Holiday season

Long Island soup kitchens in a hurry to survive a pandemic holiday season

In the basement of Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wyandanch, soup kitchen volunteers only take orders from the hungry through plastic plexiglass.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the holiday season meant that workers at the church’s Mercy Soup Kitchen and people picking up food engaged in close conversations.

Friday and Saturday, Christmas Day, a dozen volunteers – a reduced workforce to maintain social distancing – will serve take-out lunches from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the soup kitchen on 20th Street.

“Guests are so grateful” for the meals, said Babylon’s Vito Colletti, who started as a volunteer in 2006 and now works as president of the nonprofit, which cooks about 80 meals a day.

“We try to help as many people as possible,” Colletti said.

Some Long Island soup kitchens have closed or struggled to stay open during the pandemic. Others, like Mercy, a 41-year-old organization, have switched to distributing take-out meals instead of offering sit-down meals, formerly known as “social hour”, said administrator Michael ‘Chef Mike’ Quarlena of Farmingdale , volunteer since 2015.

The COVID-19 pandemic has all but eliminated interactions between volunteers and the people they serve beyond hellos and waves, but despite social limitations, seven-year-old volunteer Maureen Kelly said, “We do good job here.”

Volunteers prepare take-out plates at the Mercy Soup Kitchen at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Wyandanch. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

“We are able to feed people during this time,” said Kelly, a retired nurse from West Babylon, who stood at the door and took meal orders from people coming down the basement stairs.

Long Island’s largest soup kitchen, the Hempstead-based Mary Brennan INN, will close on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day due to restrictions resulting from COVID-19, said INN executive director Jean Kelly. In anticipation of the closure, the INN has distributed additional meals for the next two days, Kelly said.

“More than 1,000 families received all the holiday food they needed in November, as well as food and toys in December, in hopes that next year we can open the doors for Christmas Day. Christmas in 2022,” Kelly said in a statement.

Long Island Cares CEO Paule Pachter said while the Nassau and Suffolk County sites will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, over the past month and a half they have increased meal distribution ready to eat on their sites.

“It’s always heartbreaking for us to know that there are so many struggling families and children,” Pachter said. “We also understand the limitations of emergency food networks on Long Island.”

While Mercy Soup Kitchen is open Monday through Friday, a dozen church volunteers will fill the void on Saturday and provide meals.

Among those volunteers is Jackie DeVille, who grew up in Wyandanch and serves as chair of the church board.

“The mission remains the same in that there are people in need…whether it’s Christmas Day or New Year’s Day or whatever,” said DeVille of Queens, who helped coordinate meals served for five years.

Kathy Gambill, a volunteer with the church for nearly eight years, said local community organizations rotate the meal donations. This Saturday, the Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in Fort Salonga will help provide up to 100 meals of ham, macaroni and cheese, green beans, rolls and dessert, Gambill said.

“It’s a holiday,” said Gambill, who met her husband while volunteering at the church. “For me, it’s only a Saturday that we go in and prepare food for our neighbors in need.”

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