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Storm makes church volunteers dinner guests

Island Park residents Veronica Dalton, second from the

Island Park residents Veronica Dalton, second from the left, on line with one of her two sons, Sean, 11, for a Thanksgiving dinner made available to local residents at the Sacred Heart Parish Center in Island Park. (Nov. 22, 2012) Credit: Newsday/ J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

Every year, volunteers at the Sacred Heart Church in Island Park have baked pies, cooked turkeys and served guests at a free community Thanksgiving dinner.

But with their church flooded after superstorm Sandy and many parishioners' homes devastated, this year the volunteers became the recipients.

"It's the first year we're being served for a change," said Richard Hayes, a parishioner and president of the school board.

Dozens of volunteers converged at the church Thursday to serve a communal meal to Island Park residents inside the Sacred Heart Parish Center, which had been transformed into a holiday dining hall for hundreds of area families hardest hit by the storm.

Michael Ostrander, 58, a member of the church who had to flee his Island Park home after the storm, said he normally volunteers during Thanksgiving at the church, but this year he was able to just sit back and enjoy the turkey, mashed potatoes and other traditional holiday foods brought in by a caterer and sponsored by several companies.

"I pray for those souls who aren't here and are worse off. I feel lucky," he said.

The meal was the first time since Sandy that Ostrander has been able to see his friends and neighbors.

"I haven't seen anyone in three weeks -- the parish priest, everyone, all my friends," he said. "I find myself very fortunate to be able to be here with these people."

Like much of Island Park, the parish wasn't spared during Sandy. The parish center took on three feet of water during the storm, while the church itself wallowed in a foot of water. The lingering effects could be seen Thursday, with bare metal studs showing where office walls once had stood.

In the ensuing weeks, the parish has become a community center, hosting school board meetings and serving as a warming center.

The happy chaos of this Thanksgiving was overseen by the Rev. John Tutone, who wasn't deterred by the lack of telephones or the fact that the church sanctuary had to be gutted.

"I think any opportunity that the community has to gather together is very strengthening," Tutone said.

Inside the gym, tables in soft harvest colors were set with festive centerpieces, coloring books and crayons, and gift boxes full of tiny flashlights.

Tutone signaled the beginning of the meal by ringing a set of small bells, then led a communal prayer.

"Help us not miss the things we have lost," Tutone prayed. "As long as we have people, that's what makes life good."

Faith, prayer and Tutone's comforting words have helped Luvi Soberano through the storm's aftermath.

Soberano, 55, of Island Park, dined alone at the church -- her husband and son were using the day off to gut the family's home.

She said she was reminded of the Titanic while watching water flood into her home during Sandy. The family also lost three cars, in addition to many belongings.

"The bottom line -- we have our lives, we have God, and that's it," Soberano said. "I'm the wife, I'm the mom -- I have to be strong."

Maria Sakaris traveled from her home in Rockville Centre to eat with the Island Park community. Sakaris said she grew up in Island Park, and had never seen devastation so bad there after a storm.

"When I lived here, one year we had rowboats in the street," Sakaris said. "This time it really took them."

The meal relied on dozens of volunteers, including Debbie Mcknight, who traveled from her home in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J.

Mcknight, 45, who grew up in Levittown and works for United Water, one of the meal's sponsors, said she cooked her own Thanksgiving meal on Wednesday night. Thursday morning was reserved for setting up tables, making crafts with children, and other tasks.

"This was definitely the year to do it. Watching people lose everything is heartbreaking," she said. "This feels better than sitting at a table just eating for the day."


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