Soup kitchens, churches and charities across Long Island opened their doors Thursday to serve a proper Thanksgiving feast to hundreds of people in need.
“Right now I’m living in the streets, but here, you’re in the warmth and off the streets, and I’m eating,” Donna Fonseca, 51, said at St. John the Evangelist Church in Center Moriches. “You’re in God’s protection here in this church. It’s a wonderful place. They’re out here trying to help people.”
Bishop John Barres — the head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre — was mingling with guests at the Roman Catholic church for a meal sponsored by Blanca’s House, a Huntington Station nonprofit that sent about 150 volunteers to three Suffolk County churches to serve meals to the needy and hand out coats.
Barres said the diners he met have “wisdom to share.”
“While people may be in the midst of some adverse circumstances, they always have their human dignity,” he said. “Part of Catholic teaching is to really respect that human dignity and serve individuals.”
At Copiague Spanish Seventh-day Adventist Church in Lindenhurst, church member Jennifer Cabrera, 31, and her husband and three children all volunteered to feed — and hand out coats to — about 200 people before the family traveled to Queens to celebrate the holiday with Cabrera’s mother.
“I want her to have an example for when she grows up to do the same,” Cabrera, 31, said as she stood next to her daughter, 8-year-old Dianna Espinal, who had helped pack up food for guests to take home. “It’s important to show kids that there are people in need, that even though we have the necessary things in our lives, other people don’t.”
In Bethpage, about 45 veterans gathered for a free Thanksgiving meal at B.K. Sweeney’s Parkside Restaurant.
For the past 25 years, the Jewish War Veterans have sponsored the annual Thanksgiving Day lunch for veterans living in Long Island and Queens, said Larry Sklar, an official with the Jewish War Veterans. The organization also provides transportation to and from the Bethpage restaurant.
“Most are in rehab programs or independent living homes and don’t have a place to go for a meal like this,” Sklar said.
Marine veteran Clarence Blowe said most of his family lived out of state, and so he was grateful not to have to spend Thanksgiving alone.
“I’m meeting a lot of great people,” said Blowe, 61, who’s currently living at the Northport V.A. “It’s definitely a pleasure.”
Meanwhile, dozens gathered for a free Thanksgiving meal and clothing giveaway at the Roosevelt Youth Center.
Volunteers served huge portions of macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes and turkey to the homeless, needy or people just looking to share a meal with others.
“With so many facing economic challenges, we felt it was important to help everybody celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday,” said Pastor Arthur Mackey, who has helped organize the meal for the past 18 years.
Maryann Hojnacki, 66, of Roosevelt, sat down to a large turkey lunch and then picked out a lime-green sweater donated by parishioners of Mt. Sinai Baptist Church.
Hojnacki said most of her family lives in Florida, so it was nice to be able to enjoy the holiday with friends at the youth center.
“I think it’s a wonderful program,” she said. “Not everyone has family nearby or live by themselves. It’s nice to have a meal with other people.”
At Central Presbyterian Church in Huntington, about 85 people who dined in the fellowship hall in the first part of a three-hour meal time sat at tables covered with white linen to eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal on real china.
“It’s important to make everyone feel special, like they’re in my dining room and are honored guests in my home,” said Trish Roach, who coordinated the meal for the church.
For many, the free meal wasn’t just about food, but companionship at a time of year when most people are surrounded by family.
Ann Marie Kowalski, of Smithtown, said she had been coming to Central Presbyterian’s Thanksgiving meal for several years.
“The food is good, and we’d be sitting home by ourselves if we weren’t here,” Kowalski said, gesturing to neighbor Sylvia Meade, 76. “This gives us an opportunity to be with people and make new friends.”
Kowalski said she had happy memories of family Thanksgiving dinners when she was younger, when her parents, husband and two siblings were still alive.
“I used to have the whole family for Thanksgiving, all of us,” recalled Kowalski, who declined to give her age. “It was lovely, but they all died. I’m a widow, so I’m all alone.”
Michael Mandel, 49, rode his bicycle more than five miles from Ronkonkoma to Smithtown, where he got a ride to the Huntington church.
“I don’t have family here and I didn’t want to be home alone,” he said. “This is a really great experience for me.”
This story was reported by Rachel Uda and David Olson. It was written by Valerie Bauman.