Helping veterans is something one Stony Brook resident does all year long.
Rena Sylvester, 55, has been cooking and preparing meals in her home for local veterans since earlier this year, and the volunteer effort has become known as Cooking for Long Island Veterans. Sylvester said she recently filed for CFLIV to become a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which should be finalized this month.
For Sylvester, building a nonprofit organization that helps vets through providing meals came naturally. She said she’s always had a soft spot for veterans and is proud of those in her family tree, which include a grandfather who was in the Spanish-American War, and a great-great-grandfather who fought for the North in the Civil War. She said she remembers bringing her great-great-grandfather’s photo into school in seventh grade and has a steamer trunk from a great uncle who fought in World War I.
She first started cooking for Marine Corps League Detachment #247 in Bay Shore while she was a home economics teacher in the East Islip school district. After her retirement from teaching a couple of years ago, she said she continued to cook for the group and other veterans organizations.
Earlier in the year, a few vets reached out to Sylvester to see if she knew what happened to a woman who started a GoFundMe page to deliver meals to veterans. Sylvester contacted the woman, who told her she was unable to keep up. That’s when Sylvester rose to the occasion and started cooking in her own kitchen.
What started as cooking for a few vets has turned into delivering meals to more than 50 throughout Suffolk County. Through Sylvester’s previous connections with vets and veterans organizations, many reached out to her during the pandemic and the number of vets receiving meals increased. Currently, CFLIV has a waiting list.
“We are totally experiencing growing pains,” she said.
Fortunately, she said the number of volunteers who make up Cooking for Long Island Veterans has grown from a few to around 40, many of whom live in the Three Village area or Islip. Sylvester said it’s not only cooks she needs. Those who have offered to drive have also been a big help. She is now looking for people who can create a website, make copies and do some light housekeeping. Also, with a garage renovation underway to create cooking space, the organization can use help with lighting fixtures, electric hot water heaters, flooring and shelving.
Sylvester said every bit helps. She has a few volunteers who commit to a certain amount of time each month or a set amount of money. She said one volunteer is at her home every Thursday without fail and every month she can count on one local couple to spend $100 on CFLIV. There is also one volunteer who comes from Manhasset once a month to pick up food from Sylvester and then deliver to homes west of Stony Brook.
Some volunteers even get their families involved like Michelle Hahn. She and her two daughters, Anna, 7, and Gabriella, 5, have been delivering food to vets near her Stony Brook home for about a year.
“My girls love the idea of helping those who keep us safe and free,” Hahn said.
The mother said there are several senior veterans in her neighborhood, and when she and her family discovered Sylvester and volunteers were preparing and delivering meals to them, they wanted to get involved.
“We donate time when we can by cooking meals, making deliveries, recruiting volunteers or helping Rena in her busy house,” she said.
Sylvester said one way she increased the number of volunteers was reaching out to Three Village Wine Fairies, a Facebook group where people deliver wine to strangers after hearing about it from Bobby Hebert who owns Hamlet Wines & Liquors in East Setauket. She realized if they were willing to spend money on and deliver wine to strangers, maybe they would be open to helping out veterans. She reached out to the members and was right, gaining a few more volunteers.
Vets receive three each of breakfast, lunch and dinner per visit, according to Sylvester, sometimes more but never less. Each veteran receives the names and contact information of those who cooked the meals and delivered them to give the ex-servicemembers the opportunity to thank them. Sylvester said the ‘thank yous’ are important to let the volunteers know they are appreciated.
Hahn said she appreciated the calls of appreciation.
“I once had a senior vet call me and say, ‘My own family doesn’t help me out the way you all do,’” she said. “[It] melted my heart.”
In addition to volunteers, CFLIV accepts financial donations, gift cards and food donations from restaurants and supermarkets. Sylvester said she’s received help from businesses such as Panico’s Community Market in Smithtown, Rolling Pin in East Setauket, Rocco’s Pizza in St. James and others.
“We aren’t looking for anyone to give us 80 meals a week or anything,” she said. “We’re looking for a little help.”
On Nov. 10, Bliss restaurant in East Setauket held a fundraiser event for the organization. For every to-go dinner, the restaurant gave CFLIV 25% of the sale.
Christine Reardon said her parents, Frank and Eleanor, who live in Stony Brook have received meals from the volunteers. She called the service “a godsend.”
“It is just amazing to know that an abundance of food arrives weekly at their doorstep,” Reardon said. “Mom and dad, who is a Korean War vet, are both in failing health and to have this for my parents is appreciated beyond words.”
Richard Ehrlich, an 89-year-old Korean War vet who lives in Stony Brook, said he enjoys the meals. When he heard the organization could use more funds, he said he decided to donate what he could once a month.
“It helps me from running around a lot and shopping,” he said.
Sylvester said they are open to helping veterans who may not need financial assistance, but who may have physical limitations or are hesitant to shop during the pandemic. They are asked for a donation of whatever they could afford toward the cause.
“We are here to serve the needy veterans,” she said. “If a veteran is physically needy — but not financially — we need their financial support to keep running. Without financial support we will not be able to keep up with the demand.”
Those who are interested in volunteering for Cooking for Long Island Veterans or donating, can email Sylvester at [email protected].