On Tuesdays, as early as 7:45 a.m., mothers with hungry children in tow and others, both young and old, gather in the basement of the Don Bosco Community Center in Port Chester.
By Georgetta L. Morque
On Tuesdays, as early as 7:45 a.m., mothers with hungry children in tow and others, both young and old, gather in the basement of the Don Bosco Community Center in Port Chester. They’re awaiting a hot breakfast and entry into the gymnasium where they can pick up a bag of 15 meals worth of groceries, produce and baked goods, and gently-used clothes — from baby sweaters to adult sneakers — which sit neatly, sorted by size, on tables and racks.
“Some people have made this a part of their plan for survival,” said Emily Saunders, a Rye resident and volunteer development director of Caritas of Port Chester, which started in 1995 as a soup and sandwich supper program by volunteers at Holy Rosary. Over the years, the organization has grown to include a food pantry, soup kitchen, ESL classes, emergency services, and an open closet. Most of the programs take place in rented space at Don Bosco. Last year, Caritas of Port Chester became a 501(c) (3) and recently launched a website. William Vaccaro is the executive director.
Breakfast and lunch – a complete meal — are served five days a week and the food pantry distribution and open closet are available on Tuesdays and Saturdays, explained Pat Hart, another Rye volunteer and president of the board, who along with Saunders, cheerfully greeted volunteers and the few part-time staffers on a recent Tuesday morning. For the needy coming in, mostly from the nearby housing projects, these are their only meals of the day. “We have poor and needy just three miles away,” said Saunders. “I don’t know if people really know the depth of the need.”
Those who drive past the center may notice a line of men on the sidewalk, who are day laborers looking for work through a Don Bosco program. On a recent morning, only two of the 27 were successful. The rest came inside for breakfast and also to help with heavy lifting in the kitchen and cleaning up. Saunders says the need for services is related to employment. “They’ve run out of benefits, exhausted resources and are trying to hold on to a home.”
In the summer, the soup kitchen provides around 2,500 meals and in winter, nearly twice as many. The food pantry serves approximately 550 families per month and the open closet distributes clothing and shoes to 15,000 people a year. About 50 families in crisis received emergency help last year. Saunders told of one woman with a serious illness who wouldn’t have been able to afford her prescriptions without assistance. Around 40 take ESL classes, taught by volunteers, twice a week, and babysitting is provided for mothers in the class.
Caritas relies on grants, donations and volunteers to stay afloat. “We always can use more volunteers,” said Hart, who is concerned about the surge when the weather gets colder and warm clothing and more food will be necessary. She’s reaching out to schools and churches for food and clothing drives. Volunteers are welcome for a variety of tasks, from packing grocery bags to prepping food to driving to restaurants and bakeries to pick up donations. Hart says even a once-a-month commitment would make a difference.
On the wish list for the future is an improved open closet that would resemble a retail store, which would be more dignified and easier to organize, according to Hart. Ideally, she would like to see the pantry, which is tucked away in a nook, grow into a choice pantry.
Meantime, Caritas focuses on the task at hand: feeding and clothing the needy. Gently used clothing can be dropped in the red bin outside the church. To volunteer or make a donation, visit the new website, www.CaritasofPortChester.org.