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A tailor-made hero

Schwartz leads collections of coats, food and donations

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On a recent weekday in December, Allen Schwartz was taking care of a customer at his Laurel Cleaners, at the corner of Laurel Boulevard and West Park Avenue in Long Beach.

Yes, he promised the female customer, her clothing would be ready in a day or two. She asked a few more questions, and Schwartz, a brawny man with a hearty laugh, assured her again.

While he is always attentive to the work he has done at his shop for decades, Schwartz’s mind, he admits, is never far away from a lifelong passion: the work he does for the Long Beach Lions Club, the local chapter of a nationwide service organization whose prime mission includes providing guide dogs for the blind and veterans. The cost of sponsoring a dog is $1,000.

Schwartz has been president of the 42-member Long Beach Lions for the past six years.

“The Lions are on my mind all day long,” the 63-year-old Schwartz acknowledged in an interview at the back of his store. “My wife is sick of me already,” he jokes, referring to Lisa, the woman he married 31 years ago. Lisa Schwartz runs a Girl Scout cooking program in Long Beach and Point Lookout and is said to be the driving force behind her husband’s efforts on behalf of the blind and the poor.

The couple has two daughters, Breanna, 29, a physics teacher at Uniondale High School, and Mikaela, 24, who is studying forensic mental health at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

Schwartz’s work with the Lions has meant thousands of coats for the Martin Luther King Center and St. Mary of the Isle Church in Long Beach; hundreds of guide dogs; food for the Long Beach Soup Kitchen; money to send needy children to summer camp; scholarships for other young people; and funds for the construction of two large lion fountains at a children’s park in Long Beach’s West End.

The club holds Thanksgiving food drives. It also supports the efforts of Suzanne Reisert, a retired teacher at Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park and a Lion, who visits schools across Nassau County schools and, with the permission of students’ parents, uses a special camera, called a Plusoptix, to check the eyes of children for amblyopia, or lazy eye, a correctable condition if caught early.

“You heard the word ‘mitzvah?’” Long Beach City Councilmember Mike DeLury asked, using the Hebrew term for a good deed. “That’s been Allen from early on.” DeLury, who’s also a Lion, has known Schwartz since both were in third grade in a Long Beach elementary school.

DeLury recalls that Schwartz was a shy kid, but he liked to socialize when he got to know people. “He was a kibitzer,” DeLury said.

Schwartz and his parents, Holocaust survivors from Poland, came to Long Beach in 1963. His parents, Sam and Yetta, opened the tailor shop soon after their arrival. It is a small store on a busy corner, and like the Laurel Diner across the street, is considered a landmark in the city.

Schwartz worked in the store after school, but when he graduated from Long Beach High in 1976, he decided he needed to leave town. He attended the University of Las Vegas and studied hotel management, considering a career as a hotelier.

While still in college, he got a job as an assistant entertainment director at the famed Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. He worked full-time at the hotel for seven years after graduating from college, before taking another job, in sales, in Florida.

But he returned to Long Beach in 1988, when his mother became ill, to help his father at the store. He has never left. “I grew up in this very shop,” Schwartz said. “So it was always home.”

His wife, he said, nudged him into doing something for others,. “She said, ‘You want to do something?’” he recalled. “‘Join the Lions.’”

The club, he said, wasn’t doing much when he became president in 2014. But Schwartz got to work. He organized a golf outing at a course in Manhasset that raised over $120,000 over the course of three years. The money went to sponsor guide dogs and scholarships for special-needs kids.

Schwartz has held a coat drive each of the past six years. The club, he said, collects about 1,500 coats for the needy each year. Before they are handed out, Schwartz dry-cleans them. The Lions, he said, also collect eyeglasses for the needy.

“Doing these things is just in his nature,” said City Council member Scott Mandel, a Lion for the past five years or so. “You would never know it, but he’s always looking for ways to help people.” Mandel recalled taking part a few years ago in a Schwartz-organized “duck pluck” at the pool at Kennedy Plaza. People scooped rubber ducks out of the water to raise money to sponsor guide dogs.

Reisert, the retired Seawanhaka teacher, has been testing children’s eyes for about 10 years, with Schwartz’s encouragement. She has found larger numbers of children with lazy eye in lower-income neighborhoods, such as Hempstead, and attributes the disease to poor nutrition. “Allen and the Lions have been so enthusiastically supportive of the program,” Reisert said.

Rob Blau, president of the Long Beach Soup Kitchen, said the idea for the organization came up about 20 years ago, when he and some friends gathered in the Schwartz family home to talk about feeding Long Beach’s poor and homeless.

“Allen was very instrumental in getting us a grant to start our soup kitchen,” Blau said. Schwartz, he recalled, secured a $50,000 grant from Lions International to buy a stove, four refrigerators and a walk-in freezer. “He has always been an incredibly caring person,” Blau said.

Schwartz acknowledged that he is not altogether sure why he does so much charity work. It may well have something to do with his parents, who not only saw the need but lived it every day during the Holocaust, he said. His father was a prisoner at the Auschwitz and Treblinka concentration camps.

But it may be simpler. “It’s about helping your community,” Schwartz said. “I grew up here. It’s about giving back.”