The Sag Harbor Express Co-Person Of The Year: Cindy Ward Capalbo

Cindy Capalbo

Sometimes those who are the most generous in helping others, don’t want to be helped themselves.

That’s the case with Cindy Ward Capalbo, who earlier this month completed rotator cuff surgery for her shoulder. The painful operation has left the owner of C’s Home & Office Management out of commission for about a month; something that doesn’t sit well with the Sag Harbor native who is used to carrying her own weight when it comes to work. But perhaps more importantly, it makes her a recipient — albeit reluctantly — of the good will of the volunteers of Sag Harbor Helpers, the group Ms. Capalbo started earlier this year to help provide meals for those people, especially the elderly, who were shut in because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’ve had a lot of friends help,” Ms. Capalbo said in a recent interview. “Honestly, I’d much rather give than receive. But they just don’t listen.”

“Cindy is very stubborn,” acknowledged Mary Bori, a volunteer and, along with Ms. Capalbo, an organizer of Sag Harbor Helpers. “Going into surgery, she texted me, ‘I don’t need any help. I don’t want any meals. I froze some,’” Ms. Bori recalled. “Yeah, like that was going to happen,” she laughed.

Many of those friends who refused to take “no” for an answer are volunteers with Sag Harbor Helpers, who since the beginning of the pandemic, have delivered dozens of meals per week to people throughout the Sag Harbor community, and as far as North Sea and Wainscott.

Ms. Capalbo’s surgery came just a week after the Helpers prepared and delivered Thanksgiving dinners for more than 50 local residents, many elderly, some shut in, some food insecure; pretty much anybody who would have struggled to prepare a meal, or needed help. It is all free of charge, the cost of the meals being picked up by the volunteers themselves and through donations from other friends.

The volunteers are a mix of residents in the Sag Harbor area. Some still working, some retired, even some high school students who made deliveries while earning community service credit at Pierson. When the call goes out, each of them is asked to provide one part of a meal: a chicken, a casserole, vegetables, desserts; whatever their specialty is or whatever’s needed.

At Thanksgiving, the doors to the garage at Ms. Bori’s house were thrown open and a small production line commenced with a small army bringing homecooked meals.

“We use Mary’s because she has a very large garage,” noted Ms. Capalbo. “It’s a lot to give up all that space.”

“There were about eight people working in there,” said Ms. Bori, with volunteers coming to drop off dishes, and another team of Helpers loading up cars and trucks to bring the food around; probably about three dozen people all together.

“We had four tables set up,” she said. “There was turkey and stuffing on one, vegetables on another, desserts on another.” She laughed, “Desserts, loads of desserts. We have a lot of people who love to bake.”

Ms. Bori said she was impressed with the number of young people who came to help. “There were the Yardley kids. The Schiavoni kids. Tim Culver’s kids were there.”

The Thanksgiving dinner was a coda of sorts to the work the Helpers did during the height of the pandemic earlier this year, when 40 or 50 meals went out every Monday, Wednesday and Friday evening. And there was always enough for the recipient to get another meal — maybe two more — out of the delivery.

This all started in March, when Ms. Capalbo began to worry about senior citizens she knew, and how they would take care of themselves if they were too afraid to go out because of the risks posed by the coronavirus. Ms. Capalbo began by putting a mention out on social media.

“She opened up a Facebook page, all she did was put up one post,” observed Marianne Ward, Ms. Capalbo’s cousin, and a volunteer helper. “That’s what I love about this town, one post will get people together to help.”

People then began to immediately reach out, both volunteering to make and deliver meals, and suggesting residents who might need some looking in on. Which left it to Ms. Capalbo to marshal the forces and direct the relief effort.

“She would get a message from someone concerned about a neighbor, and Cindy would call and introduce herself,” said Ms. Bori, setting up a schedule and organizing volunteers.

And what is it that motivated Ms. Capalbo?

“My gut says she’s just a naturally helping person,” suggested Ms. Ward.

