Brian Leary was taking care of his sick daughter, Morgan, when two callers arrived at his home in Center Moriches on a recent afternoon bearing a gift of cheer.
The visitors were volunteers from the Pilot Club of Patchogue, a service organization with a soft spot for caregivers.
Morgan, 8, a twin diagnosed in 2014 with severe brain cancer, underwent surgery and was hospitalized for nearly a year at New York University Hospital and Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia.
“We’d like to give you a gesture of support,” Pilot member Waveney Klaiber, of Bellport, told Leary as she handed him a $50 Stop & Shop gift card on behalf of the club. “It’s devastating to have sickness. This is a tangible expression of support for you.”
Leary, a teacher at East Hampton High School, and his wife, Emily, a teacher in the Comsewogue School District, take turns caring for Morgan. Their daughter gets therapy three days a week at St. Charles Hospital.
Morgan, whose twin is Emma, smiled cheerfully as she dropped marbles into a marble run toy in a gentle game with her father and Klaiber, a retired Internal Revenue Service specialist.“I’m very honored and appreciative, flattered that they thought of my family,” Leary said of the volunteers’ visit.
Such acts of kindness are the hallmark of the Pilot Club of Patchogue, a nonprofit chartered in 1962 to foster youth leadership and development, to care for families in times of need and to promote brain fitness and safety.
Those are core values the club adopted from Pilot Club International, an organization that was founded in 1921 in Macon, Georgia, its name inspired by riverboat pilots of the time who successfully navigated their vessels through rough waters.
The riverboat pilots’ example was an incentive for Pilot Club International to “help others navigate the rocky waters of life,” according to its website. Its mission is to influence positive change in communities throughout the world by giving people opportunities for service.
Pilot Club of Patchogue is one of Pilot International’s 375 clubs. Its 25 members are from all over Suffolk, and most of them are retired. Some have been with the club for more than 20 years.
Pilot Club of Patchogue is one of four Pilot Clubs on Long Island. Others serve Sayville, Babylon and Greater Long Island.
Minnie Giuri, founder of the Patchogue club, attended a convention in Georgia, “liked what she saw and brought it back to our area,” said Susan Kahl, 69, the group’s current president.
A central focus of the Patchogue club is Pilot International’s “Pick-Me-Up” service project. The visit to Leary’s home was an effort to brighten someone’s day.
Caregivers are specially sought out for pick-me-ups. They get gift certificates, time at a spa, tickets to movies or a local theater show, a goodie bag and a letter thanking them for the difference they make in the community.
“So far we’ve given over 75 gift cards, most valued at least $50 since the club started the program in 2013,” said Kahl, who lives in Bellport and accompanied Klaiber to visit the Learys. “We’re just recognizing the stresses of caregivers: balancing family, career and taking care of their loved ones.”
Most recipients are nominated anonymously by health care providers and clergy, Kahl said, but casual conversations or even a blood donation can also generate a Pick-Me-Up delivery.
“We listen to people around us,” Kahl said. “I teach water aerobics at the YMCA in Patchogue. I listen to conversations in my class. One woman had pancreatic cancer; one woman’s husband had Alzheimer’s. I sent Pick-Me-Up gift cards to them anonymously.”
In return for giving blood during a Patchogue Fire Department blood drive, Kahl received two tickets to a Mets game. “I gave them to the parents of a special-needs adult son,” she said. “They were thrilled!”
During International Care and Kindness Week — observed the second week in November and created by Pilot International — club members distributed goodie bags with protein bars and candy to soup kitchens, food pantries, ambulance companies, police and strangers.
“The reactions are incredible,” Kahl said. “The letters we get bring me to tears. A husband who had to do everything when his wife broke both her arms put his arms around me and cried when he received a movie ticket and a $25 gift card from the club.”
At Brookhaven Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center where, Kahl said, about 70 percent of the clients are nonverbal, the club donated three iPads in October. The devices have a “Go Talk” app enabling users to communicate with their families and therapists. A grant from Pilot International matched $642 that members raised for this specific project.
“We’re particularly proud of this,” Kahl said, adding that the recipients are using the iPads for banking, e-mail and accessing the Internet. “Little things make such a difference. We just wanted to spread a little cheer.”
Concern for children
Pilot Club of Patchogue’s members show they care in other ways. They teach kindergarten students to wear bicycle helmets and cross streets safely to protect their brains, and also to wear reflector bands so they can be seen in the dark. They provide labels in Spanish and English for identifying a child in a car seat or stroller should a parent or guardian become incapable of communicating with authorities.
Partnering with the Anchor Club, a service organization at Patchogue-Medford High School, club members collect books for a program designed to stimulate educational development for children aged 3 to 5 who live in homeless shelters in Suffolk. Trainers from Eastern Suffolk BOCES teach parents and caregivers how to read and talk to the children so they’re prepared to enter school ready to learn.
Every November, the club sponsors a dance for adults with developmental disabilities. Pilot members and students from the Anchor Club participate and serve refreshments.
“That’s how we’re teaching the youth to be community-minded,” Kahl said.
Once a year, the club sponsors a “Day of Renewal” for caregivers at Day Haven, a day-care center for adults with cognitive issues. The day includes workshops and yoga classes. Last year, each caregiver there received a copy of “The Unsung Heroes,” a book about caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s. Each book cost $12, Kahl said.
