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Homemakers Council builds bonds through good deeds

Homemakers Council of Nassau County members with their

Homemakers Council of Nassau County members with their handicrafts. Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

For women looking for camaraderie and a chance to help others, the Homemakers Council of Nassau County offers both in abundance. The friendships members make and the skills they learn keep many of them involved. Some daughters have even followed their mother’s lead and joined the group.

“My mother was in Homemakers and I always wanted to join, but I was working,” said Mary Jo Monaco, 73, of Rockville Centre. “Once I retired [from nursing], I joined along with a friend.”

That was 10 years and countless memories ago. “It’s a wonderful group, and it keeps me busy,” Monaco added. “I talk to people about it a lot. ‘You don’t really understand how much they do,’ I tell them.”

She remembers her mother, Miriam Fryer, who was in the Uniondale chapter, cooking things she had learned at a Homemakers meeting, and working on a fur coat. “I don’t think that ever got put back together, though,” she said, with a laugh, of the coat.

Arlene Raschdorf, 84, of Rockville Centre, enjoys the camaraderie and the chance to do good things for others. She chatted as she embroidered the nose and eyes onto a stuffed felt bunny that will be distributed to a hospitalized child, and pointed to a completed cloth Surgi-Doll wearing a green-checked gingham dress.

“We feel like we’re helping someone and doing something good,” Raschdorf said. “We give these Surgi-Dolls to children in the hospital, and the doctor can put a Band-Aid or a mark on it where they’re going to have surgery.”

Raschdorf joined the Rockville Centre chapter four years ago after her husband died. “I like the fellowship and being with people. I don’t like just sitting around at home,” she said.

The Homemakers Council of Nassau County will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. Its 15 chapters and 875 members share goals and values, but each chapter has its own personality and routines. Chapters generally hold meetings weekly from September through May, mostly following the school calendar, and some continue to meet socially during the summer. There’s an executive board that meets monthly, and all chapter presidents meet every other month.

Education remains a big component of the Homemakers program, and reflects its roots as a home-training program for women started in 1917 through Cornell University to share up-to-date information from Cornell and other land grant colleges and universities across the country. Members started a Home Bureau, mirroring their husbands’ involvement in the Farm Bureau, to “share their know-how and talents with each other to improve their homes and help in the community. They also wanted to enlarge their circle of friends,” according to a group history. Initially, members focused on canning and instruction on making draperies and slipcovers. As farming became less dominant and suburbia grew, the group’s focus gradually shifted to crafts, quilting and cooking. The group’s needs evolved, and in 1967 its affiliation with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County changed. It adopted the name Nassau County Homemakers, then in 1982 incorporated as the Homemakers Council of Nassau County. Today it maintains ties with Cornell Cooperative Extension, but it controls its own programming.

Members are craft-oriented, practical and community minded. Throughout the year, they knit and crochet “preemie” hats for premature babies, red scarves to distribute to women in hospitals being treated for heart disease and lap blankets they distribute to veterans. They also collect bras and underwear to donate to hospitals for distribution to rape victims who must leave clothing behind as evidence, and cotton socks and greeting cards for veterans.

The groups also are responsive to needs that members learn about. Its 10,000 Fingers program began when Cathy Lupo, 63, a member of the Carle Place chapter who is serving her third term as council president, learned that many waiting in line for food at the Mary Brennan INN soup kitchen in Hempstead often didn’t have winter gloves to help fend off the cold. Homemaker members now collect at least 1,000 pairs of gloves to donate each year.

At a recent Rockville Centre chapter meeting, several projects were underway. The chapter’s 84 members — who meet Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the John A. Anderson Recreation Center — sat scattered around a large room in groups according to the project they were working on. There was instruction on how to make flat Christmas tree ornaments and a cooking demonstration on how to make a macaroni-and-cheese ring, while others busied themselves quilting, crocheting squares for a blanket and sewing Surgi-Dolls.

To fund all these projects, as well as the scholarships that many chapters provide to local high schools, chapters hold auctions, fashion shows and luncheons and sell raffle tickets for gift baskets they put together. Recent fundraisers included the Lynbrook/Hewlett-Woodmere chapter’s Halloween-themed Boo Bingo at the Greis Park Recreation Center in Lynbrook; the Rockville Centre chapter’s fashion show; and the Merrick South Shore chapter’s country auction with a plant and cake sale. Organizations that benefit from the Homemakers’ efforts include the Ronald McDonald House, Mommas House for teenage mothers in Wantagh, Bethany House for homeless women and children, Wounded Warriors, the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless and Cory Cares, a nonprofit started by a teen boy that donates to food pantries.

