Paul Todaro stepped out of the green Long Island Cares van in Bohemia and swung open the back doors, revealing a cooler filled with bags of frozen vegetables. He grabbed a bag, walked up to a small entryway and rang a doorbell, just like he’s done every other Thursday for the past three years.
A man in a red hooded sweatshirt with a long, white beard answered the door and welcomed Todaro and his delivery partner, Don Riker, inside.
Todaro and Riker spend the next 45 minutes talking to Sanford, who's better known as “Sandy,” on everything from Riker’s new girlfriend to pinball machines. Sandy was a pinball machine salesman in Manhattan before retiring and says he even sold a machine to John Lennon for his son, Julian.
After five years of volunteering as a driver for the Long Island Cares mobile pantry program, Todaro’s close relationship with Sandy and several others along his route have become the norm. He says he has come to see many of the clients as friends.
Long Island Cares, which has thousands of volunteers registered, started the program out of their Hauppague warehouse in 2010 to deliver food to homebound Long Island seniors and veterans who were unable to visit a food pantry. The program currently serves about 84 people, according to Jessica Rosati, chief program officer at Long Island Cares and the creator of the program. About 56,000 Long Islanders utilize the organization's services per year, which include according to LI Cares CEO Paule Pachter.
Aside from simply providing food to Long Islanders in need, Todaro said there is also a therapeutic nature to the work he and Riker do. "Obviously, one box of canned food every two weeks is not enough to sustain someone,” Todaro said. “The emotional sustenance that develops as a relationship is established has more significance. Over months and years we learn about each other’s families and histories and develop friendships that benefit both the client and the volunteer.”
“Sometimes, we get more out of it than they do,” he said with a smile.
Some clients prefer to keep their relationships with Todaro and Riker strictly professional. On those deliveries, Todaro will ring the doorbell and wait a moment before placing the groceries on the front mat if nobody answers. Other clients ask Todaro to just drop the box at a specific spot.
But most of the people on his route know Todaro by his first name and invite the retired Bay Shore Middle School health teacher -- who now coaches middle school baseball -- into their homes. Todaro said he cares about all of the clients he has grown to know, and worries about them when he doesn’t see or hear from them regularly.
After so many years of volunteering, Todaro has a routine. Every other Thursday, he wakes up early and heads to the Long Island Cares facility in Hauppauge, where he meets his delivery partner, Riker, a retired LIRR procurement department employee. Riker usually drives and Todaro calls ahead to each client to make sure they stay on schedule. The men typically visit about a dozen families and single senior citizens on their western Suffolk route between Brentwood, Islip, Bay Shore and Bohemia, many of whom have been regular clients for years.
Todaro and Riker know each other well after meeting several years ago as volunteers at Long Island Cares’ sorting facility, where they spent hours packing boxes of canned goods and groceries. After Todaro’s longtime delivery partner left, Riker joined his friend on the mobile pantry route.
Riker said at first many of the clients were reluctant to let him into their homes and their lives the way they had already accepted Todaro. But he has slowly been gaining their trust with each new delivery.
“For the most part, I'm still the ‘new guy,’ but the clients have been very welcoming to me,” he said. “We hear about their lives, children and accomplishments. They always enjoy talking to us.”
At one stop, a Brentwood resident, Frances, invited the men into her home, where she was baby-sitting her granddaughter, who sat in a pink carrier in the middle of the living room. Frances talked about her daughter, who’s an attorney, and the men caught her up on their lives.
Before leaving, Todaro asked Frances how a tomato plant he gave her several months ago was doing — Well, she said. He then told her he’d miss the next delivery, since he was taking a road trip with his wife and daughter to Arizona.
Before leaving, he gave Frances a hug and told her he’d see her in a few weeks.
Editor’s note: On June 21, as part of Newsday’s Day in the Life of Long Island project, we visited Long Island Cares in Hauppauge and did a ride-along with volunteers for the organization’s mobile food pantry program. If you're interested in finding out more about Long Island Cares or the mobile pantry program, contact Michael Cusanelli at Michael.Cusanelli@newsday.com. You can reach LI Cares at 631-582-3663.