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Christine Fitzgerald

By Leah Chiappino

Like most nonprofit organizations, the Smithtown Children’s Foundation, since the pandemic, is helping more families with less funds. 

Christine Fitzgerald, executive director and one of the founders of the Smithtown Children’s Foundation, said calls of housing insecurity especially are coming in large numbers to the nonprofit, which assists Smithtown-area families in need.

“I’m sure if you ask people who are not paying attention, they will say, ‘Oh, no, everything’s fine,’” she said. “It’s not. It’s really not.”

Fitzgerald said she received a call from a Commack homeless shelter last year about a 22-year-old woman who was raising her three teenage siblings, seeking to provide them with more stable housing. The young woman had her home health aide license, but her car was dead, so the foundation raised the funds to fix it.

After that, Fitzgerald told the shelter to call her and “vouch” for other moms in need.

“We get a lot of frequent flyers in the system, and we just don’t have the resources for that, to be throwing money around,” she said.

The next call came for a single mom with three kids working several jobs while caring for a baby with health issues. She was close to getting into an apartment but needed help paying the $1,700 deposit fee.

“She does sound like a real hustler, a gig employee, she does DoorDash, does hair, does balloon arches, does everything,” Fitzgerald said.

The woman didn’t live in Smithtown, so Fitzgerald couldn’t write the check from foundation funds. However, through Hart to Hearts, a chapter of the Smithtown Children’s Foundation named in memory of a local single dad who adopted several children, she started a fundraiser through Facebook. 

They wound up having enough funds to cover movers and are offering the mother school supplies, backpacks and gift cards for clothing.

Through the foundation’s Anthony’s Hope chapter, the foundation came across another young mom sleeping in her car. She works full-time and delivers for Uber Eats and DoorDash on the side while trying to save up for an apartment deposit. The foundation is also raising funds for her, Fitzgerald said, who said she vetted the women in need before agreeing to help with the social workers who referred her. 

“I said ‘I can’t just throw good money after bad if I’m going to pay a deposit, and then she’s going to move in and she has no way to support herself and she’s going to get kicked out,”’ she said. “I need to know more.”

These stories have been common since the pandemic, according to Fitzgerald.

“We’re getting people in shelters or people saying I need housing, and I can’t pay the security deposit,” she said.

Yolanda Robano-Gross, CEO of Ronkonkoma-based Options for Community Living, said she does come across homeless people in Smithtown and the surrounding areas.

“There’s a lot of families out there,” she said. “There are people that kind of manage and float under the radar. They couch surf from friend to friend. They are able to maintain their cars. They have a low-end gym membership, which allows them a place to shower.”

But, she added, “The large majority of the general population has a very skewed picture. They picture that person when they get off the train at Penn Station, see the show and have dinner, who has the cardboard sign and is sitting on the corner. And while that’s certainly a part of the population, it’s not the majority.”

Homelessness isn’t always visible in areas like Smithtown, according to Mike Guiffrida, associate director of the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless, which runs several outreach and direct service programs, including a street outreach team.

Giuffrida has seen homelessness increase among the elderly, who are being priced out of the housing market and generally have medical debt, and young mothers between the ages of 25 to 35, who cannot afford the cost of living and do not have established careers. 

The backlog of evictions put on hold during the pandemic has recently started to pick up.

“I think an area like Smithtown is a really good example of an opportunity to bring awareness to an issue like homelessness while it might not be overly seen and visible within the community,” Giuffrida said.

Some homeless people throughout Long Island live in their cars but do not have a consistent space to park their cars, making it difficult to track them down. It often takes good Samaritans calling and reporting the person for the coalition to offer them services.

“We really rely on the community to be the eyes and the ears because homelessness looks different on Long Island than it does in other areas, not only in the sense that you don’t see it but also in the trends of how people are living specifically,” he said.

In Smithtown, libraries have helped serve and identify the homeless, Guiffrida said. He added that giving them a place to use the computer to access resources has been instrumental. Police have also played a role.

“We’ve seen this encouraging trend where police are kind of seeking an alternative and more supportive way to engage people that are in that situation,” Giuffrida noted. “They’re contacting us and partnering with the outreach teams and other support.”