Ms. Bori would agree. “She just wants to be there for people, she’s a very giving person,” she said. “She’s willing to help in any way.”

On the day Ms. Bori was interviewed, Ms. Capalbo was going under the knife.

“If someone called today looking for help, just out of surgery she’d tell them, ‘I’ll get someone,’” said Ms. Bori.

Ms. Capalbo’s own parents died at an early age, and her husband feels that may have been one of the influences that has inspired Ms. Capalbo.

“With her mom and dad passing early, I think that may have pushed her in the direction of helping the elderly, those who can’t get out,” said Chris Capalbo, who has been married to Ms. Capalbo for 20 years, and with whom he has twins, a boy and a girl. “She always looks to help someone else, that’s her game.” He described a scene where she would come home from work, then jump into the kitchen to prepare meals to go out, with other ladies stopping by to drop off desserts. In fact, this is not the first charitable venture Ms. Capalbo has initiated. For the past several years, through the company she owns with her husband, she has offered free cleaning service for any local cancer patient who is in hospice care.

The idea for Sag Harbor Helpers was a simple one, Ms. Capalbo noted, and she immediately stressed that it is really all the volunteers — the community of those willing to help — that do the yeoman’s share of the work and make the difference in so many people’s lives.

And while the meals themselves are important, there are other benefits the members of Sag Harbor Helpers bring. Receiving a call and a visit from someone in the community goes a long way in these times of isolation and loss of socialization.

“It’s a very lonely time for them,” said Ms. Capalbo. “Many of them haven’t been out except to see their doctors.”

“Just a human being coming to the front door,” said Ms. Bori. “It’s that human connection. You want them to have some comfort, and know people are thinking of them.”

One older gentleman even asked the ladies to come in for a glass of wine, laughed Ms. Bori.

“She has also done drive-by birthday parties,” added Ms. Ward. “She put out a post and people just showed up.”

There was George Boziwick, a veteran who turned 100 earlier this year, who got a birthday parade past his Main Street house, including dozens of community members with balloons and several of the village’s fire trucks.

And Rita Smith, who got a surprise birthday celebration when she turned 95.

“I went to see her and brought a bottle of champagne to celebrate,” said Ms. Bori, who recalled telling Ms. Smith to come and sit around the back of the house in a pair of lawn chairs while they popped the bubbly.

“Meanwhile, everybody was gathering around out front,” she recalled, and there Ms. Smith was greeted with balloons and flowers and many Sag Harbor Helpers offering congratulations.

And Helpers find themselves helping in other ways. Ms. Bori, for example helped drive a woman to her doctors’ appointments, and did some grocery shopping for a pregnant woman who couldn’t get out. Others have donated cash, and one man offered packing material for the deliveries.

As this story is being written, the Helpers are busy preparing for Christmas dinner.

“So far we have about 50 for Christmas, and we’ll probably have more,” said Ms. Capalbo.

And the recipients are guaranteed a hearty meal.

Ticking off a list of dishes that have already been committed, Ms. Capalbo recited: “There’ll be turkey and ham, mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes, stuffing, string beans, cauliflower casserole and desserts.”

But, for many, it is difficult to accept the help.

“For their entire lives they’ve never had to rely on someone else,” Ms. Capalbo said of many of the residents the group has helped this year.

A case in point is Ms. Capalbo’s own cousin, Ms. Ward.

In November, Ms. Ward underwent surgery for cancer. When she got out of the hospital, Ms. Capalbo and the Sag Harbor Helpers were there for her.

“It was hard for me, I’m not a good receiver, I like to help,” said Ms. Ward. “I fought her hard on it. I don’t have young children at home, and really didn’t think I needed the help.”

But Ms. Capalbo was adamant.

“She asked me, ‘If I needed it, would you do it for me?’” Ms. Ward remembers her cousin asking her.

“Of course I would,” said Ms. Ward. “I was grateful.”