were there, stuffing envelopes, cleaning, stocking shelves and sharing toys with kids who didn’t have their own.
"We were involved in whatever was happening there," she said. "When they went out and spoke at churches or organizations about the mission, we often went with them. In my latter teen years, I occasionally spoke about the mission at various events."
Later, Gaines-Gambino would move to Nashville with her husband so that the pair could minister to a church youth group. She returned to Long Island in 2006; her marriage had ended and, as she spent more time with her folks, she found herself falling "in love with the mission and the people and the community."
Though her training included courses at Valley Forge Christian College and Regent University, and ministry certifications from Youth With a Mission, Gaines-Gambino says some of the best tutelage came from working for a decade alongside her mom and mentor, who had taken the helm at the mission after her husband’s death in 2010.
Gradually, Gaines-Gambino took on more responsibilities at Helping Hand, becoming president in January 2016, just after its 50th anniversary — and 14 months before her mother died. Gaines-Gambino left her job as pastor of Half Hollow Community Church in Dix Hills in 2020 to devote herself to the mission.
Serving a growing need
Over the years, as the mission grew to hold Sunday school, Bible studies, services and holiday events, it moved to larger quarters, settling at its current space on Broadway in 1968. In 1986, Helping Hand added a dining hall, which recently flooded after a pipe burst and will be out of commission for another 18 months or so. The compound also includes an outdoor pavilion, playground and basketball court where the organization hosts summer and fall family fun days. Over the years, community need has grown, from the 10 food baskets at the first Thanksgiving in 1965 to 100 baskets in the 1980s, 150 in the 1900s and 550 in 2016.
With help from Gary Fortmeyer, a computer-savvy volunteer, Gaines-Gambino began to digitize records in 2018, making it easier to register guests for programs, like the food pantry, and keep track of those served.
"It was a big learning curve for everybody, but it was something that really benefited the mission because we could see more of what was happening and make our plans," she said, adding that among the innovations is the ability to text reminders to clients about programs and notify them of services and availability of supplies.
Gaines-Gambino also established social media accounts and a website to help get the mission’s message to a larger audience.
In recent years, more and more people rely on the mission and other Long Island food pantries to meet their needs, she said. "There’s a larger working-poor class now: people that are working and they just can’t make ends meet. They try, but they just can’t pay their bills," she explained.
Volunteering at the food pantry, Grace Lopez, who speaks Spanish and French to clients from Latin America, Mexico, Colombia, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, also prepares words of inspiration each morning, "to share at least five minutes and encourage them and give them hope and pray with them."
Recently, Lopez said, she comforted a Salvadoran woman whose 35-year-old son died from COVID-19. "When she comes, I’m able to share with her and pray. And, she feels better," said Lopez, 41, of Deer Park, who works as a cosmetics saleswoman.
Tested by pandemic
Before March 2020, about 85 families came to the food pantry every two weeks to pick up 40-pound packages of rice, beans, pasta, cereal, bread, milk, eggs, meat, produce and other staples.
"All of a sudden the pandemic happened, and we were serving 300 families a week," Gaines-Gambino said, adding that for about seven weeks, they served 500 families; they are now down to between 225 and 260 per week.
"That’s still incredible growth, going from 83 in 2020 to 250 in 2022," said Gaines-Gambino, who attributes increased need to inflation, people losing their jobs or having their hours reduced during the pandemic, and others who work seasonal jobs, like landscaping, being out of work.
For Thanksgiving 2021, Helping Hand served 1,200 families, instituting a "Fill a Box, Feed a Family" program, in which people "adopted" families in need by donating food items and $20 gift cards for turkeys.
"That was an amazing, amazing gift from our community to the mission and to the people that we serve. And that was a real blessing," Gaines-Gambino said.
At Christmas, they presented gifts to more than 1,000 children through donations from community members.
Ecumenical partnerships with neighboring organizations have proved most effective, particularly during the pandemic. With its food pantry temporarily closed, the Mid-Island YJCC in Plainview donated carloads of food as well as toys, backpacks and coats. Huntington Jewish Center provided thousands of pounds of produce through donations from congregants.
Early in the pandemic, Dan Diviney, retired youth minister of St. Hugh of Lincoln in Huntington Station and director of Project Hope, a food donation program run through St. Hugh, called Gaines-Gambino to glean whether they needed additional food supplies.
"Since that time, we’ve received milk, eggs, USDA boxes and other items that [Diviney] has available, including thousands of pounds of rice and beans," Gaines-Gambino said.
When COVID-19 hit, many altruistic people at local organizations stepped up and worked together to ensure that people were being fed, he said, adding, "And Kim is a perfect example of that."
Programs such as Baby Blessings, a monthly distribution of diapers, wipes and lunches, that attract large groups have been held at Huntington Assembly of God in Huntington Station, which has large indoor and outdoor spaces. For many months, Helping Hand also offered drive-through meals, made possible by donations and a grant from World Central Kitchen (the nonprofit founded in 2010 by celebrity chef José Andrés), at Assembly of God and plans to use its facilities to host English-as-a-second-language classes this fall.
Assembly of God’s Pastor Danny Rivera offered his space to the mission when he saw how the program, which started with 16 moms in the fall of 2017, had expanded in six months to serve 60 moms — and had outgrown its space.
"It gives [people in need] hope that what they’re doing is right, and we hope that it will give them just a little help as they continue to improve themselves," Rivera said. "At our church we have a rule: whatever Kim wants, Kim gets."
Looking to expand
For the next 10 or 15 years, Gaines-Gambino hopes to expand the mission’s programs and reach.
"A dream of mine would be to see some of the programs we have here at the mission replicated in other places," she said, referring to Baby Blessings and the community closet. "A real dream would be to have another Helping Hand Rescue Mission on the Island, maybe on the South Shore."
Community Share Day, when people brought carloads of toys and clothing to share with others one day in September 2021, is another program Gaines-Gambino would like to see replicated. That day, Gaines-Gambino observed a little girl donating her American Girl dolls: "When I saw her give those to two little girls and her face just light up, I was like, there, that’s what it is: that connection of ‘I’m helping these little girls with a doll.’ "
Though the need keeps growing, Gaines-Gambino says she’s undeterred. "Knowing that God is helping, I don’t get discouraged. I wake up in the morning and I’m ready to go," she said.
Gaines-Gambino says she is buoyed by community support.
"Every day we get to see the great people that live around us, and we get to see the wonderful things that they want to help to do," she said. "And we get to see the families that are impacted by their generosity."
Who will take over the mission from Gaines-Gambino is an open question. She has two sons from her first marriage: Drew Chadwick, 29, of Amityville, a music producer and playwright who works at the mission part time; and Mattison Chadwick, 25; she also has three stepchildren with her husband, Andrew Gambino.
Gaines-Gambino’s brother, Matt Gaines, 52, who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, and works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, serves on the mission’s board.
Recalling her mother’s dying wish that the mission continue to be a light in the community, Gaines-Gambino echoes her mother’s sentiments. "I will carry the torch for my leg of this journey and trust that someone will be raised up to do it in the future," she said.
Lend a hand
Visit hhrm.org to make a donation or volunteer. Clothing and food donations are accepted at 225 Broadway, Huntington Station, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday; 10 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday; 10 to 11 a.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday; and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday.