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Long IslandLI Life

Making room at The INN, in Hempstead

Rob Kammerer shares 35 years of memories from volunteering with the hungry and homeless at Mary Brennan Interfaith Nutrition Network.

Rob Kammerer stands in the food storage area

Rob Kammerer stands in the food storage area of the Mary Brennan INN soup kitchen in Hempstead, where he has been a volunteer for more than 30 years. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

Time marches on, moving from one moment to the next and transforming the present into the past. But as it moves on, it always leaves something behind — memories.

Years spent helping the hungry and the homeless at the nonprofit Interfaith Nutrition Network, or INN, in Hempstead have given longtime volunteer Rob Kammerer lots of unforgettable moments and experiences.

The INN was founded in 1983 by a group of volunteers who established a soup kitchen at a church to feed those in need. Word spread as Long Islanders in other communities wanted to do likewise.

The Mary Brennan INN soup kitchen serves 300 to 400 people a day five days a week. Hot meals and the warmth of hospitality fed many a soul, but volunteers eventually realized that hunger was not the only need that required attention. The INN’s mission has grown over the years to include temporary shelters and long-term housing. In 2016, the Center for Transformative Change opened, offering clients help in obtaining birth certificates, Social Security cards and other identifying documents, immigration and legal services, heating and food stamp benefits, adult tutoring, job training and interview and other employment services.

Kammerer, of Huntington, is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in East Elmhurst, Queens. He has been a volunteer at the INN since 1983, after hearing about the need for volunteers and wanting to help. He is married to Jean Kelly, the INN’s executive director. She helped him put his money where his mouth is.

“I think I was always an idealistic person thanks to my parents,” he said. “I talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk,” something he said his friends had chided him about.

At the first meeting, Kammerer signed up to help out at the soup kitchen. His future wife was designated the temporary volunteer coordinator, and her job was to call those who signed up and schedule a day for them to volunteer at the soup kitchen. Kammerer recalled that Kelly called him many times and that he didn’t respond, until the day she left a message on his answering machine informing him of the date and time she had penciled him in to show up.

Within a year they were married. “We were the first INN couple,” he said, adding that there have been quite a few others over the years.

Kammerer has been on the INN’s board of directors for more than 20 years and volunteers at the soup kitchen based on his teaching schedule. He thrives on the connections made over the years.

“I’m definitely a people person, and people register in my memory bank,” Kammerer said. “I think it’s part of my nature; I want to try and be nice to people if it makes their day better. If I can be nice and make someone’s day better, I’m happy to do that.”

2009: A FITTING CONTRIBUTION

There is an adage that goes something like this: “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

One day at The INN’s clothing boutique, a mom and daughter (about 10 years old) were shopping for a back-to-school outfit. The little girl was looking at the gently used shoes and saw a pair she liked.

Her mom suggested she try them on. She went over to the side of the room, sat on the floor and put them on. They fit, and she really liked them. She walked back to her mom wearing her “new shoes” and put her old shoes on the shelf with the others. Her mom asked, “What are you doing?”

The little girl said, “Well, there might be another little girl who would like my old shoes.” This little girl obviously was given much — not material things, but love.

2016: WAY MORE THAN A BUSHEL OF HELP

It was a quiet Saturday morning at the Mary Brennan INN . . . and then the phone rang. On a normal Saturday in February, the call would’ve gone straight to voicemail, but I happened to be there with four other volunteers — two moms, each with a daughter.

I picked up the phone, and the caller asked, “Are you open today?”

“Yes,” I replied. “We’ll probably be here for about an hour.”

To which he replied: “I have some fresh oranges to donate. Would you like them?” Knowing that fresh fruit is a special treat for the INN’s guests, I quickly said, “Yes.”

“It’s a lot,” he cautioned.

“How much is a lot?” I asked, playing the straight man.

“Thirty-thousand pounds — a tractor-trailer full,” he replied.

Pausing for a few seconds, still thinking of the guests but certainly not thinking logically, I said, “OK, bring ’em over.”

The caller was a local trucker who had picked up a load of oranges in Florida for a Long Island delivery. For some reason, when he got to New York, the shipper said he no longer needed them, and told the driver to “do whatever you want with them.” That’s when the driver called The INN.

Counting all five volunteers there that day, our total weight barely exceeded 500 pounds — 500 pounds of muscle power unloading 30,000 pounds of oranges? Miracles can happen.

