By Miriam Longobardi
Thanksgiving is a time when we reflect on that for which we are grateful as well as share our abundance with others. The holidays can be a time of year when those in need experience a sense of lack more keenly than other times, but, thankfully, there are many local organizations and houses of worship that offer nourishment for bodies and souls. Although some programs are specifically geared toward the holidays, others are ongoing throughout the year.
Nils Chittenden, rector of St. Stephens Episcopal Church on Bedford Road in Armonk, said that the influence of the worshipping community is far-reaching. Members of his congregation participate in ongoing work with the Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry.
AnnLee Malani and Sue Brown coordinate food deliveries to homebound adults, and, not only are the recipients grateful for the food, but, because the women have developed relationships with these people, they look forward to the weekly visits as well as the deliveries of food.
The sense of companionship and someone checking in on them is as important as the food itself. Each year before the start of the annual Frosty Parade in Armonk, St. Stephens holds a winter fair in their main hall, and there are family-friendly activities as well as tables set up for non-profit groups to promote their causes. There are roving carolers as well as a bake sale to raise money for a different charity each year.
This year the bake sale proceeds will go to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for biliary cancer research. Another important ministry of his church is hosting one of the largest Alcoholic Anonymous meetings in Westchester. Hundreds of people attend weekly, and meetings are held every day except Sunday. “The holidays can be a time when people with alcoholism experience an extraordinarily high need for support and we are glad to be able to provide that here,” Chittenden said. St. Stephens also regularly hosts Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts and the focus on citizenship and volunteerism also positively impacts the community.
At Temple Beth-El of Northern Westchester in Chappaqua, mitzvahs, or any good or praise-worthy deeds, abound throughout the year. Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe shared some ongoing work as well as special missions happening near Thanksgiving. A group of his congregants will be collecting donations for the people of Cuba and will then travel there to help the Jewish community as well as the larger Cuban community by providing much-needed medical supplies. “They are a communist country so they aren’t starving. What they can really use are a variety of medical supplies and some types of clothing. We will be collecting donations through December and the group will go down over the holiday break.”
The group includes some families with children old enough to assist as well as older people. “It’s a mixture of people who want to help,” Jaffe said. Each year boys and girls preparing for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are part of the Mitzvah Corp Program by choosing a nonprofit company for which to volunteer.
Current Mitzvah Corp assignments include Pleasantville Community Garden, where they will help plant foods grown for donation, Atria Senior Living, where kids visit and plan a Hanukkah party for the elderly, and the Miracle League of Westchester that provides opportunities for youth and adults with special needs to enable them to play baseball in a specially designed adaptive field.
Mitzvah Corp kids commit to volunteering for five consecutive months so they really form relationships with the people they are helping and learn the rewards of service. Temple Beth-El also participates in the multi-denominational Interfaith Council that takes turns hosting a service and free Thanksgiving meal. Temple Beth-El hosted last year’s dinner and this year it will be hosted by St. Mary’s Church in Chappaqua. The meal follows an interfaith service comprised of members from Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, and Muslim faiths. Additionally, Temple Beth-El holds a High Holy Day Food Drive so when many members are fasting, they are also donating food to the Westchester Food Bank.
The Church of St. Patrick in Armonk organizes a variety of social ministry initiatives with the purpose of involving as much of the parish as possible to help others. “Our area is so blessed and others are not nearly as fortunate,” said Val Sprague, one of the lay leaders of the church led by Father Jeffery Galens. “We began Project Embrace as a way to reach out to as many people in need as we can. Under that program, different lay leaders of the parish organized committees to address different people’s needs. It continues to expand each year.”
Sprague herself helped start F.I.A.T. , which stands for Faith In Action Taskforce. F.I.A.T. volunteers participate in Midnight Run, which provides clothing and toiletries for the homeless, and organizes pancake breakfasts and pasta dinners to feed people dealing with food scarcity and donate clothing to the Children’s Hope Chest.
The CYO (Catholic Youth Organization) teams each adopt a group of children and donate to them by buying gift certificates and clothing, as well as holiday gifts. The teams prepare beautiful food baskets which are donated to the Greenwich Food Pantry. The CYO motto is “Not just basketball.”
Also formed under Project Embrace is the Christmas Angel Program which connects to a sister parish in Peekskill that is very impoverished. Donations of winter clothes and holiday gifts are collected and sent to them. Christmas Angels also purchase $25 gift cards for the women in the Bedford Correctional Facility to give to their teenaged children who visit them.
“This allows them to be moms to their kids. Even imprisoned, we want to make sure there’s joy,” Sprague said. During a special mass on December 13th, parishioners bring in their donations of food, clothing, and gifts. Following the mass, everyone sorts through and organizes all the donations to be distributed, even the children. “It’s important that the children see that the holidays are not just about making a list of what they want, but to be involved in giving to others,” Sprague explained.
The Mount Kisco Interfaith Pantry is an organization that, as the recipient of food and resources from many local congregations, last year was able to serve over 31,000 thousand people. Kate Lombardi, the communications director, shared what makes the Interfaith Pantry so special.
“Unlike other food pantries, which hand out pre-bagged meals, we are set up like a regular market, and people are free make choices that suit their tastes and dietary needs. There is a dignity in making your own selections.”
Food is not the only provision, though. “We offer home deliveries to the homebound as well as a variety of helpful classes, such as cooking demonstrations, how to budget for food, food prep, bilingual nutrition, and best use of food. We are trying to build a healthy community,” Lombardi said. The volunteers shop for food at the Westchester Food Bank. The Food Bank does not serve clients directly; rather, they provide food for local pantries and organizations at greatly reduced prices.
Lombardi is proud of the fact that they are able to provide a huge variety of food, including a large assortment of fresh produce, truly a luxury for a food pantry. The Mount Kisco Community Garden maintains a space where they grow food specifically for the Interfaith Pantry. Lombardi reminded me that the entire Mount Kisco Food Pantry is run entirely by volunteers–their Board of Directors, the people that organize food distribution, those who maintain the website, the grant-writers and newsletter-writers, and of course,
everyone in between.
While they are grateful for all donations, the most helpful are financial donations. “For every dollar donated, four dollars’ worth of food is purchased, and this helps feed over 250 households each week. We are neighbors feeding neighbors, and you never know when families may encounter a crisis and need help providing food.” To learn more about how you can volunteer or donate, visit their website: mountkiscofoodpantry.org/donate
Whether you are hungering in body or spirit, in need of comfort or would like to serve others, there are places nearby where you can receive or provide help. You are not alone during this holiday season, and there is a community of people to whom you can turn for a variety of needs and with whom you can share your time and energy to benefit others.
Miriam Longobardi is a freelance writer, fourth grade teacher and single mother of two daughters living in Westchester. A breast cancer survivor, she volunteers for the American Cancer Society and has completed four marathons and travels the world. Follow her on Twitter @writerMimiLong.