By Courtney Rehfeldt
As many Long Islanders face financial hardship and food insecurity, struggling to make ends meet, Melissa Paulson, of Port Jefferson, is helping communities in need.
A yellow wreath adorns the door to the Port Jefferson Station outreach center Give Kids Hope that Paulson recently opened along Nesconset Highway. Families who come to the center can pick up free food and other items, including toiletries and even toys or clothes.
“It has been truly sad to see the amount of people who struggle with providing everyday basic needs for their family,” Paulson said.
Eight years ago, Paulson initially started Give Kids Hope as a nonprofit to support children fighting cancer before pivoting towards helping the general public.
“I started Give Kids Hope after my daughter was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma,” she said. “Having been faced with such a tragedy, I knew that my only hope was prayer and the hospital staff around us. The simple things, such as a toy gifted to my daughter through the worst time, cheered her up. I wanted to be that person to help other children going through the same thing.”
Unfortunately, Paulson faced yet another challenge when her husband lost his job. Just as before, Paulson’s own challenging experience inspired her to help others in the same position.
“After my husband lost his job for 16 months, we were faced with the same situation of families who are struggling,” the outreach center owner said. “Luckily, we had our savings account and family to help us through that time. I learned that even working people can lose everything so easily without any notice or warning. We are grateful to have had the option to come back from that situation. However, most families don’t have the support from others or other things to keep them afloat. I wanted to be that person that others can lean on during their crisis.”
Paulson noted that the pandemic and subsequent job losses on Long Island has created a massive demand for food and daily essentials. She reported that Give Kids Hope assists 15 to 30 families a week with food items, and some weeks that number is even higher, averaging 40 to 60 families.
“We have seen every type of hard situation that is imaginable,” she said.
Even before the pandemic, Paulson said many Long Island families were already struggling and that the need for future assistance can occur at any time.
“I feel the community isn’t aware of how many families are truly in need of basic essentials and living needs,” Paulson said. “Even for a working family who hits a crisis, it becomes a downward spiral of effects. There isn’t enough assistance out there that allows families to receive what they truly need. Some people don’t qualify for government assistance due to a few dollars over the allowed limit. Our goal is to provide assistance and support to them through their time of need.”
Before opening the Give Kids Hope location in Port Jefferson Station, Paulson ran the operation out of her home.
“We had a very generous donor who donated $5,000 to get us started,” she said. “We were limited with space and ability when doing it in my home. Now we can open 4-5 days a week for pantry items and other types of assistance.”
Paulson emphasized that it has been challenging to raise funds, and notes that Give Kids Hope relies on the community’s support to keep it flourishing.
“Our center is 100% free to others in need,” the Port Jeff resident said. “Since we opened, we have helped 662 families with clothes, toys, and food assistance. A lot of families are walk-ins that don’t have a computer. Our center has been a huge asset to the community and has grown tremendously. We have held free shopping events, back-to-school supplies drives, and we are currently working on a Halloween costume drive, Thanksgiving, and our big toy drive for Christmas.”
Paulson also added that the center is looking for volunteers and takes food and item donations.
Give Kids Hope is located at 4390 Nesconset Highway in Port Jefferson Station. They can be contacted online by searching Give Kids Hope on Facebook or by calling 631-538-5287.