When the driver arrived and saw the five of us ragamuffins, he did not laugh, if I remember correctly. I think he cried.

Little by little, though, we unloaded box after box of wonderful, fresh oranges. Each of the three adults made emergency calls to friends who might be willing to help. There were a few takers, and several hours later, mission accomplished.

The following week, the guests were treated to oranges every day, and by the end of the week, each of them had a lovely orange glow to their complexion.

2017: FINDING JUST THE RIGHT ‘SPOT’

Near the Mary Brennan INN in Hempstead, there used to be a somewhat dilapidated concrete stoop that was exposed to the weather every day of the year.

On those fortunate days when the sky was clear, the stoop was in direct sunlight.

Sinclair could be found sitting there most days. On sunny days, he would strike the relaxed pose of a man without a care in the world. On cold, dreary days, he would sit rigid and still. This was Sinclair’s daytime “spot.”

His nighttime spot was, well, indeterminate. Sinclair, although very personable, was very quiet about where he spent his nights. One thing for sure, he did not have a roof over his head between sunset and sunrise.

The volunteers and staff at The INN knew Sinclair well and wanted to help him.

But two things had to happen first: A trusting relationship had to be built, and Sinclair had to be ready to be helped. Patience sometimes works out well.

Sinclair eventually came to The INN’s Center for Transformative Change, a building next to the soup kitchen where guests can get help with everything from free clothing to preparing a job resume. He first received help in re-establishing his identity. From this point on, an amazing number of pieces fell into place. Among them, he found out he was entitled to Social Security benefits, and because of his age, he was eligible for senior housing.

After moving into his housing, Sinclair came back to visit the center. He said it was nice not having to worry about where he could go to the bathroom.

“Well, I have to go home now,” he said. Then he added: “That’s nice, too. I used to say, ‘I have to go to my spot now.’ ”

1998: AN UNTIMELY FUMBLE

For many years, the New York Jets had their practice facility on the Hofstra University campus in Hempstead. And for many years, New York Jets players volunteered at the nearby Mary Brennan INN.

They often volunteered during Thanksgiving week, helping us distribute donated turkeys to the guests.

An assembly line of volunteers would move frozen, 20-pound turkeys from the walk-in freezer to the guests waiting by the front door. One of the first tasks was to place the turkey in a plastic bag, like the ones you get in the supermarket.

One year, I was near the end of the line, passing the bagged turkeys to Aaron Glenn, a Pro Bowl cornerback who played for the Jets from 1994 to 2001.

After passing about 100 turkeys to Aaron, I grabbed the handles of the next bag, and to my surprise — shock is a better word — the plastic handles ripped and a 20-pound frozen turkey was plummeting toward Aaron’s foot, like a giant rock.

If it hit his foot, it definitely would have broken a bunch of bones, and he would have been out for the season. The headline could have read: Turkey drops turkey, Glenn out for season!

Very fortunately, the turkey missed his foot. But neither of us laughed.

2016: LISTENING WITH LOVE AND EXPRESSING IT, TOO

In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Bob Dylan sang, “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?”

At the Mary Brennan INN, being a good listener is an important skill for so many reasons. I will relate only one.

Answering the phone on a Friday afternoon, I heard the voice of a well-spoken and articulate woman. She asked if this was the Mary Brennan INN, and I said it was.

Hearing her voice, my mind fast-forwarded in one direction, but that quickly came to a screeching halt.

She proceeded to tell me that as a result of a medical disability, she had lost her job. Her benefits had run out. She lived alone. Her one child, who was an adult, had stopped talking to her and was trying to take her house from her. She had no income.

“I am lost, I don’t know what to do, I am afraid of what might happen to me,” she said.

She started to cry uncontrollably (and I almost did too). It was so sad.

Fortunately, I realized the best thing I could do in that very painful moment was to listen.

And after listening, I tried my hardest to respond with comforting words.

I don’t know if this helped, but I even told her that I loved her.

I told her The INN had professional staff who could help her and gave her the name and phone number of one of The INN’s social workers.

I think and I hope that my listening made a difference in her life.

I’m glad I was there to answer the phone.

1996: MEMORIES OF MICHAEL

I have so many memories of Michael. He was quite a character.

Michael lived on the streets. He pushed a fully loaded shopping cart around when that was still stylish among street people. He wore a long, heavy black coat year-round. It was covered with buttons, but not the ones you button. These said “Vote for Nixon” or “Have a Nice Day.”

