Rise. To elevate. To move in an upward manner. To create the kind of purpose and empowerment found at RISE Life Services, a Riverhead-based nonprofit offering services for developmentally disabled, mentally ill and dual diagnosed adults on the East End.
“Empowerment. That’s an important word. Empowerment,” says Jo-Ann Vitale, Director of Day & Community Services at RISE, repeating the word over a cacophony of activity going on in the background at the Main Street facility. “Our goal is to make everyone feel empowered, to feel self-esteem, to know they are supported.”
The organization was originally established as Aid to the Developmentally Disabled (ADD) in 1980 by family members who, concerned about the physical and emotional decline of patients compelled to live in crowded institutions, believed that a nurturing homelike environment with appropriate treatment and training would make all the difference. From that initial vision, ADD grew beyond making a difference to defining what that difference could look like.
Four years later, the first residential program opened in Riverhead, and over the years the organization came to also offer supported apartments, clinical support, case management and other services that now include 32 homes and programs including Individualized Residence Alternative (IRA), Immediate Care Facilities (ICF), Mental Health (MH) and Day Program Without Walls: The Mainstreet Connection, in addition to such initiatives as the Northville Sensory Gardens—with a solar greenhouse, interactive education programs, acres of open space and fish-stocked ponds offering serenity and natural beauty—and more.
“As time went on, the name didn’t really match our services any longer,” Vitale notes of the growth that continues to this day. So two years ago they renamed themselves. “RISE—that much better reflects the scope of what we offer, what we are about.”
Raising hope. Raising spirts. Helping lift people up has become ever more vital in the days of COVID-19. One of the most vital services has become the RISE Main Street Food Pantry, which works in conjunction with Long Island Cares and Island Harvest to bring donations to the Riverhead space and to get the word out. It is open one day a week, offering food and personal items every Wednesday. “People start to show up around 7, even though we don’t open until 9:30,” Vitale notes, underscoring a need that has only risen during the coronavirus pandemic. Food insecurity has been an increasingly vital issue to address on the East End, so RISE is also working on soon opening another food pantry in Hampton Bays.
Being part of the East End, the food pantry has access to bounty that other such programs in other place may not. For example, Vitale says, “We go to Andrews Family Farm, where we can buy fresh produce, and that helps everyone. We can get fresh, local food and also support the local farms and farmers. We are all one community.” Instead of pre-packaged boxes and bags often found at other pantries, the offerings here in Riverhead are laid out on tables and shelves for people to come and, in a safe and socially distanced manner, “walk by and look for what they need. Every person, every family, their needs are going to be different, so we want to address that,” Vitale says, noting that no identification is required and all are welcome to come get what they need.
In addition to serving the needs of other locals, the food pantry also gives RISE residents a place to be employed—receiving and organizing donations and deliveries, cleaning and sanitizing and other essential tasks—to earn a paycheck and also a sense of pride, independence, of being part of that larger entity surrounding them, of which Vitale is also so proud to be a member.
“It is so important to be a part of the community, to be able to give something but also to feel like you are part of it,” she says. “It means a lot, when you go out, for people to recognize you and be able to say hello to you, to know your name and know who you are.”
RISE Main Street Food Pantry is located at 901 East Main Street, Suite 500, Riverhead. For more information or to donate, call (631) 727-6220 x224 or visit riselifeservices.org.