“That’s why fundraising and sponsorship are critical,” she said. “We spend the money on these projects.”
The club’s fundraising includes annual membership dues of $85; a Christmas holiday benefit, yard sales and a Preakness event held on the day of the horse race, the second leg of the Triple Crown, when members run with toy horses and raise money from bets. In March, the club sells discounted tickets it receives for shows at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson. Showgoers who buy the tickets can participate in a luncheon and raffle.
Gail Braverman, of Setauket, a retired English teacher in the Patchogue-Medford School District who is liaison to the Anchor Club program, as well as a past president of the nonprofit, makes scarves and tote bags that the club sells.
Kudos for caring
The Pilot Club of Patchogue has been commended for its humanitarian outreach. In 2015, it won Pilot International’s Outstanding Pick-Me-Ups award and received a $50 gift certificate from Pilot International and a paper certificate.
“That was quite an honor,” Kahl said. “Out of all the clubs, to have little us recognized. We were very proud.”
On Nov. 3, the club was among four honorees feted at Day Haven’s Neighborhood of Caring Breakfast for enhancing the quality of life for frail, older adults and family caregivers.
Pilot volunteers also pay visits to group homes for abused and abandoned girls, and pregnant and parenting young mothers.
Toni Gehringer, the house director at one of the residences, said receiving a bouquet of flowers for staff “makes my day.” Her assistant, Carla Ceron, agreed.
“It makes us as staff feel appreciated,” Ceron said.
Kahl said Pilot Club of Patchogue’s volunteers are recruited largely by word-of-mouth. Eileen Sribnick, of Bellport, a retired teacher, became the newest member when she joined the club just over a year ago. “They do wonderful things for people in the community,” she said.
Fran Wiener, 70, of Farmingdale, who works part time at the South Country Library in Bellport, is the club’s longest-serving member, joining the nonprofit in 1974. She said the club offers camaraderie as well as service.
“You go for the service, but you make friends for life,” she said. “It’s just a wonderful experience.”
SIGN ME UP
Volunteers interested in helping their community through youth development, raising awareness about brain safety and supporting families in need are invited to join the Pilot Club of Patchogue.
The objectives embody the club’s mission, and the qualifications for volunteers are basic, said the group’s president.
“We’re looking for people who have a willingness to give their best effort and can get along with everyone in our club,” said Susan Kahl.
Volunteers can also assist with fundraising activities. The club is seeking monetary donations to carry out its projects.
For more information, contact Kahl at 631-286-6335.
YOU MIGHT CONSIDER . . .
The Patchogue Lions Club is part of an international service organization that empowers volunteers to serve their communities through a variety of programs, including some that support youth, promote health and protect the environment.
“Our main focus is eyesight preservation and blindness prevention,” said Louis Giordano, of Medford, first vice president of the Patchogue club, which was chartered in 1947.
Because diabetes is a large contributor to blindness, the Lions established the Diabetes Awareness Clinic with Brookhaven Hospital. It also supports the Guide Dog Foundation.
Volunteers are needed to help with fundraisers, including a bowling event on Jan. 29 at Bowl Long Island, 138 West Ave. in Patchogue, from 2 to 4 p.m., and a March 26 family-oriented magic show featuring an illusionist and a ventriloquist at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts.
Contact: Club president Thomas Ferb, 631-654-3737.
The Commack-Kings Park Rotary Club, founded in 1968 and part of District 7255, which includes 75 clubs in Nassau, Suffolk, Brooklyn and Queens. Rotary International is a service or ganization known for its work to eradicate polio in developing countries.
In October, the Commack-Kings Park chapter launched an “End Hunger” campaign in conjunction with Kings Park High School. The club and the school’s Rotary-sponsored Interact Club raised money to provide 10,000 meals to local food pantries. The campaign continues in April, and volunteers are needed to help package the meals in the school cafeteria.
“Anybody can volunteer for any of our events,” said Alexander Paykin, secretary of the Commack-Kings Park chapter. “Anybody wants to do good, we welcome them.”
For more information on volunteer opportunities, contact the Long Island Volunteer Center at 516-564-5482; longislandvolunteercenter.org
It was a friend’s example that motivated Catherine Olinger to join the Pilot Club of Patchogue in 1989.
“She seemed to be always involved in helping people,” said Olinger, 79. “I saw what she did, and it looked like something I would be interested in doing.”
The Patchogue resident and retired middle school reading teacher has functioned in various capacities during her 27 years with the club.
“I was attending meetings and participating in the projects and fundraisers,” Olinger said. “By the late 1990s I was an officer. I was secretary one year, then president-elect for a year, then president. I served two terms in a row, 1998 to 2000.”
Olinger advanced to positions in Pilot Club International, becoming its Northeast Potomac District governor; chairman of its scholarship committee; and representative of the Pilot International Foundation.
Among the Pilot Club of Patchogue’s causes, those relating to young people are especially meaningful to Olinger.
“As a former teacher, I’m interested in our youth becoming civic-minded and learning young to begin to pay it forward,” she said. “The more of us doing these things the better off everyone is.”
Olinger has no plans to do less than that.
“God willing and the creek don’t rise,” she said. “I’m a fortunate person; I’m with a group of like-minded people. Our motto is friendship and service. It’s good to give back. It’s really important to share what you have.”
— MERLE ENGLISH