A desire to help feed homebound veterans has grown from a spare-time activity for Rena Sylvester to a full-time mission.
The Stony Brook resident’s effort that started five months ago with just herself and a handful of recipients has become Cooking for Long Island Veterans, an organization with 20 volunteers making and delivering weekly home-cooked meals to nearly 40 former service members from Albertson to Westhampton.
“It’s just grown so much, it’s turned into a full-time job,” she said.
Sylvester, 55, a retiree who taught home economics in the East Islip school district, had helped students put together care packages for soldiers overseas. Then about five years ago, she and the students began cooking meals once a week for the Marine Corps League Detachment in Bay Shore. Sylvester continued cooking for the group and other veterans organizations after she retired two years ago and received a $5,000 grant via the Kiwanis Club of the Islips-Bay Shore to help pay for the meals.
In February she began noticing a need among homebound veterans and started delivering meals. When COVID-19 hit in March, those numbers skyrocketed, and she began using social media to recruit volunteers.
The effort is bringing joy to both volunteers and veterans, Sylvester said.
“Some are feeling important because they’re doing something, and others are feeling loved because they’re getting something,” she said.
Sylvester hopes to establish the group as a nonprofit.
From oatmeal and egg sandwiches to meatloaf and chicken parmesan to cookies and bread pudding, the veterans don’t get just one meal. Volunteers will visit once or twice a week and provide them with several days’ worth of food, Sylvester said.
What the chefs whip up depends on what items and monetary donations the group gets, she said. One week it might be six pounds of potatoes, another week it’s five pounds of beets. As a result, cooking gets creative.
“We say, ‘What’s in the Chopped box this week?’ ” said volunteer Kathy Ditta, 64, of Bay Shore, referring to the TV show where chefs compete using mystery ingredients.
Three generations of Christine Reilly’s family in Miller Place are cooking and delivering the meals, with her and her two teenage children and 91-year-old mother all contributing.
“It’s a nice way for us to spend the extra time we seem to have on our hands now with the pandemic,” said Reilly, 54. She also wanted to honor her father and father-in-law, who were both World War II veterans.
“I thought it was important for my children to have a connection with the veterans,” she said, noting that the veterans often share stories of their time in the military with the teens.
The meals come with notes explaining who cooked and delivered the food, along with their contact information. Volunteers said the veterans call to thank them and it gives them all a chance to socialize.
“I can’t thank them enough,” said Daniel Murphy, 70, of Deer Park, who served in the Army and is a Vietnam War veteran. “I’m just so grateful they have this program.”
Dominick Pensante, 87, a Korean War Marine Corps veteran from Brentwood, said he can’t drive or walk very far and he doesn’t cook.
“Nothing beats having a home-cooked meal,” he said. “This keeps me alive.”
VETERANS ON LONG ISLAND
Age 65 and older: 64,738
With a disability: 24,379
Income below poverty level in past12 months: 4,302
Source: U.S. Census 2018 American Community Survey