With some exceptions, such as veterans, youth or victims of domestic violence, households have to go through the Department of Social Services to access shelters in Suffolk County, said Giuffrida. When people call and ask for the nearest shelter, the coalition cannot give them an answer because the nearest shelter may not be available or the person may not be eligible. 

Data on the number of homeless people in the area is difficult to interpret, according to Guiffrida.

A spokesperson for the Suffolk County Police Department said they could not “quantify calls about homeless people.” When asked about the number of calls received about the homeless in Smithtown this year, due to the fact they are classified as a disturbance, a code used for several issues such as parking problems, dogs barking, loud parties, loose animals and neighbor disputes. 

Smithtown Public Information Officer Nicole Garguilo said the Town supervisor’s office had not received calls from residents about the homeless.

Data for last year on the number of homeless on Long Island from the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless include 9,687 total people, 3,692 single adults and 6,005 households with children.

If you see someone you think may be homeless, call the Long Island Coalition for the Homeless helpline at 631-464-4314, ext. 118.

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Winners and sponsors from Smithtown Children's Foundation's 2019 Wellness Challenge

By Leah Chiappino

For over a decade, Smithtown Children’s Foundation has been providing emotional and financial support for struggling families residing in the Smithtown school district. In the wake of COVID-19, the need from the community has only grown stronger, and the foundation has had to cancel the five major fundraisers that sustain its operations, such as its annual golf outing, casino night, holiday breakfast and dinner dance. “We have so many families who need us and so little opportunity to fundraise,” said Krissy Lonetto, executive board member

Nesconset resident Jennifer Draney and SCF volunteer Laura Cook load a car with fresh vegetables. Photo from Smithtown Children’s Fondation

The foundation was originally founded in 2008 to assist the family of Kaylee Ann Rivers, a local kindergarten student with neuroblastoma. Though she passed away, her legacy inspired the foundation to continue to assist as many local families as possible.

SCF pays medical and utility bills, and purchases medical equipment that is not covered by insurance for families facing a crisis. The foundation arranges delivery of meals for local families facing hardship, whether they are facing a catastrophe such as a house fire or are falling on hard times after losing a job. The foundation also funds a classroom project each year and works with social workers from the school district to provide school supplies, Thanksgiving gift cards and holiday presents. Each family that receives assistance is vetted through application forms, referred to the foundation by social workers or nominated by a loved one.

“People are struggling but are too proud to say it,” said executive director Christine Fitzgerald. “They say they are OK, and in reality they’re not.”

Even with the increased demand in need during the pandemic, the foundation has not turned away families that need assistance. However, there is concern the situation could come to that, due to the drop in fundraising.

“We will probably make a single percentage of the funds that we raised last year,” said advisory board member and local food writer Nancy Vallarella. “The need is so great, and it is very frustrating. We’re just not hitting what we need to hit, and I understand that every foundation is going through the same thing. It’s just very difficult.”

Though the foundation has sustained operations mostly through private donations and reserve funds, they have had to get creative in order to try and fundraise what they can, according to Fitzgerald, who is also a founding member of the foundation. At the beginning of the pandemic, they hosted a restaurant bingo fundraiser, in which participants made a $15 donation, and in exchange received bingo cards filled with local restaurants. When donors ordered from the restaurants and showed proof, they marked the space. Those that won “Bingo!” each received a gift card to one of the participating restaurants, benefiting both the restaurants and the foundation.

In the summer, the foundation launched a farm-to-trunk initiative in which they partnered with Red Fox Organic and Sujecki farms, to sell produce to be picked up curbside at the Watermill.

“We were really grasping at straws to try and provide a service to the community and support local farmers,” Vallarella said. “We did not make a lot of money, but it kept us in touch with the community.”

“There is literally nothing that those families want that we don’t find a way to get for them.” – Krissy Lonetto

She added that people would come from week to week, and then make personal donations or have their businesses donate.

Other events went virtual, like a recent online basket auction, and an online gift registry using the website Elfster, in which donors could directly purchase a gift from the wish list of a local child in need, which totaled around 50 families.

