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Freeporters lend hand to food pantry

Freeport, Lynbrook team up for a cause

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The volunteers were there to move food on March 16. They started by picking it up at a home on Catherine Street in Lynbrook, and trucked it to a food pantry run by the Long Island Council of Churches on Hansen Street in Freeport.

The truck, provided by Nassau Door & Window, was tightly packed. A caravan of nearly two dozen volunteers followed in cars. After the truck pulled into the pantry’s loading dock, the thousands of pounds of food were unpacked and deposited there. With smiles and laughs, the volunteers passed down boxes person to person until they reached the rear of the pantry.

“Be careful, it’s heavy,” Freeporter Jason Holin told his son, Caleb, 10, a fifth-grader at Atkinson Intermediate School, as he handed him a box of canned goods. Caleb grabbed the box and passed it along. He admitted that he hadn’t initially wanted to help out at LICC, but he was happy that he did. “I realized that this was important to do,” Caleb said. “There are people that need help and need to get food.”

“It’s a great cause,” his father said. “I wanted my son to understand there are people that do need help, and it’s important to take care of all of us — we’re a community.”

Father and son spent the morning with 20 other volunteers who called themselves Team Jeremy’s, for Jeremy’s Ale House on the Nautical Mile, who are helping raise money for the Move the Food movement that started at the Community Presbyterian Church in Malverne. Other volunteers included Boy Scout troops from Freeport and Long Beach.

Eight years ago, Rob and Mary Hallam, congregants of the Community Presbyterian Church, started a food drive in their Lynbrook home by putting two cans of tuna in a collection box.

“If it’s meant to be, God will fill the box up,” Rob recalled saying. That year, the Hallams collected 987 items. The next year, they collected over 2,000 donations, and during the third year of the drive, they received over 3,500. This year they amassed their biggest total, with roughly 16,000 food items, and more than $7,000 in donations.

“I know some people think I’m nuts, but it was a spiritual calling,” Rob said. “There’s no question in my mind.”

The drive is an extension of an annual food collection that Community Presbyterian started 15 years ago. The Hallams are Sunday school teachers at the church.

“We’re a small congregation, but through our annual collection we’ve been able to make a huge contribution,” said the church’s pastor, the Rev. Janice Moore-Caputo. “Each person has connections outside the church where it opens the possibility for anybody to be a part of this.”

The process starts in mid-January, when the Hallams place food-donation boxes at local storefronts, businesses and schools. They also shop three or four nights a week to start the collection at their home.

The Hallams said that February is a good time to collect food because, after the holidays, there is a decline in people giving back, although the need is still there. In addition, in the middle of winter, they said, some families must choose between paying their heating bills or buying groceries.

“There’s an awful lot of people that you wouldn’t think of as people in need,” Mary said. “These are working people that, for whatever reason, they need a little extra something just to get through. When we started this, we never realized how many neighbors could be affected by hunger.”

The Hallams’ drive makes them the largest individual donors to the LICC’s food pantry, according to Yolanda Murray, the organization’s pantry manager and program coordinator.

“They’re not getting paid anything to do this,” Murray said. “All the work that goes into this, you wouldn’t believe that they’re not getting anything for this. They’re doing this from the goodness of their hearts.”

In addition, the Hallams raised roughly $800 through a 50/50 raffle, which went toward a new freezer for the LICC.

By Tuesday, Murray said, the pantry had already given out two pallets of the Hallams’ donations. Their work also allows the pantry to sustain steady donations for at least three to four months.

Last year, the LICC helped 18,000 families, and that number, Murray said, continues to increase. The pantry is open daily with the exception of weekends, and in a single day serves roughly 50 families.

Murray said that the people who seek help come from all parts of Nassau County, and include a mix of seniors, veterans, adults, children and even a number of college students.

The Hallams attributed their close ties with the LICC to Wally Merna, who was its emergency food center manager until he died last year. Rob said that Merna advocated for people like the Hallams to raise awareness. “He kind of took me under his wing to get us started,” Rob said.

The purpose of the food pantry, he added, is to allow people to open up about why they struggle for food. Through those interactions, the Hallams hope to help people get into programs offered by the LICC that can turn their lives around. He said that those people often find success, and then give back to others in need.

“When you see some of the actual people that are getting help, it actually hits you,” Rob said. “People start to put identities to the food and the boxes. It’s not just a story anymore. It’s real people with real needs that are doing the best they can to stay afloat.”

Much of the food drive’s success comes from word of mouth, according to the Hallams. As a result, they have received donations from across Long Island and from other states, including South Carolina and Florida.

“If I could sell windows and doors as well as this, I would’ve retired years ago,” Rob said. “But it’s the Holy Spirit that really motivates the people.”

The LICC accepts donations year round, and the Hallams will continue accepting them at their home through April. The couple said that their biggest concern is finding more storage space during their annual collection. “If that’s our worst problem,” Rob said, “then that’s a blessing.”