North Fork Women: Caring for Community

Kathleen Bresnan and Lori Cohen of North Fork Women
Kathleen Bresnan and Lori Cohen
Angela LaGreca

One hundred women are gathered at picnic tables overlooking the Long Island Sound for the North Fork Women’s all-you-can-eat Oyster Extravaganza at Little Ram Oyster Co. next to The Shoals Hotel, a stunning, newly renovated waterfront property in Southold.

Conversation is flowing, freshly shucked oysters are plentiful and sweet and the camaraderie on this unusually warm October day reflects the warmth of the sun as it sparkles off the gorgeous harbor view.

You have to give it to the North Fork Women (NFW). They’ve got these events down. The vibe is right, the women are real and the mission is noteworthy. Not only are they serving a social need for lesbians on the North Fork, they are helping their own by giving grants to those with personal needs while helping the community at large.

A not-for-profit organization established in 1992, North Fork Women is committed to “building a safe, healthy and active community for lesbians on the North Fork.” That means raising monies from events like the Oyster Extravaganza and their big annual Labor Day fundraiser to help provide financial assistance, healthcare support and personal support to its members where needed.

Donations and sponsorships help the cause. In addition to grant giving, each year the NFW gives scholarships to deserving high school seniors. They also present a Founders Award to “a woman who stands out as having made positive changes in the North Fork Women organization, and to the lives of those within our community.”

Karen Sauvigne and Eleanor Thomas of North Fork Women
Karen Sauvigne and Eleanor ThomasAngela LaGreca

Getting to Know North Fork Women

“We’ve had a beautiful year but it’s been a year of real need in grant giving,” says Eleanor “Elly” Thomas, North Fork Women’s new president. “We have doubled what we typically do in a year, and that is showing us that the pandemic and the economy is really having an effect on people,” she adds.

The grants that North Fork Women gives “are typically for healthcare needs that can’t be met through insurance,” says Thomas, adding “it’s a very confidential process and we value our members’ confidentiality.”

“This year we gave away $50,000 in grants to people who needed them, for medical purposes or because they were behind on rent or insurance payments,” says Chris P’Simer, former president of NFW.

“It’s a needy time,” P’Simer adds, “and we were able to fill that need and we’re very happy about it.”

Since its inception in 1992, NFW has given close to $400,000 in grant money to lesbians in need. The members’ newsletter goes out to 600 women and Thomas estimates that their events have “typically been seeing from 100 to 150 people.” Events like the popular First Fridays — social mixers at terrific North Fork locations — are usually well attended.

The annual Labor Day with dinner, dancing and a great auction is always a sellout. Seminars on caregiving, bereavement, financial estate planning and community outreach are often on the event calendar as new members bring in new ideas.

“The big one we added this year was golf,” says Thomas. “We did Pride Golf and 79 people came to that — it was really successful, we had (company) sponsorships and people sponsored which gave us more money to give out in grants­ — it’s been very good,” she says proudly.

The NFW events have been so successful, that even South Fork women have been trekking (gasp) to the North Fork to attend the events, now that they are open to anyone, not just members who live on the North Fork.

In a case of North Fork envy, is it time for a South Fork Women’s  group? Thomas seems open to the  possibility.

“Why not, the more the merrier,” she says with a smile. “We can all use synergy and it’s been wonderful to see women from the South Fork at our events.” She adds, “The need is so great and there is a sense that all of us want to become united and not have a divided community, we don’t want to just be a silo, North Fork Women, we want to see others and help others.”

Over at the rosé truck, Lori Cohen is working the libation menu, selling North Fork wines, special ales and sparking water to the women who are buying bottles for their respective picnic tables. Cohen, a trial lawyer for 35 years and a North Fork resident for 18 years, is the 2022 recipient of the NFW Founders Award.

“Lori has not only done amazing things for this community, but in her own right she’s a human rights activist,” says Thomas. “She was the lawyer for ACT UP, she’s a badass, wonderful person who deserves many awards so we were happy to give it to her.”

Cohen counts the Founders Award as “a highlight” of her career, which is certainly distinguished. Being a part of the North Fork Women for the past 12 years has clearly been meaningful to her.

“I’ve always wanted to kind of help people who need the help and can’t afford whatever (it is) — I wanted to give to them,” says Cohen, pausing from the busy beverage truck to reflect on what North Fork Women has meant to herself and the community. “It’s just like here — I just want to help people, to be kind.”

Cohen was president of the NY State Association of Criminal Defense attorneys when the discovery laws changed. “That was really exciting,” she says. Her years of representing ACT UP were not lost on her and her commitment to advocacy.

“We become lawyers because we think we want to help change the world and most of us don’t get that real opportunity, but representing them you saw the world change right in front of you — and it was fantastic,” says Cohen.

As the last oyster is shucked and the event is coming to a close, Elly Thomas thanks the crowd for their support and then passes the microphone to Chris P’Simer, who hands out a bright red superwoman cape to Mary Trier for selling the most sponsorships to the event, 71. More applause and more laughter — no one wants to leave.

In a word, the North Fork Women are about “community,” sums up Thomas.

“We’re combating isolation and we’re trying to make wellbeing present in everybody’s lives,” she adds, with a smile. It’s working.

South Fork women, take note.

For more information about the North Fork Women and upcoming events, call 631-477-8464 or visit northforkwomen.org.

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