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East Meadow gives military families a Christmas dinner

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For the second year, members of the East Meadow community helped give their military neighbors a Christmas dinner, complete with a visit from Santa Claus and gifts for their children. The Nassau County Army Recruiting Company celebrated the holiday with what it called “Christmas (Unclassified)” on Dec. 20 at Levittown’s VFW Post 9592, drawing a crowd of around two dozen.

The recruiting company has stations in Freeport, Hempstead, Hicksville, Lynbrook and University Garden. Roughly half of its employees live in the Mitchel Homes complex in East Meadow.

Last year, Sgt. 1st Class Enrique Reyna hosted the first “Christmas (Unclassified).” He had just moved to Mitchel Homes, and was working with the recruiting company in Lynbrook. Reyna, 43, who is originally from Ulysses, Kan., has served in the Army for 25 years, and was used to moving from state to state. Each time he did, he said, he saw a disconnect between military families and the local community. It became a goal of his to bridge that gap around the holidays.

Before Reyna and his wife, Jenn, moved to East Meadow, they lived in Shireland, Texas, and he noted that Texas is known to be “the best place to be if you’re in military.” In December 2018, he coordinated a toy drive there, in which he and his fellow troops made their way around town, filling rucksacks with donations for families in need.

East Meadow was even more embracing of its military neighbors, Reyna said. He contacted the Chamber of Commerce last December, and its president at the time, Frank Camarano Jr., worked with him to plan the first “Christmas (Unclassified)” within a week.

With the help of chamber Secretary Christine Mooney and Vice President Richie Krug Jr., Camarano organized the event for a second time this year. He contacted the chamber’s affiliate restaurants, which catered it, and asked for donations from members to give as holiday gifts to the attending families.

At the event, children took turns searching under a Christmas tree, choosing from 30 or so stuffed animals, each of which came with a $25 Walmart gift card. Businesses that provided food included Borrelli’s, the Halal Guys, the Greene Turtle, Qdoba, Texas Roadhouse, Bagelicious, the Bagel Place, Dunkin’ Donuts, Friendly’s, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s, Frantoni’s, Moe’s and Mille Grazi.

“Everybody really stepped up to show that they appreciate us,” said Sgt. 1st Class Ninoska Urbina-Abarua, who has been in the Army for 17 years and moved to East Meadow a year ago.

Reyna moved again this fall, to be with family in Mexico, and Urbina-Abarua hosted the event this year, in keeping with Reyna’s goal of making the party “a new Christmas tradition.”

Urbina-Abarua joined the military at age 18 when she graduated from Barbara Goldman High School in Miami. Asked what inspired her to join, she said that the thought of a future in the military gave her a sense of security.

“I didn’t want to live paycheck to paycheck, not knowing where I was going with my life, and I needed stability,” she said. “The Army was going to give me that, so I jumped right in.”

Donna Nogid, chief of staff for State Sen. Kevin Thomas, presented Urbina-Abarua with a proclamation honoring her for hosting the dinner. “I don’t deserve this alone,” Urbina-Abarua told the crowd. “This is an accomplishment of everyone in this room. Sometimes we say our job is underappreciated, and that many don’t recognize the work we do behind the scenes. But this means so much to be recognized by the community.”

Urbina-Abarua said that her family has supported her decision to join the military, and that she needed to give the proclamation to her mom, adding with a laugh, “If she could save every strand of my hair, she would.”

Urbina-Abarua also expressed gratitude to her colleagues’ families. “Thank you for keeping them running when we know they’re running on fumes,” she said.