Photos courtesy of the DRVC Catholic Ministries Appeal. Gregory A. Shemitz, photographer.
By Tina Dennelly
While some outreach centers and soup kitchens on Long Island have been forced to close or reduce services during the coronavirus pandemic, many parish social ministry programs, such as the one at the Church of St. Patrick in Bay Shore, are open and ready to serve clients.
“Many clients … mentioned how grateful they are that we are still open providing food,” said Kerri Ostrow, director of St. Patrick’s Office of Parish Social Ministry. “Most had told me or a volunteer that if we weren’t open, they would most likely be starving, as there isn’t much open in the area right now where you could get a meal.”
Ostrow said the advocacy office has had approximately 10 to 15 new clients since the pandemic started last month — it typically averages five new clients each month. Before the pandemic, the office would be open and allow individuals to enter its buildings to get what they needed Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Now, however, taking into consideration the diocesan and CDC guidelines for social distancing, the center is open for abbreviated pantry hours Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to noon. “Grab and go” lunches have replaced the usual full soup kitchen.
A barrier is set up in front of the soup kitchen doors with a table next to it. Clients can access the lunches and any other items available that day (pantry food, bread, cakes, etc.) on the table with a reminder to keep the required six-foot distance between volunteers and other clients waiting for lunch. In a given day, the center provides approximately 65 lunches and serves about 10 families in need of pantry food, Ostrow said. She expects the number to continue to increase.
“The current protocol in place with the social distancing and how we are providing the services has been going well with the clients as they, too, are trying to maintain a distance and trying to stay safe as well,” Ostrow said.
As news of the coronavirus spread in early March, the center developed a plan as an essential service to remain operational, which was implemented as the New York State on PAUSE order took effect. Volunteers were told that if they were comfortable coming in, they could; those who did not feel safe due to health reasons or concerns of infecting loved ones could stay away until things return to normal.
“As of now, we are working with half the volunteer power we usually have, which has helped us also in assuring we have been maintaining CDC guidelines of social distancing,” Ostrow said.
“I have also had parishioners and friends call stating if we needed extra help, just to give them a call, which is great,” Ostrow continued. “We truly have such wonderful support from our parish, our pastor, priests, deacons, etc. It has been a blessing to have such great support from our whole community.”
Father Seán Gann, pastor, said the outreach center’s work during this time is “awe-inspiring.”
“It’s really a wonderful thing when so much else is unavailable to the vulnerable in our community, they know that this spot is still available for them,” he said. “They know that people are keeping an eye out for them.”
Father Gann noted that the center has even received donations from outside the parish community, such as the Kings Park Fire Department, which drove down a couple of weeks ago with a truckload of items for the food pantry.
“It’s been a ray of sunshine in an otherwise almost gloomy atmosphere,” Father Gann said of the center’s work. “It reminds you that there’s light even in the midst of darkness, which is really what the Easter season is all about.”
When she heard the parish social ministry office at St. Patrick’s was still open, parishioner and local restaurant owner Eileen Connors texted a group of friends and asked if they would be interested in helping stock the food pantry. Connors, who co-owns the LakeHouse Restaurant in Bay Shore with her husband, Matthew, used the restaurant’s van to drive around the neighborhood collecting items. As her friends texted other friends, the effort snowballed.
In addition to Bay Shore, Connors now spends at least two and a half hours every Wednesday also driving to the surrounding areas of Islip, East Islip and Babylon to pick up donations, which people leave in their driveways. Others drop off items in Connors’ driveway or leave them on the steps of the LakeHouse Restaurant.
“What else can I do? I can’t work,” said Connors, who was forced to close the restaurant in March but hopes to reopen for takeout orders soon. “We miss serving people. … We’re making the best of a bad situation. I’m really just the middleman for this generosity. It’s way beyond me. It really is an outreach.”
“When God gives you this opportunity, you take it,” she continued. “A lot of people understand that they’re not alone, that there are a lot of people who are really in need.”