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A Pantry Christmas at United Methodist

Hicksville Church Responds to

Hunger Crisis with Tender Loving Care

On the bitter cold, sun-drenched Friday the week before Christmas, the warmth of human kindness embraced the Hicksville United Methodist Church.

The pantry was open and people in need had come for food and clothing. Men and women; from teens to seniors; single mothers and children, unemployed fathers – all struggling to get by, all residing nearby, all calling Nassau County home – were making their weekly visit. This day was special. Children, who accompanied their mom or dad, received a gift of a toy or puzzle courtesy of a drive by two fifth-grade classes at Trinity Lutheran Church on West Nicholai Street.

The pantry filled nearly 5,000 bags of food between July 2009 and this past March. This past January alone, at least 322 people were helped, according to Pantry Chairwoman Judy Frankson. With January 2011 just around the corner, the coldest part of the winter still to come, unemployment still high, and the economy still struggling, the hunger crisis is expected to only grow worse.

But numbers provide only part of this story. One visit to the pantry and it is clear; it operates as much on tender loving care, as on supply and demand. A price can’t be placed on the hugs, laughter and well wishes that fill the air each Friday with joy.

A pantry visit begins with a registration process; including an evaluation to assess the client’s needs; patiently and efficiently conducted by a trained volunteer. The purpose is to be sure the most needy and most deserving people receive the help the pantry provides. Sometimes this includes special accommodations. For instance, in the case of a person with diabetes, efforts are made to fulfill their dietary requirements. Then one by one, sometimes two by two, clients are taken into the pantry by an attentive volunteer who helps them select and bag the donated items.

 “Do you need any milk?” said one volunteer to a young mother in jeans and heavy coat, clutching her year-old son, bundled up against the cold. “Potatoes?” The woman nodded.

As another pantry volunteer reached for a carefully wrapped plastic bag, she said to a mother with a little girl, “Here, she’s going to need diapers.” She paused, then said, “Anything else I can help you with?”

It all began Oct. 5, 2007. Pastor Tim Riss says his parish had expressed concern about “the hidden problem of hunger.” After “a year of planning,” that included consultations with Long Island Cares and St. Ignatius Church, which was already operating a pantry, the Missions Committee took on the project. At that time, St. Ignatius cut back its pantry’s hours from three days to two, so The United Methodist Church decided to open on the day St. Ignatius was closing – Friday.

Sitting in the Social Hall, near the coat rack and tables laden with carefully folded donated clothing, Pastor Riss observed, “Sometimes people are ashamed to be here.” But hesitancy on their part is quickly sensed by volunteers who reach out to a client to put them at ease. “Can I help you?” or, “How are you?” or, “Good to see you’” were heard over and again. Joy and well wishes are in plentiful supply for people most in need of them.

Annette, a volunteer, spoke the silent prayer that inspires them: “We look at everybody as one big family.”

Karen, who headed the Missions Committee when the pantry was formed and whose warm and friendly matter is personified by all the volunteers who share their first name, said the parish was moved to address the crisis when, “You would see more and more homeless people in the area.” She observed these cold winter months bring their own challenges with landscapers, housepainters and other seasonal workers unemployed and struggling without a weekly paycheck.

Present Pantry Chairwoman Judy Frankson, who was also there at the beginning, said of the hunger crisis, “It’s happening here, a lot of people are in need. Social Security and Disability are not enough.

“And food stamps”, she said, “do not buy paper goods, which are expensive.”

After the decision was made to open a pantry, parish volunteers attended Long Island Cares’ workshops on food safety, nutrition and other pantry issues. “In the beginning,” Judy said, “we had no grants” and they depended solely on donations. But that changed by the next summer after Long Island Cares came into the picture.

LIC comes for regular inspections but, with the meticulous care displayed by the volunteers one suspects the inspections are not the only reason everything is immaculate and shiny. Devotion to the pantry was evident from the start in so many ways. Karen spoke of two brothers, both Boy Scouts at the time, Shane and Jaime Fitzmaurice. Shane, Karen said, is responsible for the cheerful yellow shelves that line the right side of the pantry, and for raising the money to build and paint them. Jaime designed and built the sign out front of the church along with the food collection bins.

Donations for those bins come from the public and a variety of companies and groups. Karen praised the organization “Rock Can Roll” which collects donations at concert venues. Among the other groups that contribute: Kiwanis, High School Key Club, Girls and Boy Scouts and civic associations. Companies pitching in include King Kullen, Trader Joe’s, Shop Rite, Whole Foods, Fairway, and Bagel Brothers.

