Every Saturday for the past 11 years Mary Joesten of Oceanside makes her way to the Faith Mission Outreach Center (FMOC) located in the basement of Our Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church in Freeport. She gets there by 9 a.m. and stays until her work is done.
When I arrived at the FMOC, the morning’s activities were already in full swing. Volunteers were serving coffee, pouring cereal and handing out bagels to about 40 men and several women.
Outreach centers, formerly known as soup kitchens, were once regarded as the province for just the inner-city poor. Not anymore. Almost all of the people at the center were single males, including many veterans who had served in Vietnam and are now living on fixed incomes, unemployment or handouts. Many immigrants were there as well. These are Long Island’s poor − without transportation, food, clothing or a network of support. Here Mary gives them a lifeline and hope.
Volunteers handed out clean bath towels along with razors and soap so the men could enjoy a hot shower. They can also get new underwear and socks, and clean clothing. One man had a job interview lined up, and he had his eye on a white dress shirt and patterned tie that was donated to the center. A small emergency pantry is stocked with food staples if the need arises. Lenny, another volunteer, brought sandwiches that would be delivered to the street corner where some immigrant workers congregate to look for work.
After they shower, the men are ready for their hot lunch that was prepared from scratch. Mary and a volunteer carry tables across the room to accommodate the growing number of people. Despite her small stature, Mary doesn’t ask for assistance. This mother of five and grandmother of nine gets things done, without any funding from government agencies or grants.
“She’s been doing this forever, every week,” volunteer Karen Holmgaard says about Mary. “Everybody is here because of her,” she adds. “She always seems to find the money and the volunteers, it’s like a miracle.” Mary has about 16 teams of eight to ten people who rotate shifts every Saturday to prepare, cook, serve and clean for breakfast and lunch for about 100 “friends,” as Mary calls them.
Mary has also arranged for an Immigration Officer to come every week and help people apply for working papers if they qualify. She is trying to give her friends as many opportunities as possible to get them off the street and living a full life.
In the busy kitchen, a volunteer named Carmen ladles out meatballs, singing as she works − she has a beautiful voice! Next to her, volunteer Mary Ann serves a large portion of pasta with a piece of warm garlic bread, as the youngest volunteer, James Hallwood, a student at Southside High School, places a bowl filled with a colorful, healthy salad onto the tray. A conga line of volunteers hands out the hot lunch trays to the friends while Mary orchestrates the entire project, directing everything and everyone like a symphony conductor. Any leftovers are sealed in plastic containers to be given out later. For dessert there are cakes, pastries and cookies, and most enjoy the delicious ending to a hearty hot meal.
“You don’t realize how rewarding this is until you do it,” Karen says about her volunteering at the center. “They are sweet people who are down on their luck.”
Mary started the FMOC in 1969 in South Jamaica with her late husband, Ed Joeston, affectionately known as Deacon Ed. She still travels there every Monday and Thursday to distribute canned goods, sandwiches, fresh fruits and vegetables and clothing. In 1999 the Joestens opened the FMOC in Freeport.
Mary’s newest work in progress is securing a residence facility to help L.I.’s exploding homeless veteran population. Mary estimates there are 8,000 homeless vets in Suffolk and another 3,000 in Nassau, with very few services to meet all their needs.
Mary wants to do more for our heroes. Besides the FMOC, she helped found the NY Veterans Advocacy Group, Inc., whose mission is to establish a comprehensive facility offering physical healthcare, medically managed detox programs, psychiatric help and a bedroom. Mary is passionate about her vision of a place where veterans would get the treatment they require under one roof. One of the reasons why there are so many homeless veterans, she believes, is that they are dispersed to many different facilities for treatment and they end up falling through the cracks.
While talking to me, Mary rummages through her purse and fishes out an envelope. “Before I forget,” she asks one of the volunteers, “Is Freddie here?” Freddie, Mary tells me, is a homeless Vietnam veteran who has his mail forwarded to her. He wasn’t at the FMOC that day, so she’ll have to hold onto the letter for another week. She doesn’t know where he lives or sleeps.
“Some of these men are serving three and four tours,” Mary says. “They come home, and we forget what they went through. They need transitional space.” She is especially concerned about our returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injuries. “They would have been dead in another war,” Mary explains, but because of our advanced medical capabilities many more soldiers are surviving their horrific injuries. She is also worried about the aging population of Vietnam veterans. “Some of our Vietnam veterans are falling into the senior [citizen] category,” she says. “They are still on the streets, but many should be going to nursing homes.”
Mary believes that there are not enough services available to treat our veterans, let alone help for them if an emergency arises. “We have little to offer them,” she says, “but we expect them to assimilate into society, in spite of their physical and mental problems.”
“The Veterans Administration is doing a heroic job, but because of the overwhelming number of veterans in need, the VA would welcome help from the private sector to provide additional services,” she says.
“When they were called to active duty,” she says, “they entered the service as healthy, educated young men and women.”
But, as Mary knows all too well, many are not in that condition when they return to civilian life. She meets people who are struggling everyday to regain their dignity. Their struggles are real, and right now their options are limited. Mary is fighting to get the services that our heroes deserve.
For more information call 516-992-5063 or email Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org
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