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Linda Obernauer

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Cans with positive messages in Spanish spotted by Linda Obernauer when dropping off donations at Teatro Yerbabruja. Photo from Linda Obernauer

By Rita J. Egan

Members of a Setauket church are doing their part to help strangers more than 1,500 miles away.

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico Sept. 20 and left the majority of the more than 3.4 million residents without electricity and no easy access to food and supplies, Linda Obernauer, a church elder of Setauket Presbyterian Church, said she knew something had to be done.

Obernauer, chair of the church’s Peace and Justice Committee, began working with the Central Islip-based Teatro Yerbabruja to collect donations for the victims. The theater company is a grassroots organization that strives to inspire social changes through community, art and education.

The church elder said at first friends brought donations to her home before she set up a drop-off location at Setauket Presbyterian Church. The church is collecting ready-to-eat foods, instant coffee, baby wipes, adhesive bandages and powdered milk. Obernauer said the organization has plenty of diapers and bottled water.

Donations will be sent to Puerto Rico where many streets such as this one in San Juan were flooded after Hurricane Maria. Photo from Rafael Candelaria

She said the church is deeply involved in community outreach, especially in Port Jefferson Station with their furniture bank Open Door Exchange, and recently she has met many people whose families have been affected by the hurricane and the recent earthquake in Mexico. Obernauer said she feels collections such as this one are what the congregation’s faith calls them to do.

“This is all interconnected on how we honor our neighbors when they are in need,” she said.

Obernauer said she has already transported a pickup truck filled with donations to the Central Islip organization and plans on driving another truckload this week. She said she isn’t surprised by the congregation’s generosity, as they are always quick to donate.

“I think it’s a really good community effort,” she said. “When people reach out, they are getting heard and people are helping.”

Teatro Yerbabruja’s director Margarita Espada said the nonprofit will send donations via private freight. She said the theater is currently collaborating with Suffolk County Community College and working with a few organizations in Puerto Rico that are trying to get supplies to small towns, which have been difficult to reach due to debris in the roads. Another obstacle during the first week was the Jones Act, which President Donald Trump (R) temporarily lifted Sept. 28. The act requires all goods shipped between U.S. ports to be shipped by U.S. vessels and for them to be primarily operated by Americans.

Espada said she has worked on outreach projects with Obernauer in the past, and she’s grateful for her and the church members’ help.

“I think it’s great because they are showing support for Puerto Rico,” she said.

Obernauer said items can be dropped off at the church office until Oct. 10 between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Setauket Presbyterian Church is located at 5 Caroline Ave., Setauket.

Kate Calone checks out an end table at the organization’s warehouse in Port Jefferson Station. File photo by Susan Risoli

Furniture is a necessity. It allows a family to sit at a table and eat together. It gives children a place to do homework. It provides the opportunity to open one’s home to guests. It’s essential for a good night’s sleep.

People transitioning from homelessness, domestic violence shelters, military service or displacement following a disaster need more than just a roof over their heads.

Inspired by a youth mission trip to a furniture bank just outside Washington, D.C., Kate Calone wondered if such a service would fly on Long Island. For some, this might have been a daunting task, but Calone set about researching and planning. She organized a feasibility committee and piloted the group to take off.

The Open Door Exchange is rounding out its second year of operations, having served more than 300 Long Island families and individuals in need. Referred by social service agencies and nonprofits, people can “shop” with dignity, by appointment at the organization’s rented Port Jefferson Station warehouse, which is configured to resemble a furniture store. All pieces are free of charge.

For her compassion, determination and leadership in helping Long Islanders in need, Calone is one of Times Beacon Record News Media’s People of the Year for 2016.

A graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, Calone spent six years as an attorney before entering the Princeton Theological Seminary. When she and her husband Dave, who ran against Anna Throne-Holst in the 2016 Democratic primary for the 1st Congressional District and Suffolk County judge, returned to Long Island to raise their three children, Calone worked at the First Presbyterian Church in Northport before joining the Setauket Presbyterian Church as associate pastor, to work with the Youth Group.

Residents walked on the Greenway Trail to raise funds and awareness for Open Door Exchange. File photo by Susan Risoli

When she returned from D.C., she told retired Setauket businessman and church member Tom Kavazanjian her idea and asked if he’d be interested in helping. Having great respect for Calone and her worthwhile cause, he said yes.

“Kate’s leadership is unique,” he said. “She leads with a quiet confidence and is one of the most unassuming and selfless people I know. Everything she does, she does with such grace.”

With a lot of planning — and the help of a group of dedicated volunteers — Open Door Exchange was launched in January 2015, recounted Stony Brook resident and retired school teacher Diane Melidosian, who was also an early recruit.

“This was no easy undertaking,” she said. “Since there is no cost to the recipient, all costs associated with this program are handled through fundraising, grant writing and contributions.”

There were lots of logistics to be worked out and the committee used A Wider Circle, the furniture bank in the outskirts of D.C., as a model.

East Setauket resident Bonnie Schultz said being a part of the creation of Open Door Exchange energized her.

“I’d never been part of a startup,” she said. “It’s exciting. And [the organization] has grown by leaps and bounds. The amount of furniture that goes in and out of [the warehouse] is incredible.”

She said even some clients come back to volunteer.

Another member of the exploratory committee, Stony Brook therapist Linda Obernauer, said the youngsters who traveled on the mission played an important part in advancing the idea of a Long Island furniture bank.

“Kate got more interested as the kids got into it,” she said, adding that Calone has served as a role model to many of them. “People who are ‘of the fiber’ do the right thing. Kate doesn’t have to have accolades, she helps people because that’s who she is.”