“Hello, I’m Mary. What’s your name? Are you on the street?” With those few words, this very ordinary woman is doing very extraordinary work. Those she’s greeting are Manhattan’s homeless, those who sleep in doorways, over subway grates, under scaffolding, or along the curb, existing on whatever food and kindness comes their way.
Her volunteers are standing beside suitcases of men’s coats, carts of socks and scarves; shoes and boots are aligned on a spread-out storage bag as the homeless customers wait patiently. “Hello, what do you need?” a volunteer will ask. Their customers, mostly men, point at a pair of socks, or a winter coat, asking if they can look at it or try it on.
One slight gentleman put on a winter jacket and after zipping it up, his companion smiled and said, “Perfect, put the hood up now, keep your head warm.” All say, “thank you,” or “God bless.” There’s so much gratitude going on for just the basics of life. It’s stunning. One gentleman came up to the line and said, “I’m needy, not greedy,” which made the volunteers smile.
On this grey December morning, a week before Christmas, big red stockings full of noodles, tangerines, Jell-O, yogurts, a coupon for a free coffee, and a PB&J sandwich are given out as a special treat, created by church parishioners. From 8:30 to 10:30 am, most every item will be gone. If there are leftovers, the group’s leader Mary Mattarella and her team begin a caravan of sorts down Seventh Avenue to catch those who may be too sick to move. She greets each one, insists they take a sandwich, and reminds them that she’ll be back on the last Saturday of the month, in this case, February 1. For the next half hour, the suitcases and carts are wheeled along the sidewalk, dodging tourists headed to various holiday happenings.
Rain or shine, Mary and the available volunteers from St. Ann’s in Sayville and Zion Church in Douglaston meet up at Penn Station once a month. The Sayville group takes the 6:40 a.m. train from Ronkonkoma, and the Queens group drive in with minivans stuffed with clothing and other donations. The group spends the intervening time setting up their Saturday event, checking each item and noting its size on a piece of masking tape. It’s a very orderly, well thought, process. One volunteer, Joanne, who heads the Zion group said, “We get up at 4 a.m. to pack the cars for the trip.”
Called the St. Ann’s Homeless Ministry, the outreach began about 12 years ago from a simple Peanut Butter and Jelly giveaway. Mary had just returned to New York from Indiana to care for her ailing parents. On her return, she was struck by the increased number of homeless on Manhattan streets. From this, she began making dozens of sandwiches, enough to fill up one of those big, black garbage bags, and like Santa, threw it over her should and transported them to the city.
Up and down Seventh Avenue she went, handing them out to all the hungry she found on the street. Eventually over the years, Mary gained volunteers to help make more sandwiches, which then grew into a variety of donated foods, and whatever clothing the season required. Her requests for help know no limits: she reaches out to the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian communities all around the Long Island/Queens area.
At an Episcopal conference of churches a few years ago, Mary stood up and addressed the attendees, sharing the PB&J mission, and it struck a chord to Joann, who brought the idea back to her Douglaston church. “We ought to join them,” she said. And, they did. Zion has been working alongside St. Ann’s for about past four years. When asked how long members have been volunteering, they have to stop and think. “It feels like I’ve been doing it for years,” one member said, “but it also feels like I just started. When I got into it, I was doing it for the homeless, but the more I’ve done it, I find that I’m actually doing it for me.”
There’s little left after the morning giveaway, says Mary, because it was mild and the homeless are outside. On bad weather days, the group will find a spot in Penn Station near a busy coffee and donut shop to hand out items, making sure to stay out of the way of those heading for trains. By now, she knows where she can stand without being chased off by business owners, and the police leave them alone.
After walking three or four blocks along the Avenue, the group crosses the street to get a cup of coffee and regroup. “I make sure they get a break and warm up,” says Mary. “We also discuss the experience, what worked, if there’s anything we need to do the next time.” After the coffee comradery time is done, Mary stands up, and asks if they’re ready to head back out. The coffee shop is filling up, and she knows not to overstay their welcome considering that they’ve taken up a whole corner with the carts and suitcases.
It’s obvious that Mary is the driving force, has the morning well planned, and has eyes peeled for any homeless that may have been overlooked. At one point, she grabs a few items and dashes across the street to Macy’s where a young man lies along the street. Bending down, she hands him a stocking, some extra food and reminds him that she will be back in a month. For those who show real signs of being in crises, or look new to the streets, she hands them a piece of paper with the address of two nearby shelters that will help, no questions asked, no ID required. “Some shelters require that they show ID,” Mary says rolling her eyes. “Imagine that, these people have nothing.”
She doesn’t come from wealth, has not had an easy life of it herself, yet, she gives what she can in terms of energy, time and compassion to the forgotten ones who exist miles from her home. In the weeks between Penn Station visits, she cares for her Suffolk County community by checking on needy families and tutoring Hispanic children in English as their parents meet with volunteers in their quest for citizenship. “I make my own index cards,” she says, “I sing to them, draw pictures…it’s my favorite activity.” What may be her most challenging activity though, occurs on Friday nights. “I go on my own to areas that have a lot of gang youth, to speak to them as a mother would, and bring them food and clothes. I have found that most of these at-risk kids are parentless, abused, lonely and forced into a gang life. My goal is to simply show love and caring, no judgment, so that perhaps their self-esteem may rise to a level that would empower them to want to have a better life.”
Was there a memorable moment that comes to mind? “It was a spring day, and I took about eight people with me to Manhattan for our homeless mission. As we were packing up to move down Seventh Avenue, I noticed a tall, emaciated young woman, 19 years old, with a swollen, bruised face with fresh stitches from a hospital visit. I approached her and introduced myself. She was homeless, kicked out of her parents’ home due to her drug addiction.She prostituted herself for food. Her pimp had just beat her up because she wanted to quit. I asked her how I could help, besides giving her food and clothes. All she wanted was someone to hug her, and brush her hair, just like her mom used to do. Of course I did, and we both cried. I sent her to Holy Apostles Episcopal Church, where she received emergency care and housing. This young lady displayed what we all need to survive, love and human contact, it’s that simple.”
Asked what she’d like for Christmas, Mary doesn’t hesitate one minute. “My wish list includes municipal governments to dispatch mental health professionals, to the streets, to assess and direct people for services; next, to simplify the process for a homeless individual to obtain proper Identification cards which would radically improve the wait time for services; and lastly, free transportation on the LIRR for mission workers, with proper and bona fide Identification.”
Woman Around Town salutes Mary Mattarella, and the PB&J Ministry.
Learn more about the PB&J Ministry
The Peanut Butter and Jelly Ministry is a collection of dedicated volunteers who travel into NYC once a month to bring much needed supplies, comfort, and prayers to the homeless. It started when one of our parishioners, Mary Mattarella, began traveling into the city with Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches to feed the homeless, and grew from there. Now, they bring in needed items like clothing, toiletries, hygiene products, and blankets in addition to PB&J sandwiches (as well as other food products).
This mission has grown beyond St. Ann’s Church, and the volunteers are joined by members of other churches from across Long Island. The needs vary seasonally (warm clothes and blankets in the winter, lighter clothing in the summer), but these items are always welcome:
- Soap, Toothpaste, Toothbrushes, Shampoo and other Sanitary Products
- Female Hygiene Products
- Toilet Paper
- Wash Cloths
- Cups of Ramen Noodles
For details about this ministry, please contact Mary Mattarella at 631-590-0076.
Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff
Top: Mary Mattarella on the right