By Tessa Raebeck; photography by Laurie Barone-Schaefer
After falling ill, a local resident was unable to make their weekly trip to the Sag Harbor Food Pantry. With no family or friends to help them, they were fearful of how to get through the week without the items they depended on, until they heard a knock at the door. There was Evelyn Ramunno, with a smile – and a bag of groceries.
With food pantries nationwide struggling to deal with the rising costs of food and increasing number of clients, the Sag Harbor Food Pantry stands solid, if not strong, – thanks, in large part, to the tireless efforts and persistent good spirits of Ramunno, affectionately called Evie.
“She just gives back,” Barbara Wolfram, who serves as co-director of the food pantry with Ramunno, said of her partner. “She works for that food pantry seven days a week. And no matter what it is that you need or want, she’s there to do it.”
Originally from Bridgehampton, Ramunno was 19 when she married her husband, Jim, and moved to Sag Harbor, where she has lived ever since. For years she worked in the office at the Sag Harbor Elementary School. After a brief retirement, she grew restless and in 2000 began volunteering for the food pantry, at the time a small operation ran by the Old Whalers’ Church out of a tiny closet in its basement.
“I don’t really know how it happened,” Ramunno said of her decision to start volunteering. “I called the church one time – and at that time the pantry was under the direction of the church – and yes, they did need help, so I started helping.”
After working as associate director for many years, Ramunno was asked by the board to take over the executive director position following the resignation of Lillian Woudsma in 2009.
“They asked me if I would take over and that’s what I’ve been doing,” Ramunno said with her signature humility.
Now an independent organization, the Sag Harbor Food Pantry served 13,000 people last year. In the summer months, Ramunno and her team serve some 45 families each week. During the winter, that number swells to 95.
“Everyday there’s something to do,” says Ramunno, who is responsible for all the food ordering, purchasing and delivery oversight.
“She works tirelessly,” said Reverend Mark Phillips, pastor at the Old Whalers’ Church, “I don’t know how she does it, where she gets all the energy to do it. She’s so committed to the pantry… she goes all over the island picking up food.”
Ramunno solicits donations from local businesses, drives up-island to pick up food from the hunger relief organizations Long Island Cares and Long Island Harvest, and manages what is distributed to clients each week.
“She’s up and out of the house about 6:30 every morning going and picking up food for the pantry or making arrangements for delivery,” said Wolfram.
While many food pantries give only canned and dry goods, Ramunno is committed to providing clients with fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and meat products and even toiletries.
When there are enough supplies, she sets up a personal hygiene table, where clients can select items like shampoos, hairbrushes, toothpaste and toothbrushes.
During the holiday season, Ramunno makes sure to have cookies, cider and other special holiday treats for clients.
“She makes it so nice for the clients,” Wolfram said. “She makes all of the clients feel like they’re welcome.”
A “client’s choice” section, one of Ramunno’s ideas, has specialty items like Kaiser rolls and bagels for clients to choose from to add to their bag of staples.
“We have to be very economical on what we spend our money on,” explained Ramunno. “I shop around here and there. We try to get the most for our money, so that we can continue to give them food for as long as we can. We try to stretch it out and have everybody get something.”
In addition to running the food selection and distribution, Ramunno directs the pantry’s 67 volunteers, who she calls “a whole new group of friends.”
Ramunno fosters a sense of teamwork and community amongst the pantry’s volunteers. As she explains all she does for the pantry, the director is constantly pointing to the work of others, especially her “wonderful assistant,” Trish Curry, co-director Wolfram and a core group of about 12 volunteers.
“Everybody’s so nice,” she says, “the volunteers are so willing to help. It’s a wonderful atmosphere…. Everybody’s very happy about what they do and it works great, it’s a terrific group of people. I certainly couldn’t do it without them and they make all the difference, believe me.”
The respect is nothing short of mutual. Although the pantry has fewer volunteers in the winter because seasonal residents have relocated, according to longtime volunteer Gloria Brown, “they keep coming back whenever they’re in the area because of Evie and because of the environment that she creates there in that pantry. People just want to be a part of it.”
“Whenever things come up and she needs help with something,” Brown continued, “there are always more people ready to do it than she needs because we all want to participate, we all want to work with her. She does it with such joy and enthusiasm that it’s really contagious.”
In October, the board appointed Wolfram as co-director at the suggestion of Ramunno.
“She wanted what I was doing for the food pantry to be recognized,” explained Wolfram of the decision. “So she asked for me to be her co-director. She’s in charge of all the food and everything, but she wanted that title for me and that was her idea – that’s just the kind of person she is.”
Wolfram said she loves working with Ramunno, who is “friendly and wonderful to all the volunteers.”
“Everyone loves Evie,” agreed Regina Humanilski, who has been volunteering alongside Ramunno for over ten years. “She’s just so good-natured, whatever it is – a little need some place – she always tries to fulfill it.”
“She’s an upbeat person and that goes a long way,” said Gloria, whose husband, Nat, serves on the pantry’s board.
Gloria said Ramunno is highly respected by the directors of other local pantries. If the Sag Harbor Food Pantry has an abundance of certain items, Ramunno will call up area directors and offer to bring them the extra food.
Although the pantry only has the means to serve those who can prove residency in Sag Harbor, the reigning philosophy is never to turn anyone away empty-handed. Non-local visitors are given something to walk away with and directed to their local pantry.
“We have to take care of our own here,” explained Ramunno. “It’s sad and I feel badly that we can’t [accept others], but most of our donations come from Sag Harbor and we just feel like we should keep it here.”
The demand in Sag Harbor alone is immense. During the month of November, 1,294 people visited the food pantry and the numbers are increasing almost every week. The pantry distributed to 99 families for Thanksgiving – the highest number in recent years – and they expect more for Christmas.
Many of those families are not just regulars but also friends, said Ramunno.
“You see the same faces every week and you know what they need and some of the things that are going on in their life,” she said. “Sometimes we do something a little extra for this one or that one – you know, if a family is really struggling – so we try to help in that way.”
In addition to providing food and supplies, Ramunno said the pantry helps clients in another vital way – through personal interactions. She often provides clients with information on social services, healthcare and other personal needs. Many clients simply need a friend to talk to – and Ramunno is eager to fill that void.
“She treats everybody with dignity and respect, compassion,” said Reverend Phillips. “I’ve never seen or heard her turn anybody away. I’ve just always been impressed by that spirit of being nonjudgmental, that care and concern for everybody – no matter who she is.”
If Ramunno knows of people in the village who need help but won’t come to the pantry because they are embarrassed or would rather others receive the aid, “she makes sure that those people get what they need,” said Gloria, adding, “she’s just a selfless person.”
“I don’t know how she even has time to spend time with her family – which I know she does,” agreed Gloria’s husband, Nat, of Ramunno. “She’s so committed to this food pantry and the success of the food pantry is really a product of her. She’s just been an amazing force there.”
Ramunno considers the volunteers her team, the clients her friends and the pantry her duty.
“It’s good,” she said of her work, “it keeps me involved, keeps me going, my brain working and, you know, it’s something worthwhile.”
As the pantry’s numbers – and costs – continue to grow, so does Ramunno’s dedication to her cause and love for her position. Although she works for the pantry every day, Tuesdays, the day clients receive their groceries, are her favorite.
“The clients are so appreciative when they walk out,” she said. “They say, ‘Thank you, thank you!’ It’s a good feeling when we leave there on Tuesday, everybody has a good feeling.”