Their masks keep their identities hidden, not purposefully, but as a matter of course. You may have seen them and not even know it, perhaps even somebody you know, in supermarkets and drug stores and other shops around the East End. Unsung heroes, among many who fit that definition out here, shopping for those who cannot go out themselves, building relationships that extend beyond the conventional notion of “the buddy system” and giving their time for the greater good. There has been less talk about them as the reopening has progressed, and you may not have heard stories of their impact. But Melissa Berman certainly has.
“Oh my gosh, so many,” says Berman, one of the founders of East End Cares. She immediately recounts “a phone call I received from a senior gentleman who is in our buddy program. His volunteer buddy is awesome—he shops for three people and goes out of his way for each of them getting them special things they like and keeping in touch.
“So this gentleman, who lives in senior housing, called me and said, ‘You people are terrific! I am getting a stimulus check from the government and I want to donate to you.’ He said he wished he could go out and volunteer and help, but since he couldn’t he wanted to split his stimulus check with us! We of course refused his offer, but the spirit of that, and the connection he and his volunteer buddy have—just beautiful.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the East End in March, the volunteer organization East End Cares hit the ground running—collecting donations for the local food pantries, creating that buddy system for vulnerable community members who couldn’t leave the house and obtaining PPE for those who needed it most.
“It quickly became apparent that food insecurity was a top priority, as was assisting homebound seniors and other vulnerable people with shopping and errands and ongoing support,” says Berman. “So we established a volunteer buddy program that matches volunteers with a vulnerable ‘buddy’ to serve.” The program is ongoing and continues to welcome new volunteers.
“We also partnered early on with Clamshell Foundation to create a Fund for Food to raise money for our local food pantries,” she continues. “They are the best humans ever and it’s been a wonderful partnership. We have raised over $120,000 so far for Montauk, Springs, East Hampton and Sag Harbor Pantries. Citarella partnered with us also and has been collecting donations at checkout for nearly three months—incredible.”
When masks were needed, East End Cares partnered with Third Wave Volunteers out of Miami to get PPE to local hospitals and nursing homes. Other volunteer efforts including distributing pet food to ARF Hamptons, sewing masks, delivering supplies to the Retreat, and delivering extra bagels from Goldberg’s to the Bridgehampton Child Care & Recreational Center’s food pantry.
“Seems like every week there is something new happening,” she says.
And people from all corners are lending a hand, Berman notes, taking care to point out that there has been much help from both primary and second homeowners as volunteers. “So many people who came here from the city to be safer immediately reached out to see how they could engage and help the community. With all the negative ‘them and us’ talk that was going around, at East End Cares it is just ‘we’—and everyone works together to help those in need.”
East End Cares was founded shortly after Hurricane Sandy when “a group of us met spontaneously to try to pull together all the goodwill in our community to help others,” says Berman. They created a Facebook page and within 20 minutes had 1,000 members. “We ended up doing about six months of full-on volunteer efforts helping in the Rockaways and other places—we accomplished quite a bit during that time and kind of became an entity here on the East End.”
Numerous projects have followed for the volunteer network, everything from local beach cleanups to sending a team of volunteers to Greece to help the refugees and to the Philippines after the typhoon. “The kindness here is like our ocean—deep and endless,” Berman says.
Now, as we continue to move through phases here on the East End, both official and more metaphorical, with masks a part of everyday life, the group has launched “Show You Care.” The campaign is a series of photographs by John Madere, an award-winning photographer and documentary filmmaker based in New York City and Montauk who has shot for the likes of The New York Times Magazine, Time, Esquire and more. Depicting people on East End beaches wearing masks and face coverings, his images have been posted to social media, and the group hopes to also print posters that can be displayed in storefronts in Montauk and East Hampton.
“I am a big fan of his work and especially his portrait work,” says Berman when describing Madere’s art. “We went for a socially distanced beach walk one day when the mask mandate first went into effect, and it became apparent how crucial masks were for everyone to wear.
“Wearing a mask is a statement—it shows you care,” Berman goes on, noting that the practice is about caring for your health and safety as well as the health and safety of those around you. “Conversely, what’s implied by not wearing one is that you don’t care. I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t want to hurt others. So this campaign is a way to encourage and remind people, by humanizing what wearing a mask says about how you feel about yourself and others.”
Madere began photographing the series at Montauk’s legendary Ditch Plains, picking people who were willing to be involved, and a second series will be shot in Amagansett this week. More than just taking a picture of face coverings, he searched for something that lay beneath. “I wanted to see if I could capture some sense of emotion on the masked faces of people in a setting that is normally fun and carefree,” he says.
“My subjects were often committed to keeping themselves and others safer from coronavirus by diligently wearing their masks even when socially distanced on the beach,” he continues. “It seems that one’s mask can reflect one’s personality—even more so than their choice of wardrobe. I think this series of beach portraits conveys cautious optimism and care for others—and an appreciation for personal style and natural beauty, even as our world gets turned upside down.”