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'We're behind them'

Grass-roots effort in East Rockaway supports essential workers, food pantries

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When they drive through East Rockaway, Lynbrook and other local communities, essential workers don’t have to look far to see how much they’re appreciated.

Hundreds of residents have purchased lawn signs with symbols representing first responders and other essential workers. They read, “Thank you! We’re all in this together.”

Three East Rockaway residents, Theresa Devlin, Toni Venrello and Joanna Santoli, who created the Thanking Local Heroes Facebook page, are selling the signs as a fundraiser. They have donated the money to houses of worship, food pantries and soup kitchens to help provide for those in need. Venrello noted the increase in demand that food pantries have seen in recent months.

“It makes everybody feel like at least we’re able to do something,” Devlin said. “We want to make essential workers feel like they’re appreciated, and we’re also glad to help feed people as well. People are really kind, and just really want to help.”

The group initially ordered 100 lawn signs from the Oceanside-based Fast Signs, but the effort has since expanded. The signs show appreciation for health care workers, emergency medical technicians, firefighters, police officers, postal and delivery workers, and grocery store employees.

Devlin joked that the group was nervous about whether people would purchase 100 signs. After a Facebook post announcing the sale, the first batch ran out in 18 minutes. Since then, the initiative has grown from East Rockaway to Lynbrook, Oceanside and other areas, and hundreds of signs have been sold.

They sell for $10, and a portion of the proceeds fund gift cards for groceries to help those in need, and to restock food pantries and soup kitchens. Donations have gone the Mary Brennan Inn Soup Kitchen in Hempstead, St. Raymond’s Church, Church of the Nazarene and Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway, Our Lady of Peace Church in Lynbrook and the Cedarhurst Jewish Community Center. At press time, the group had raised $6,700.

The Rev. Mark Lukens, pastor at the Bethany Church, called the trio "a wonderful group."

"They have donated hundreds of dollars to our church, and we are giving most of that money to support the Long Island Council of Churches food pantry in Freeport and the rest to other local food distributions centers as well as to re-stock our gift card supply for folks who need it," he said. "It's a great thing because though we generally ask our parishoners to bring food for the pantry to worship service, we have not been able to worship in our building since March, so it has been harder for us to get our usual number of donations out to the pantries."

Devlin said she got the idea for the initiative while talking on the phone with Venrello, a long-time friend, and they decided to act to thank essential workers while also helping those in need. Santoli said she did not know Devlin or Venrello before this effort, but she spotted the signs while walking around her neighborhood and wanted to help.

Devlin collects the money and handles order requests, Venrello orders and picks up the signs in Oceanside, and Santoli uses her home as a no-contact pick-up point, where buyers can come, leave their money in a mailbox and take the sign from her porch.

Nurse Tracie Tymon, of Lynbrook,has ben a nurse at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center for 20 years, and said she has noticed and appreciated the signs.

"The signs of support make myself and the other essential workers feel appreciated, respected and recognized," she said. "Those signs recognize those that are out there doing their jobs, so those at home can continue to stay safe and take care of their loved ones."

Santoli noted many people have donated up to $50, not $10, knowing most of the proceeds will go to churches and soup kitchens.

After getting involved, Santoli posted that she was selling signs on a Lynbrook Facebook page and received 120 requests overnight.

“I can’t tell you enough how many notes of appreciation I have gotten from people who bought the signs and workers who have seen the signs,” she said. “We all know someone who is an essential worker or a front-line worker, and anything that we can do to ease their burden, show them our appreciation, it’s such a nice way to support one another and come together as a community at the same time.”

 

Venrello said that with many people out of work amid the pandemic, soup kitchens and food pantries have seen an uptick in requests as more residents than usual have been in need of meals. She said after getting involved in helping with distributing the signs, she is happy that her mailman and the UPS workers can come to her house and see how much she appreciates them.

She added that it has been nice to see the community come together and that the response has been amazing. In the beginning, she thought maybe they would sell 100 signs, but the community response got to a point where some of the signs were on backorder.

“There's just so many people to thank,” Venrello said. “We thought that as they're driving to work, for them to just come home and see those signs, we want them to know that we're all behind them and we really appreciate the fact that they're getting out there every day.”

To learn more or to request a sign, visit the Thanking Local Heroes Facebook page.