At first, Pastor Riss said few families came. But his volunteers answered the call in large numbers. “It is a time in our county’s history when people want to do good locally,” he said. “80 percent of the volunteers are parishioners,” he said. The rest come from other churches. A lady in constant motion, cheering up and helping clients, comes weekly from a synagogue. Some of the clients, Pastor Riss said, are homeless. Others arrive “by motor vehicles.” Some come by cab. Still others walk.

Two rows of three tables, each laden with carefully folded and sorted clothes, fill the center of Social Hall. There is also an area for shoes and a rolling rack for coats. On this day clients patiently waited in chairs around the side of the room for their turn in the pantry while others looked for clothing and children played. At one point a volunteer approached a client with a warm long sleeved yellow polo shirt, “for your 10-year-old,” she said, and it was gratefully accepted.

A corner of this warm and welcoming room is often occupied by Nan, a volunteer who teaches English to Spanish-speaking clients and helps others with their reading. Judy told about a woman “in her late 40s” who is able to help her child in school, “now that she can read better, and she could not do this before.” And Karen told “of a gentleman who has been coming for two years,” whose English has improved to the point where they are now able to communicate with him and understand his needs.

Walk up a few steps from the Social Hall and go down a short hallway, and you find the pantry, a jewel of a room stocked with soup, rice, macaroni, cheese, cereal – everything you would want in your kitchen.

Across the hallway, next to a bulletin board covered with photos and posters about nutrition, is the Interview Room that was filled with the sweet smell of breads and pastry courtesy of a volunteer who had just returned from an early morning run to King Kullen. The assorted baked goods were placed on shelves near a variety of Hostess products that Judy’s husband, Jimmy – a prominent presence in the pantry – picks up each week.

“You can take bread and cakes, if you need,” said a volunteer to a woman waiting to go into the pantry. She smiled and replied, “Thank you.”

The Interview Room also features a rotating rack of fliers in English and Spanish offering clients helpful information on government assistance or nutrition.

Charlie, a volunteer affectionately referred to as “The Captain” for his leadership and creativity, proudly pointed to a nightlight he had made in the shape of a fan that sits on a desk in the Interview Room. Designed and made for people with new babies, a teddy bear is gently painted in the center. Charlie said it provides just enough “light in the room” for the new mother and child. Upstairs another work of Charlie’s art is displayed. On the wall is a stained glass Christmas wreath light that emits a warm glow.

Church volunteers create many original items for their clients in need. Judy proudly unfolded a beautiful white afghan, crocheted by a parishioner for a homeless lady. There is also the “Ugly Quilt” – that does not live up to its name! Judy unfurled the special quilted sleeping bag that was designed to give to homeless clients or to those struggling with no heat. Sewn completely from recyclable materials and tied with men’s neckties, the quilt rolls out to the size of a blanket, and provides plenty of cozy comfort for a cold winter’s night. Judy estimates at least 20 have been given out so far.

Busy sorting sugar packets and bagging diapers for babies, before beginning the pantry’s all-important paperwork, were two ladies with more energy than people half their age. One volunteer in her early 90s, the other in her late 80s, both are retired professional women whose business skills are invaluable and whose personalities provide a gentle grace to the pantry morning.

But it is the running commentary that fills the air that touches a visitor’s heart.

“Careful, there’s a step there.”

“Tuna, peanut butter and jelly, what do you need?”

“Thank you. Oh thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You take care now.”

No, after a very short while, it is clear food is only part of this story.

Gloria, a volunteer, whose smile is infectious and whose laughter is ever-present, hugs, comforts, and serves every client she meets. “I come here every Friday,” she said, adding she can’t believe the hunger problem. A retired nurse, Judy said they call Gloria “the Energizer Bunny.” Walking as quickly as her sneakers would allow, Gloria moved from room to room, helping a client first with food, then with clothes and back again, cheerful all the while.

Judy spoke warmly of the pride of the older clients, people who may never have gone to a pantry before and how the volunteers treat them with the dignity they deserve. His parishioners, Pastor Riss said, are “the most welcoming group of people.” Speaking for so many, Annette reflected, “There but for the grace of God …”

The food pantry at the Hicksville United Methodist Church, 130 Old Country Road, is open Fridays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. (It will be closed Christmas Eve but open New Year’s Eve). Welcome are donations of non-perishable foods, paper goods and toiletries. For more information call 931-2626.