Thanksgiving Volunteering Opportunities Take New Shape With COVID-19 Restrictions

Drop off shelf-stable food, personal hygiene items and tiny toys for children to contribute to the Free Pantry, hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork.COURTESY UUCSF

It should come as no surprise that Thanksgiving volunteering on the East End will look a bit different this year. In fact, some organizations are turning away new help altogether, as COVID-19 numbers are steadily rising across Suffolk County.

“Actually, I have enough volunteers,” explained Evelyn Ramunno, the director of the Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry. “They are about 15 people who have volunteered for the past eight months! I call them my ‘Corona Crew.’ They are experienced with the precautions — we all wear masks and gloves — and so far, thank goodness, we are all healthy.”

But for those with some extra time on their hands, there are plenty of food pantries, churches, synagogues, animal shelters and local nonprofits that could use the assistance, especially from an unusually inflated East End population this holiday season.

For them, Thanksgiving volunteering is not canceled. It has simply changed gears.
Some groups, such as the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork, are staying completely hands-off by requesting shelf-stable food, personal hygiene items and small children’s toys for its “Free Pantry.” Others, like the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreational Center, will collect food items on Saturday, November 21, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., during a Holiday Food Drive, in lieu of its annual family-style dinner, “Thankful Celebration.”

“Because of the pandemic, The Center is unable to continue our beloved tradition of our families breaking bread together and the children sharing artwork and stories about why they are grateful,” explained Director Bonnie Michelle Cannon in a recent newsletter, adding that its food pantry has grown from serving 70 individuals per month to 700 weekly. “We will be having a ‘drive-thru’ holiday food pick-up for our families, in addition to the regular weekly food pantry pick-ups.”

While Heart of the Hamptons is closed on Thanksgiving Day, the nonprofit is actively seeking food pantry volunteers in the week leading up to the holiday and beyond, as is OLA of Eastern Long Island, according to Executive Director Minerva Perez.

“OLA needs volunteers able to drive clients to doctor appointments. These are folks not eligible for other types of transportation. I know this is hard to ask for now, but we need this support,” she said. “Separately, we need volunteers who are willing to shop for a nearby family on a weekly basis, if needed, and drop off the food. OLA will reimburse for food purchased and for gas. We have some families who just can’t get around to pantries or grocery stores.”

In 1987, it was a group of concerned citizens that founded The Retreat in East Hampton as a safe haven for survivors of domestic violence — and ever since, volunteers have been integral to the organization’s operation, according to its executive director, Loretta Davis.

“For us at The Retreat, it’s an honor to work with our volunteers,” she said. “While it’s trickier to have volunteers on site during this time, we have created some new and creative ways for volunteers to be ‘present.’”

The Retreat Boutique Thrift Store is one way to stay physically active, explained store manager Jessica Burdine, by setting up displays, helping customers and keeping tabs on the ever-changing inventory. But with the pandemic looming, most of the volunteer opportunities are remote, from writing holiday cards and inspirational notes for clients, to baking cookies and making face makes, to answering the crisis hotline.

“The Retreat is in great need of volunteers,” explained Maria Crocitto, hotline and development coordinator, who started at The Retreat as a volunteer herself. “Sadly, domestic violence is at an all-time high due to COVID, and also now with the holiday season coming upon us.”

The organization is also hosting its “Adopt-a-Family” program, which this year will provide gift cards to families in need, as opposed to physical presents. Fixed donation amounts range from $10, which will provide arts and crafts materials, to $250 for home goods, such small appliances, bedding and bath towels. Adopting a full family is $75 for one individual, and up to $525 for a group of seven.

“A pandemic is hard — you have a deeper understanding of what people in need are going through and you want to help, but the traditional methods of volunteering are restricted,” Development Director Kimberly Nichols said. “It took us a while to figure out how to safely bring back volunteers to The Retreat. We looked at the remarkable skillset of our current volunteers and quickly realized they could help us pivot to this ‘new normal.’”

For Maureen’s Haven, which has provided shelter, supportive services and care for the East End homeless population for nearly 20 years, the organization was forced to change its model, according to Executive Director Daniel O’Shea. They continued to operate daily, providing a lifeline for many homeless people who had no other resources, and quickly introduced a telemedicine program to provide access to healthcare providers, addiction specialists and mental health counseling.

Critical services have seen significant increases in the number of homeless seeking support, he said, and it’s a number that continues to grow each day.

“With our Emergency Winter Shelter Program, with the help of our volunteers and several key host sites, we are fortunate to have gotten it off the ground this season,” he said. “We are able to accommodate up to 32 guests per night, but with many limitations and restrictions. We are strictly adhering to all social distancing recommendations: staff, volunteers and guests are required to wear masks; we monitor our guests for any health concerns, which we do year-round; and we routinely take our guests for COVID testing as a matter of precaution. We are also limiting the number of volunteers at each site.”

As such, guests who attend the annual Thanksgiving dinner at Mattituck Presbyterian Church will mostly be sharing meals this year, due to the sheer lack of permitted manpower, which has pushed paid staff to take on volunteer roles.

“This has been a challenge for us to sustain the resources needed to offset these unexpected costs, as staff has been filling the need where volunteers cannot,” Mr. O’Shea said. “We also are in constant need of crucial items such as nonperishable food, winter clothes, cleaning supplies and paper products, masks and other PPEs, and, of course, financial support. We do recommend contacting our office if anyone is interested in any kind of drive or fundraising event.”

Also looking for support and their forever homes are the dozens of homeless animals housed by the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons — even if it’s a temporary home, emphasized Jamie Berger, ARF’s marketing and communications director.

“Our volunteer opportunities have changed a bit during the pandemic,” she said. “ARF’s need has shifted to fostering, whether for a few weeks or for a few months, depending on the animal. We are trying to grow a new network of foster families to help maintain our mission to continue our rescue work, even if we need to reduce the capacity at the shelter.”

The Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation in Hampton Bays is also looking for permanent and foster families — “It is a short-term stay that will mean the world to a homeless pet,” explained Kate McEntee, the director of adoptions and public relations — as well as in-person help.

“We would love it if you would volunteer with us,” said Crystal Monaco, the volunteers and fosters coordinator. “This includes hanging flyers and helping to spread the word to help feed our sweet fur babies this holiday season. This is a great opportunity for students and clubs to gather items. You can even start your own food drive. Last year, a couple of volunteers received many donations from co-workers by holding one at their office for SASF. Donations can be dropped off in our donation bin in front of the shelter at any time.”

Dry and wet food for dogs, cats, kittens and puppies collected during the annual Thanksgiving Pet Food Drive — held now through the end of November — will be used to feed the shelter pets and help stock the pet food pantry, according to Executive Director Joseph Sprague.

“The pet food pantry is available for pet owners who need extra support, or who have fallen on hard times,” he said. “With no questions asked, please call us if you need help providing food for your pet. SASF is here to help and support our community.”