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LI soup kitchens do pandemic pivot for Thanksgiving meals

Mercy Soup Kitchen administrator Michael 'Chef Mike' Quarlena,

Mercy Soup Kitchen administrator Michael 'Chef Mike' Quarlena, administrator of the Wyandanch facility, prepares meals that were distributed to people in need on Thanksgiving Day. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

At Mercy Soup Kitchen in Wyandanch, the Thanksgiving Day lunch rush looks a little different this year. The dining room, lights off, empty. Volunteers, masked and doing their best to social distance while prepping hot plates in the small basement kitchen at Trinity Church.

Because of the pandemic, staffers at Mercy — like those at scores of other soup kitchens, churches, and charities across the Island — were forced to pivot from treating hundreds of people in need "to a proper, sit-down, Thanksgiving Day feast" to takeout.

Many organizations closed on Thanksgiving Day, distributing thousands of "to-go" dinners days before the holiday.

What hasn’t changed?

"The magic of this day," said Mercy Soup Kitchen administrator Michael Quarlena, aka "Chef Mike," of Farmingdale.

"It’s about being thankful, it’s about doing what you can to serve others … all you need for that is a good heart and to know how to cook well," he joked.

Quarlena and his staff of four, "regulars" who volunteer at the Mercy kitchen throughout the year, were busy slicing turkey breasts, taking warm biscuits out of the oven, and gushing over how delicious the sweet potato casserole looked.

"Doesn’t it just look like a work of art? The marshmallows look picture-perfect," longtime volunteer Tony Privitera said.

"There’s a lot of love that goes into these meals," he said. "It’s like you’re making it to serve it to your own family."

For Stacie Schults, of Bay Shore, volunteering at Mercy — something she’s done every Thursday for the past six years — is always special but "feels even more important" on Thanksgiving, "and of course, especially this year."

"It’s been such a hard, challenging year for so many people," she said.

"Before the pandemic, there were lots of places where [needy] people could go get food but now a lot of those places are either shut down or not able to carry on with the services, so it makes me happy knowing we can still continue doing our part," Schults said.

Outside the soup kitchen — and promptly at "go time," 11:30 a.m. — about a dozen people stood in line waiting for Schults, who was on "door duty," to open.

As she was about to go, a man holding a large pecan pie and a big tray of macaroni and cheese approached Quarlena.

"I’d like to donate these," he said. "I just bought them at Costco."

"You see!," Quarlena said, as he accepted the food. "It’s the spirit of giving, even in the worst of times, that’s what we have to hold on to. Always be grateful and pay it forward."

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