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Reaching out to end hunger

Unlike most great stories, this one begins in the trash. Tom Neve’s discovery of an escalating homeless population along his sanitation route was an image that he just couldn’t throw away. Without any experience or funding, this extraordinary garbage man began a 16-year journey of helping others. “I had never seen any homeless outreach programs in Brooklyn and I felt compelled to do something about that,” he said. “I wanted to give them a chance to get off the streets and better their lives.” Neve purchased a used van for $1,500, stocked it with supplies, such as food, clothing, and health care items and gave it out to those in need. Two years later he opened Reaching Out Community Services, an all-volunteer food pantry in Bensonhurst that provides nutritional meals to 1,400 Brooklynites every month. “A lot of people are facing hardship because the cost of living is extremely high,” he said. “They feel embarrassed and ashamed, but we tell them we’re here to help and encourage them to utilize our facility to improve their quality of life.” Reaching Out is the only “supermarket style” program of its kind in Brooklyn. Clients are given a certain number of points, based on household size and financial hardship, which they redeem for food items that suit their nutritional and dietary needs. Neve says this system allows clients to maintain their dignity and cuts back on waste since they only take the items they want. All different types of people visit the pantry from the elderly and disabled to single parents and the working poor. “I’m on disability and I get some food stamps, but it doesn’t cover the whole month,” explained pantry client Robert Winpenney. “I come here to get surplus food and I’m thankful for that. I think this is a great place and a great thing that Tom is doing.” According to a 2007 report by the New York Coalition Against Hunger, there has been a 20 percent increase citywide in the number of New Yorkers who are turning to food charities for assistance and many organizations can’t keep up. But Reaching Out has not only survived, they have expanded thanks to grants, private donations, and food drives from local schools. “We expanded because we knew if we didn’t we would have had to turn away a lot of families,” he said. “Even though we didn’t have the funding, we just took that step of faith.” Neve moved the organization from a tiny storefront on Bath Avenue to a larger facility on New Utrecht Avenue. While they still struggle to meet their daily expenses, Neve and his dedicated staff are determined to keep the organization going. “I like giving back to the people in need,” said Program Director, Jessie Lombardo, who has been with the organization for 12 years. “I was out on disability and my wife lost her job at one time, so I know what it is to struggle.” Neve, 45, still works for the Department of Sanitation and manages Reaching Out after hours and on his days off. “It’s a big strain on him,” said Neve’s mother, Josie, who also volunteers at the pantry, “but he loves helping people.” Whether he’s helping clients select food, wrestling with sacks of potatoes donated from City Harvest, or giving out toys at Christmas, Neve, who admits that he lives from paycheck to paycheck, is doing what he loves best -- proving that helping others is its own reward. Reaching Out Community Services welcomes donations of non-perishable food as well as clothing and toys. They are located at 7708 New Utrecht Avenue and are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more information, call (718) 373-4565 or visit www.reachinout.org

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