“There is literally nothing that those families want that we don’t find a way to get for them,” Lonetto said. “We’re almost like Make-A-Wish.”

She is a teacher at Accompsett Elementary School who joined the group after it helped her launch the annual Mike’s Hike run/family walk in honor of fellow teacher, Mike Denaro, who died suddenly in 2011. She said that the number of families whose information the foundation received from social workers to receive holiday gifts is normally around 15-20, and this year totaled around 25-30. At Thanksgiving, the number of families who received gift cards to purchase a meal increased from around 15 to 40.

Over the years, the foundation has developed different chapters to expand its reach, and most are in honor of local children who have passed away. Tristin’s Wish, which was started for Tristin Hart, a local toddler who passed away from a bacterial infection, funds holiday presents. The Silent Night chapter, launched on behalf of Dylan Beach, gifts presents to patients at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. The Smi1es 4 S3an chapter was launched in honor of Smithtown West student Sean Cook, who passed away from cancer with the goal of assisting other families who have a child with cancer. Anthony’s Hope was started in honor of Anthony Raso, a Smithtown student who committed suicide after a long battle with depression, in order to raise awareness for suicide, mental illness and opioid addiction in teenagers and young adults.

The foundation has expanded into a Hauppauge chapter which is headed by board member and local insurance agent Jennifer O’Brien, and is devoted to assisting families residing in the Hauppauge school district.

Local non-profit pivots fundraising effort and aids local farmers, community, and economy

The Smithtown Children’s Foundation has spent the last twelve years helping local residents in need. Funds are raised primarily by large gathering events. C0VID-19 has canceled all of those events for 2020. “We had to pivot just like every other business. Unfortunately, need is at an all-time high, when our funds are at an all-time low,” said Christine Fitzgerald, President, and Co-Founder of Smithtown Children’s Foundation. “We had to get creative.”

Farm to Trunk is the brainchild of SCF board member and former Nesconset Farmer’s Market Manager, Nancy Vallarella. “COVID related social media posts revealed local residents were ordering product from distributors that were sourcing produce from all over the country. With Long Island’s harvest approaching, why not organize a minimal contact delivery system that would help Long Island farmers, the local economy, and provide the consumer with the freshest, nutrient-packed produce available?” she said.

Red Fox Organic Farms, located on the property of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood, was the first Long Island farm to join this fundraising program. Jim Adams, Red Fox’s Farm Coordinator remarked,” We are thrilled and so grateful to be working with SCF. It’s just the connection we needed to begin sharing our food with the Long Island community.”

Smithtown resident Dawn Mohrmann has purchased the Red Fox Organic produce box for the past four weeks. “The Farm to Trunk Smithtown Children’s Foundation program has been an easy decision. A great foundation paired with great local, organic, farm-fresh food! Healthy produce for our family is what we look forward to every week,” said Mohrmann.

SCF’s Farm to Trunk will be bringing Sujecki Farms (Calverton), back to Smithtown as an additional produce provider for the Farm to Trunk Fundraiser. “Sujecki Farms has a following here in Smithtown. They have been an anchor in Smithtown’s Farmers’ Market history for over a decade,” said Vallarella. “They are a family that has been farming on Long Island for over 100 years. We welcome their products and are excited to continue to support their farming effort.”

All orders are placed directly with each farm and are delivered to Watermill Caterers, 711 Smithtown Bypass/Rt.347, Smithtown. Smithtown Children’s Foundation volunteers deliver the produce boxes to the customer’s car trunk from the southwest corner of the Watermill’s parking lot every Wednesday from 5:30 to 7 p.m. There is no on-going commitment. Consumers can order week to week.

Information on the program can be found on the Farm to Trunk — Smithtown Children’s Foundation Facebook.

Order links:

Red Fox Organic Farms — https://www.redfoxfarm.farm/product-page/red-fox-box

Sujecki Farms — https://www.sujeckifarms.com/product-page/smithtown-farm-to-trunk-veggie-box

Photos from Nancy Vallarella