By Jennifer Corr
Almost three years of helping families
The COVID-19 pandemic was a trying time for many people.
According to data from Georgetown University, with business closures and restrictions beginning in March of 2020, 23 million people had lost their jobs by May of that year. Job loss, as well as food shortages due to labor disruptions, caused many people to have to struggle to get food.
And this struggle was felt at the local level on Long Island.
Jericho Cares was among the organizations founded in the first year of the pandemic to combat poverty and food insecurity.
“We started in August 2020, and the reason we actually started was because of the hotel that was going to become the transitional family center in Jericho,” said Fran O’Conner, the president of Jericho Cares. “There was a lot of opposition to it, and myself and a few other moms on social media were just trying to be positive and to make people see it’s okay, it’s going to be a good thing, we’re going to help families… A few moms and I connected through social media… I only knew one of them. And we said, ‘let’s do something nice. Let’s let these families know they’re welcome here in Jericho.’”
The movement to stop the property at 120 Jericho Turnpike from becoming a transitional housing facility that would’ve accommodated 80 families garnered a lot of support from the community, citing concerns that it would be less than a mile away from Cantiague Elementary School and that the facility’s use would go against zoning codes. A petition created by Concerned Jericho Parents had 3,274 signers and a fundraiser to retain legal counsel for the purpose of putting a stop to the facility received $87,687 in donations ($35,000 leftover was donated to charity).
“We just felt so terrible,” O’Conner said. “These are kids and families who are trying to do right and so many of the families we helped lost their jobs during Covid or had a disability or are elderly, and it could happen to any of us at any moment and that’s what people tend to forget.”
The moms, O’Conner added, partnered with the Jericho Union Free School District to find out how many families needed assistance. From there, they held a toiletries and backpack drive so that the supplies could be given to the families.
Inspired to continue acts of kindness, O’Conner and the fellow moms, following in the footsteps of a local who helps families just getting by, began visiting a Jericho motel every Saturday to give out food, clothing and toiletries and learn about the needs of families. To this day they go every Saturday. They also deliver care packages up to 20 miles away from Jericho.
“We decided, ‘hey, we’re doing really good and this feels really good, let’s make this a non-profit,’” O’Conner said. “We formed a non-profit. We got incorporated and we got our 501(c)(3) status, which was huge, and then it kind of snowballed since in a great and fabulous way.”
Just some of the activities Jericho Cares does are hosting sneaker, food, toiletries and backpack drives and providing Thanksgiving meals, holiday gifts, care packages, Mother’s Day photo shoots, Easter baskets, Valentine’s Day gifts and Halloween goodie bags to families.
Along with community support, working with organizations like the John Theissen Children’s Foundation, Mid-Island Y JCC, Birthday Wishes of Long Island, North Shore Soup Kitchen and NOSH Emergency Food Delivery, Lasagna Mammas helps make the work of Jericho Cares, which is ran solely by volunteers primarily from Syosset, Jericho and Plainview, possible.
Whenever Jericho Cares posts on its Facebook that it needs something, like fruit cups or jelly, the community delivers.
“I got 10 packages delivered to my house of fruit cups and jelly,” O’Conner said.
And recently, on May 21, Jericho Cares held a successful 5K fundraiser at Bethpage State Park.
O’Conner said that since the founding of Jericho Cares, she and her fellow officers and board members have learned so much about the issues facing Long Island families.
“Families could be working full time jobs and they still need help,” O’Conner said. “They’re getting minimum wage, maybe, and they’re not making enough money to make ends meet. Even just getting a week’s worth of groceries once a month helps them out. So I think that’s what we’re seeing, this isn’t just families living in the hotel. These are families that are working families that just need a little bit of extra help because everything is so expensive nowadays. Even to go grocery shopping, it’s three times what we used to pay a few years ago. We also help a lot of single moms and the elderly.”
On Long Island, even making two minimum wage salaries makes it difficult for families to get by. In order to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, a family of four can only make $36,084 a year, $3,007 a month before taxes and withholdings.
“Some people will try to better themselves and get a better paying job and then because they’re making more money, they lose those benefits,” O’Conner said. “It’s so hard to get ahead when people are pushing them down constantly. We’re just here to help them.”
In doing this work, O’Conner has seen humanity at its best, even in the face of immense struggle, before her eyes.
“We gave out Thanksgiving baskets and it was just Thanksgiving food and pies, and we had a single mom who I believe was coming from Hempstead,” O’Conner recalled. “She took a bus to the train, and then walked from the train station to where we were giving them out at the VFW in Syosset. She did all of that with her two-year-old baby… To get the items that she needed. It was freezing out because it was in November. It was so cold. When we saw her it broke our hearts and filled our hearts at the same time. Look at what she was willing to do to help her family have a nice Thanksgiving.”
O’Conner said the volunteers gave the woman and her child a ride home.
“We had another woman who was living in a motel, and she lost her husband and then she was on a waiting list for over-55 housing,” O’Conner said. “She finally got the housing and now she’s living in her own apartment. She’s thriving and doing great. She made new friends… She thanks us all the time, because we helped her.”
There was another family who needed sneakers for their daughter. O’Conner met the family in a Target parking lot, and she could tell the little girl didn’t like the pink sneakers Jericho Cares provided so much.
“They weren’t her style, but she was never going to say that,” O’Conner said. “And they were too small for her. She’s trying to put her foot in it because she knows that they don’t have anything, so she’ll take anything.”
So, O’Conner asked the family to go inside the Target with her, and they were able to get a pair of sneakers the girl did like, which were red and black.
“The little girl had the biggest smile on her face,” O’Conner said. “Just the pure gratitude and appreciation, even from the little kids, is amazing. That’s what keeps us going… Something that our kids would take for granted, they would love.”
As for the future, Jericho Cares, which currently operates out of a storage facility, hopes to open up a storefront where people can stop by during open hours and pick up what they need. The next event will be the backpack and sneaker drive.
To volunteer for Jericho Cares, donate or get assistance, visit www.jerichocares.org.