At the Mary Brennan INN soup kitchen, there is a no-questions-asked policy out of respect for those we serve. We do, however, encourage volunteers to be good listeners.

One day Michael was eating lunch, and I sat across from him. I listened as he talked about fun things — weather and sports. Earlier that day, The INN had a “free flea market,” and Michael had a large number of plastic bags filled with things he had found “interesting.”

As I was leaving, I asked if I could help him with his bags. He looked a little puzzled. Then, he looked out the window at his fully loaded shopping cart, and then he looked at me. “Yes, I think you could figure how to load one of these bags on my cart,” he said. “Here, can you bring this bag out for me?” Which I did, very respectfully.

At Christmastime, many people donate new toys for the children at The INN. Although The INN is interfaith, we have found every child loves having a new toy for Christmas.

This particular day, I had picked up a large bag of donated toys and was taking them to the office on the second floor, above the soup kitchen.

As I was walking up the stairs, Michael was coming down. He had a beautiful, childlike curiosity. He looked inside the bag and noticed a plastic model train kit.

He asked, very gently and kindly, if he could have the train. I said, “I’m sorry, Michael, these are for children.” He replied, “But I never had trains when I was a child.”

That was a tough call.

Michael was a Vietnam War veteran. He also had problems with alcohol.

The INN worked very, very patiently with Michael, trying to get him to go to rehab at the VA hospital in Northport. He finally agreed. And this time he actually showed up when the cab was waiting.

He was in the back seat when I came out to wish him luck. He looked and sounded excited. This was going to be a new adventure.

He asked if I could buy him a pack of cigarettes before he left.

Normally I would never do that, for health reasons, but this time I made an exception. I bought him cigarettes and came back to the cab.

Michael then said, “I’m going to be out there for several weeks. I may need to buy some cigarettes at the PX. Do you have $20 I can have?”

I went back into the office and got $20 from my wife. (I have a bad habit of not carrying money with me.)

When I gave it to Michael, he said with a totally serious look, “Is this a gift or a loan?”

I told him it was a gift.

I so much would like to end this story on a happy note, but that would not be telling you how “the other half” really lives.

Michael came back from rehab a new man. He had reconnected with an old Army buddy and was going to move to California to live with him. A new start. He just needed a place to live for a month or two before heading out West. So The INN helped him find a nearby second-floor apartment.

No one could have known Michael was now in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The gentleman living in the apartment below him had a flare-up with his adult daughter. That night, she returned and threw a lit bottle of gasoline through her father’s window. The father perished. Michael survived seven more days.

The last time I saw Michael was at the Nassau University Medical Center burn unit. He had his own room.

Ten years on the street, he is fine. Not even 10 days living in a home . . .

2004: KIDS GET SOME GARDENING TIME UNDERFOOT

When a family arrives at one of The INN’s emergency shelters, both parents and children are given special care and attention.

For the children, this means providing as normal a life as possible. For them, normal is special.

So, if their birthday is next Tuesday, they will have a birthday party. If they need a computer to do their homework, a computer is available. If they want to play with their little brother, there is a playroom.

In the corner of the backyard at the Edna Moran INN shelter, there is a lovely spot for a vegetable garden.

The soil is rich and dark, and it’s a sunny spot. We decided this is where our very “normal” garden would go.

All the children staying in the shelter were invited to dig and plant. “Farm to table” might be difficult for children to appreciate, but “digging and dirt” sound like fun.

On a sunny Tuesday in early May, everyone was assembled and ready. Digging up the grass and raking the soil came first. Then came planting. There were tomato, bell pepper and cucumber seedlings, along with pea seeds (easy for children to handle).

We divided into teams — three teams of boys ages 3 to 6, and a 9-year-old girl with me. (She did not want to be with the boys.) The boys started with the peas along the fence. Michele and I started with the tomato plants. We planted a nice long row, turned around and saw the boys had accidentally trampled all the tomatoes.

This process pretty much repeated itself for the rest of the afternoon — Michele and I planted, the boys trampled. (I think Michele had a premonition about this.)

One personal highlight came when Michele noticed some ants and said to me, “Look, the ants are going down a crevice.” I was thrilled to hear that kind of vocabulary from a 9-year-old.

Even though the garden was “defeeted,” we had a good time.

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