By Melissa Arnold
As the holiday season settles in, many people include giving to others in need as part of their annual traditions. Whether it’s food for a family struggling to make ends meet or toys for kids that might not get any gifts, sharing what we have is a big part of spreading holiday joy.
This year, more Long Islanders are facing financial difficulties than ever before thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Among the generous people stepping up to help is Brian Hoerger, a board member and Facilities Manager at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson.
Not long after the pandemic began, Hoerger, who was born and raised in the community, felt compelled to do whatever he could for his neighbors. He learned that local hospitals were searching for iPads and other devices to help connect patients with their family members who couldn’t be at their bedside.
“I donated an old one that I had at home, and then I thought it would be a good idea to see if I could raise a little extra money to donate a second one,” he said. “So I put something up on my Facebook and that first night I had $2000 come in.”
Ultimately, Hoerger’s friends helped him donate 15 iPads to St. Charles and Mather hospitals. He later called Stony Brook University Hospital to ask how he could help them, too. Their answer: Food.
“They told me that some of the staff members were really struggling and needed help getting food on the table. They were already doing their own food drives, but they encouraged me to have one of my own,” he explained. “I put a table out in my driveway on my birthday, and people came by with all sorts of donations. It was a great way to celebrate, probably one of my best birthdays. Everyone was so into it.”
At the urging of his friends, he held a second drive a few weeks later. The response was even greater than the first.
Theatre Three’s Executive Director Jeffrey Sanzel regularly brought bags of donations to Hoerger’s food drives, and it wasn’t long before the wheels started turning again. What if the food drives were run by the theater directly? “We certainly have more space and a large audience to draw on [at the theater],” Hoerger said. “And people could just drive up and drop off their donations in a safe, contactless way. It checked all the boxes.”
Sanzel jumped at the proposal. The theater has hosted five food drives since June with the last one of the year planned this Saturday.
“We thought it was a wonderful idea, especially given the times we’re in,” he said. “We’ve had volunteers from the Theatre Three family help set up and run the drives and have had many show up with donations. We plan on continuing for as long as we can, even after we reopen.”
In addition to helping out the hospitals, Hoerger has been donating food to Infant Jesus Parish in Port Jefferson, whose Open Cupboard Food Pantry provides food and other emergency supplies to people in the area.
In the early days of the pandemic, Infant Jesus social ministry coordinator Vicki Rybak was working curbside, doing her best to meet the needs of pantry visitors without the usual volunteer support.
“Prior to the pandemic, I would see much less than 30 families in a typical week,” said Rybak, who has spent 17 years serving the community. “Back in the spring, when things were really bad, I was seeing 60 to 65 families a week. Everyone was just trying to get by. They weren’t working, assistance was running out, and bills still needed to be paid.”
While the pantry had the funds to help, purchasing limits at grocery stores made it difficult to stay stocked. Hoerger used his connections to keep the donations coming.
As for what they need most right now, Rybak said that toiletries are always deeply appreciated by visitors.
“It’s about dignity — imagine what it would be like to go two weeks without washing your hair or not being able to brush your teeth with toothpaste, especially for kids and teens,” she added.
Rybak also hopes that volunteers might step up to help transport fresh produce and other products from farms whose excess inventory is sitting in storage, she said. “Fresh produce and dairy are like gold to us. It would be incredible if people could drive to the farms so that we can offer those items more frequently. Imagine what we could do if we had a few trucks delivering produce!”
This month, Theatre Three is also collecting unwrapped toys and gifts for ages 1 to 16. The toys will be given to children visiting the pantry.
This month’s Theatre Three Cares Holiday Food and Toy drive will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 12 (rain date Dec. 13) at Theatre Three, 412 Main Street, Port Jefferson. Donations will be collected behind the theater, on the building’s south side. Donors are welcome to remain in their vehicle if they’d like to make a contactless donation. For questions, call 631-938-6464.
The Infant Jesus Open Cupboard food pantry is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to noon at 220 Hawkins St., Port Jefferson, behind the church. For information, please call 631-928-0447.
Photos by Brian Hoerger