Virginia Grandazza of Rockville Centre, a retired office worker who belongs to both the Baldwin and Rockville Centre Homemakers chapters, said she likes the nonprofit’s welcoming feel and that “it’s not cliquey.” Grandazza has logged 26 years with Homemakers, 10 years in the 1970s before she went back to work, and 16 years this time around. She teaches needlepoint, and also has served as an officer of a local chapter and on the executive board. “I grew as a person because of that,” she said. “When you become president, you have so many responsibilities. I learned so much. I never knew that I could organize and run things.”

One event all the chapters support is Homemakers’ annual tradition of decorating a 6 1⁄2-foot-tall Christmas tree for charity. During the holidays, each Nassau chapter provides six ornaments for the tree, and many of them also decorate close to 300 tabletop trees. All are sold, along with wreaths made by Homemakers members, at the Long Island Festival of Trees, which this year is Nov. 25-27 at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City. Proceeds benefit Cerebral Palsy Nassau, the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County.

“They are a spectacular group of volunteers,” said Robert McGuire, executive director of CP Nassau. “They are a wonderful group of generous ladies who do this out of the goodness of their hearts. We’re delighted they chose us to help, and as a result we’re better off.”

Push for new members

Suffolk residents can also join Homemakers chapters near them. There are 27 in the Suffolk County Homemakers Council, according to Barbara Zinna, 78, of Mount Sinai, president of the Suffolk group’s executive board and a member of the Miller Place chapter. Suffolk’s Homemakers chapters separated from Cornell Cooperative Extension in the mid-1980s.

On Long Island, most members in Nassau and Suffolk are in their 60s, officers said. In trying to attract younger members, the Nassau organization is considering ways to get its name and events more widely known. The nonprofit doesn’t have a website, but chapters sometimes post photos to the group’s Homemakers Council of Nassau County Facebook page, and several chapters have their own Facebook pages. In Suffolk County, the Miller Place chapter has a web page that one of its members put together to highlight some of its activities.

Younger members, such as those with children in high school or college, are joining, and Lupo hopes interest will spread as they tell their friends. The days when some of the larger chapters had 100-plus members and there were waiting lists to join are long gone. “The problem is women work and don’t have time to go to homemakers meetings,” Lupo said.

Terry Schmitt, 51, of Rockville Centre, whose sons are in 7th and 11th grades, is in her second year of membership at the Rockville Centre chapter. She saw a notice in her church bulletin and thought it would be fun to learn how to cook different dishes, and it also offered something to do on a Tuesday when she wasn’t at her part-time insurance job. “Then I met three ladies here and we’ve become good friends,” Schmitt said. “And I was trying to learn some new skills. All the knowledge that these women have, I’d love to learn how to do all that stuff.”

Some chapters hold evening meetings to accommodate various schedules. Out of the 15 Nassau chapters, four hold evening meetings, while seven of 28 chapters in Suffolk do so. Yearly dues range from $13 to $25 and are set by each chapter, but all Nassau chapter dues include fees that cover insurance the council purchases for each chapter, as well as the Cooperative Extension bulletin.

Dawn Avento, who works at Cooperative Extension in Jericho and fields questions about the Homemakers group, also belongs to the Lynbrook/Hewlett-Woodmere evening Homemakers chapter. She has been a member since 2001 and served a three-year term as chapter president. The tie between Cooperative Extension and Homemakers still binds, she said.

“If you ask them for something, they come through with it,” Avento said. “I never have to ask twice.”

Last year she requested sewing machines and received six new ones. She also got six volunteers to teach 45-minute craft projects for a special day camp at the Dorothy P. Flint 4-H Camp in Riverhead. “We had a great time and we got a really nice reception from the kids,” Avento said.

The group wanted to offer a craft made from recyclable items, so one of the projects was beach bags to hold wet swimsuits made from plastic 6-pack ring holders. Campers wove them together to make the bags. “The boys responded, too; they all made one,” Avento said.

Homemakers take to heart much of the Homemakers Creed that many chapters recite before each meeting: “The purpose of this council is to help me grow as a person and a responsible member of the community.”

