By Melissa Arnold
For more than 25 years, the volunteers of Welcome INN have gathered week after week to prepare meals for local people in need.
They’ve never sought out the spotlight for their work — all of them are unassuming folks who just want to lend a helping hand, says the organization’s president Marge Tumilowicz.
But this week, the Port Jefferson Village Center will unveil a photo exhibit to showcase and honor their commitment to service in the community.
Soup kitchens have been a constant presence in the Port Jefferson area since the 1970s, when members of local religious groups saw countless families struggle during a recession. Over time, these independent groups determined they could do the most good under the umbrella of a larger organization.
In 1989, four area soup kitchens joined the Interfaith Nutrition Network (INN), which feeds and houses people throughout Long Island. Today, Welcome INN serves up to 100 people per meal, five nights a week.
It takes a village
Tumilowicz says it truly takes a village to pull off a meal that large on a weekly basis, but volunteers are never hard to come by. Over 200 people play a part at the INN’s kitchens, helping with setup, cooking, cleaning and anything in between. They are a well-oiled machine.
“Early in the morning, cars will go to the local supermarket for pickups, then bring them back to the [kitchen] for sorting. Whatever supplemental food is needed gets picked up by the coordinator. Then, in the afternoon, the cooks and setup people arrive. By 5:30 [p.m.], our servers are in place and the doors are opened,” Tumilowicz explains.
Guests are given appetizers immediately when they arrive, says Susan Davis, coordinator of Friday night dinners at First Presbyterian Church in Port Jefferson. “We want to make sure our guests have something to eat right away because some of them come to us as their only meal for the day and they’re very hungry.”
Then comes a from-scratch soup, fresh salad, a main course with a protein, starch and veggie and dessert. Guests are also sent home with a sandwich or leftovers.
Coordinator Terri Arrigon oversees Monday night meals at Christ Church Episcopal in Port Jefferson. She noted that many of the guests that frequent Welcome INN are not homeless. Some are unemployed or underemployed, and others are simply looking for camaraderie.
“We want to respect their privacy so we don’t really ask personal questions, but sometimes guests will open up about their situation,” says Arrigon, a volunteer for the past three years. “Working with the INN has really opened my eyes to the diversity of communities here on Long Island.”
The value of volunteers
As for the photo exhibit, Tumilowicz jokes that there’s an unusual backstory: Last fall, Welcome INN was given the Humanitarian of the Year Award by Jefferson’s Ferry, a retirement community in South Setauket. With the INN’s volunteers scattered all over Long Island, Tumilowicz approached the Port Jefferson Village Center about displaying the award there for all to see.
They offered her something even better — why not display an entire collection of photos from over the years?
Tumilowicz reached out to Welcome INN’s graphic designer Karen Loomis, and the result compiles shots of all four soup kitchens in action along with inspirational quotes.
“It’s demanding work — we’re on the go the whole time and many of us do not have young bodies — but we’re there because we want to be there and we love it,” Arrigon says. “I’m delighted that we’re getting this opportunity to recognize the value of our volunteers, to show them how much we appreciate them. And it’s a great way to let the community know that we’re out there.”
The Welcome INN exhibit is on display for the rest of this month on the third floor of the Village Center, 101 East Broadway, Port Jefferson.
To learn more about Welcome INN, including meal times and volunteer information, visit https://the-inn.org/programs/soup-kitchens/welcomeinn.
Welcome INN operates out of the following locations:
St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 309 Patchogue Road (Rte. 112), Port Jefferson Station, NY 11776
Hours of operation: Serves lunch Sundays from 1 to 2 p.m. and dinner Wednesdays from 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.
Christ United Methodist Church, 545 Old Town Road, Port Jefferson Station, NY 11776
Hours of Operation: Serves dinner Tuesdays, 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.
Christ Episcopal Church, 127 Barnum Avenue, Port Jefferson, NY 11777
Hours of operation: Serves dinner Mondays, 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.
First Presbyterian Church, Corner of Main and South Street, Port Jefferson, NY 11777
Hours of operation: Serves dinner Fridays, 5:45 to 6:45 p.m.