By Michael White |
It all started with a family in need.
In this case, a local woman was struggling after suddenly, and unexpectedly, having to care full-time for her granddaughter.
When Debbie Loesch and her daughter Brittany of Bellport got word of her situation, they appealed to the larger community for help through Facebook.
“We just started to ask our friends if anybody had clothes the little girl’s size,” Debbie Loesch said.
The response was overwhelming.
Then the two women learned of another neighbor in trouble.
This woman, battling a stage 4 cancer, had been living in a nearby hotel room with her teenage daughters. She recently found an apartment, but didn’t have money for furniture or housewares.
“She was in pain and going through chemo,” explained the elder Loesch, who graduated from Bellport High School in 1981. “And I was thinking about her and others who might be having a tough time. There’s no reason we can’t all just help each other out.”
“I kept hearing in my head, ‘If you build it they will come,'” she continued. “There were times when we really struggled, and there were people out there who gave me a hand-up and I really felt that it was time for me to give back.”
Loesch immediately put together a Facebook group called Long Island Angels.
so many in need
After just five months, the group has well over 20,000 members. The members have rallied to help so many families across Suffolk and Nassau counties, the Loesches have lost count.
At first, Debbie and Brittany Loesch would drive all over the island to pick up an endless stream of donated items. They’ve since developed a network of drop-off stations in Suffolk County, which really amounts to a handful of volunteers who offer their time and their own houses.
That, and last week the mother and daughter team celebrated receiving a tax ID number for their new nonprofit corporation: Angels of Long Island.
They hope their official nonprofit status will lead to more monetary donations and, ultimately, a way to free themselves of the donated items that have overrun their house on Association Road just north of Bellport Village.
“It’s such a selfless thing that they’re doing,” said Lois Piro, the business manager at Mediterranean Manor.
Piro also happens to live on the same block as the Loesches, whom she got to know by dropping off donations for so many of the unnamed families she learns about through Long Island Angels on Facebook.
“Whenever Debbie posted about a family that needed help I would run down and donate something, if I could,” Piro said. “One time I was dropping stuff off, and included with that was a small cot. And the family pulled up at the same time and the kid said, ‘Look, Daddy, now I don’t have to sleep on the floor.’”
An inspired Piro said she appealed to her boss at Mediterranean Manor and he jumped at the chance to help the cause, offering the entire catering hall and free appetizers for the Feb. 24 event, which includes a massive paint night with 200 people, and piles of donated gifts being offered up through Chinese auction and silent auctions.
“People don’t realize that Brittany and Debbie use their own telephones; they use their vehicles,” Piro said. “Sometimes I have to give them a little Business 101, but what they’re doing comes from their hearts. and to be part of this, for me, is really just life-changing to see so many people close to us, and what they don’t have.”
Brittany Loesch, who graduated from Hunter College in January, said people crying in the family’s house became a regular occurrence during the holidays.
“Around Christmas, so many people broke down in our living room,” she said.
Fearing they wouldn’t be able to handle the demand in the run-up to Christmas, she and her mom tried to only accept five families for help around the holidays, encouraging people in need to write them letters about their situations.
“Everybody’s story was sadder and sadder; we couldn’t say no,” Brittany said. “Then there was so many other people that were willing to adopt. We eventually had to stop at 30 families.
Those on the waiting list were told they could head to Mastic on one particular day to pick up toys.
“We called it the Misfit Toy Day,” Debbie said with a smile.
neighbors helping neighbors
“The phone keeps ringing,” Brittany said. “People call up and they say, ‘Hi, I was referred to your organization.’ And we would laugh because we weren’t an organization, though I guess we are now.”
During last week’s interviews, Peter Bower, a youth pastor at True North Community Church in Bohemia, stopped by the house with two dozen jackets that had been donated by the NFL. Like so many items, they ended up in the Loesch’s living room, stacked high on their coaches.
Debbie Loesch explained that Bower had told her he was praying for a group like the Angels to come along so that he could take part in it.
“This whole thing is a miracle,” he added.
“This is not all about God, ” Debbie later said, “but God has a hand in my group.”
In a separate interview, Piro said she suspects the Angels are so wildly successful because they don’t have any sort of religious affiliations. Their efforts are simply about neighbors helping neighbors, regardless of background.
That, and it helps having two endearing, beloved women fronting the efforts.
“They lend it credibility,” she said. “They’re local Bellport/East Patchogue people and what they’re doing goes right to the heart of your own neighborhoods. Sure, you might not know all these families [in need], but they’re like you and me and they just fell on hard times.
“Now. they get to go ask Debbie or Brittany for help without being afraid or embarrassed.”
The Angels only have one important rule: no repeat customers.
(She didn’t use the term moochers, but that’s probably a better word.)
“This is a hand-up, not a handout,” Debbie explained. “This is for people who have fallen on hard times.”
And, she said, she sees a lot of families who were in need just a few months ago now donating to other families.
She’s quick to admit, though, that she must get the donations out of her house, which the two women also share with Brittany’s 3-year-old daughter, Isabella.
“It’s really affecting our lives now,” Debbie said. “My prayer is that somebody hears about us and has an empty building somewhere and wants a tax write-off to let us use it for six months to a year.”
Ultimately, she’d like to have a full-fledged storage and packing center for families that also features a pay-what-you-can café for people in need of a nutritious meal.
She said the shelters only have microwaves and the people living in them do have to pay rent.
“They’re not really being set up to succeed,” she said. “But if everybody looked out for everyone else, and we all did a little bit to help all our neighbors, I really think we can give people that lift they need and help make this a community we could be proud of.”
“Your neighbors’ kids shouldn’t have pants that are too short,” she said. “We can share our stuff.”
Featured photo: Pastor Peter Bower and Brittany Loesch carrying NFL-donated jackets into the Loesches’ home on Association Road in Bellport Thursday evening.
Top photo: Debbie Loesch showing off one of the never-worn jackets.
photos by Michael White