“And where else are you going to have so much fun?” asked Ann Spatarella of Franklin Square, a member of the Franklin Square chapter, as the group sat around the lunch table at its recent Food and Nutrition meeting at St. Andrews Lutheran Church in West Hempstead. Members swapped recipes of items they brought based around that month’s fall harvest theme. Next up on Spatarella’s horizon is the December cookie exchange.

Carrie Baumgardner, 55, of Franklin Square, wanted to learn how to knit and crochet five years ago when she joined the Franklin Square chapter, which has 17 members. “I made baby blankets, and lap robes for the children in wheelchairs,” she said. I must have made a dozen of them.”

Baumgardner said she also likes the cooking recipes members exchange in the Food and Nutrition class the chapter offers each month. “Believe me, they have some great recipes,” she said.

But it’s the friendships that keep her coming back. “They’re very special to me,” Baumgardner said. “When someone’s sick they call to make sure we’re OK, and when you’re sick they make soup for you. We all stick together.”

Sign me up

The Homemakers Council of Nassau County has 15 chapters, and membership is open to anyone over 18 who enjoys crafts, handiwork, community service and meeting new people. Chapters generally meet weekly from September through May.

Members are selling raffle tickets to raise funds for their community -service projects and holding fundraising events. A 6 1⁄2-foot tall Christmas tree with handmade ornaments crafted by members will be for sale, along with homemade wreaths and ornaments, at the 27th annual Long Island Festival of Trees in November. The event will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 25-26, and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 27 at the Cradle of Aviation Museum in Garden City.

For more information on joining a Nassau chapter, contact Karen at 516-318-6771.

You might consider . . .

The Suffolk County Homemakers Council, which has 27 chapters. Members enjoy making crafts and doing community service projects. The council publishes a newsletter, offers scholarships to students, provides guest speakers and collects food for local pantries. The Miller Place chapter is planning its annual holiday dinner, scheduled for November.

Contact: Barbara Zinna, president of the Suffolk County Homemaker’s Council executive board, 631-928-9849

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The Junior League of Long Island, a group for women over age 21 that promotes volunteerism and helps develop women’s potential and improve communities through the leadership of trained volunteers. The group is based in Roslyn, and membership of the combined Nassau-Suffolk group numbers about 200. The group’s initiatives include Project Playground, where members help fund and build playgrounds; Kids in the Kitchen, an annual health fair; and the yearly First Step program, where women entering the workforce for the first time attend a weekend training program. Members meet monthly in Roslyn and maintain a thrift shop there. The proceeds help support the league’s various community projects.

Contact: 516-484-0485; jlli.org; JLLongIsland@yahoo.com

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For more information on volunteer opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org

Volunteer Spotlight: Cathy Lupo

Cathy Lupo has been involved with the Homemakers Council of Nassau County since 1987, when she joined the Carle Place chapter along with four friends.

“There were five of us in a car, driving out to Carle Place,” recalled Lupo, 63, of Roslyn. “We all rode together. I got attached, so I’m still there.”

Lupo is president of the Nassau council and in the past held officer positions in the Carle Place chapter. “I’ve been in Homemakers since my daughter was born,” she said. “It was a break, a place to go for women raising their kids. It was a way to get out of the house, and you could talk about things.”

Lupo is making it a point to visit all 15 Nassau chapters while she’s council president, along the way collecting ideas she can share with other chapters. “It’s my baby, I’ve been in it for so long,” she said.

Lupo’s passion for helping others is contagious. The council’s “10,000 Fingers” program — which collects and distributes gloves — was started after she realized many of those waiting in the cold in lines at local soup kitchens had no gloves. She has combined her efforts for the Homemakers and the Cerebral Palsy Association of Nassau County by running a booth selling wreaths and small tabletop trees her fellow Homemakers have decorated. The items are sold at the association’s annual Long Island Festival of Lights, and Lupo also volunteers at the association’s annual Elf Sale, where students at the association’s Children’s Learning Center can purchase holiday gifts — donated by the Homemakers Council — for their families using play money.

A favorite memory Lupo loves to share with other Homemakers involves a young man she helped at the Elf Sale for seven years who surprised her with a watercolor he painted. “He pulled a wrapped present out of his backpack for me — he painted it for me,” she said. “It was very touching and sweet.”

She also experienced the kindness and friendliness of members firsthand when she had surgery, she said, receiving many cards and messages of support. “We’re charitable to others and to our own,” she said. “We support each other. And the members are openhearted.

“It’s not for everybody,” she said of the council. “But for those it’s for, they’re in it for a long time.”

— KAY BLOUGH

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