The Giving Room: Paula DiDonato’s Gift to Southold

Meditation with Paula DiDonato at The Giving Room
Meditation with Paula DiDonato at The Giving Room
Rob Cuni

The Giving Room, as the name implies, is more than a yoga studio and juice bar, it was founded by Paula DiDonato to serve as a much-needed community center for the people of Southold.

After 10 years of weekending on the North Fork, DiDonato and her partner Judy had fallen in love with the bucolic area and charming community, and they wanted to find a way to give back.

When the chance to open a small Southold space arose in 2010, DiDonato seized the opportunity. The Giving Room’s mission would be three-pronged: to offer regular yoga classes, to raise money and resources for local charities, and to create a space for local artists and artisans to display their art.

Since its creation, The Giving Room has introduced Pilates and barre classes, a juice bar, holiday market, yoga teacher training courses, fundraising events, North Fork wellness retreats and destination wellness retreats. In speaking with DiDonato, it’s clear that her passion for supporting her North Fork community has only grown stronger in her 23 years here.

The Giving Room in Southold
The Giving Room in SoutholdCourtesy Paula DiDonato

Paula DiDonato Discusses The Giving Room

How has The Giving Room evolved over the years?

Our first event, 13 years ago, was a fun experience where we had knitted works of art. We had a number of friends who were knitters, and a number of friends who were artists, and we filled The Giving Room with works of art — both oil paintings and knitted works of art, as we called them — and we raised money for CAST (Community Action Southold Town in 2010, now renamed Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation). CAST has been one of our most important partners throughout the years, and I think at that event we raised $5,000 for CAST.

Ever since, The Giving Room has evolved with community needs. It’s a yoga studio that’s become extremely vibrant. We have a number of classes — yoga, meditation, Pilates, barre — every day. The studio has been open almost every day for 13 years, with the exception of one month that we closed for COVID on the yoga studio side. The yoga studio is the heart of The Giving Room. It really does serve as a community center still. We’re as responsive to local needs as we can be.

We added a juice bar almost eight years ago, which was a terrific complement. … The juice bar itself has developed into its own identity. There’s quite a number of clients that we have who come exclusively for that. In fact, during COVID, the juice bar became a greater part of the business than the yoga studio did. We were able to keep our yoga classes going, but a lot of our clients chose to access that through Zoom. But we had a … makeshift drive-thru window that we used during COVID to keep (the juice bar) open, and that was a really good, healthy choice for people during that period of time and still ongoing.

At the core, we’re a community center, a yoga studio, and we also do yoga teacher training here, which I believe on the North Fork is the only offering like that. We have a yoga teacher training group going through right now. We’ve instructed more than 100 individuals who’ve become yoga teachers, many of whom teach here now, which is something I’m really proud of. And then we have the juice bar.

Paula DiDonato leading a yoga class at The Giving Room
Paula DiDonato leading a yoga class at The Giving RoomRob Cuni

What does the upcoming Full Winter Moon Wellness Retreat entail, and when were retreats introduced at The Giving Room?

We’ve been doing retreats since the very beginning. In the beginning, most of our retreats were to Tulum, Mexico, there’s a wonderful little yoga center there, but we’ve also done retreats in Tuscany.

The Winter Wellness Retreat is meant to take advantage of everything that’s here on the North Fork, so it’s a local retreat. We have partners that we work with who have fire ceremonies, meditation, juice cleanses. It’s a beautiful week to have a daily meditation in the morning and just reset, restart and ground yourself in the beauty of the North Fork. There’s also the nature walks, which we’ve been doing for a long period of time. We always did them informally, because during COVID, the nature walks became a really important way in which we could keep everybody together and safe, so that’ll be an element of it. I’m excited! Our local retreats are as fun, in some ways, as the destination trips.

In your experience, has the Southold community been welcoming to LGBTQ business owners?

Since we’re talking about a 13-year experience, for me personally, it’s evolved and changed. I would say that more recently, literally within the last year, I’ve seen a very significant difference. In the past, it was absolutely a tolerance, accepting, but I would use that word “tolerant” as opposed to “neutral” … an educational place that people were in.

Of course, now our business is embraced, but I guess I’m hesitating because about a year ago, I put a gay flag outside our yoga studio, and somebody took it down. I think there’s still a very small element of education that needs to happen, resistance that still exists, but I’ve never personally felt anything directed toward me that was anything but supportive and loving.

I’ve always been out and never had any issues with my clients or anything like that. I think it’s a very welcoming community, and it’s become a little bit more so in the 13 years that I’ve been here. As with any community, we still have room to grow.

We like to do fun things (at The Giving Room). During Gay Pride Month in June, we have a program where gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning clients can come in and have free juice. It’s a way to make sure that people know that we’re a welcoming place of acceptance. I like to support the community in any way that I can. Free yoga, free juice is an easy way to make (people), especially the younger population, feel seen and welcome.

Paula DiDonato and Ella Glover at The Giving Room juice bar
Paula DiDonato and Ella Glover at The Giving Room juice barRob Cuni

In what ways is The Giving Room giving back to its community currently?

The way that we have mobilized our community is through online fundraisers. Every year, CAST gets the kids ready with school supplies, and one of their biggest needs is backpacks. They come to us as say, “Would you collect backpacks?” And I set up something on The Giving Room website that allows people to order wholesale backpacks, anywhere from one to 50. The community feels this is a very simple way (to offer support), all they do is point and click on our website. We got hundreds of backpacks delivered here for CAST at wholesale price. We’re leveraging the breadth of the community, and how active our community is, to be responsive when there’s an effort like that.

Right before that it was diapers. There’s almost always a diaper shortage now for many of the community centers. They’re expensive, sometimes they’re not even available. We did a massive diaper drive that was successful.

During COVID, our customers wanted to reach out to first responders and healthcare workers, and the effort there was to buy and send over packages of meals, smoothies and juice cleanses to the hospital, police department, fire department in Cutchogue. What we like to do is create an easy environment for giving and then to match that. It’s not just that we’re asking our clients for support, anything our clients do, we typically match to magnify the impact, and we make it easy. That’s been an important part of the success of those programs.

What do you find most personally rewarding about operating The Giving Room?

Without a doubt, it’s my relationship to the students, and I mean that in a couple of ways. Probably most importantly, the high school students who work in the juice bar and also support the yoga studio … They come here when they’re 15 years old, and they stay here until they’re seniors in college. I have relationships with the employees in the juice bar that feel like family. For example, we’re on college break, so I have four employees who are back on break from college. Welcoming them back in and knowing that they’ve been with us for six or seven years, seeing how they’re becoming so successful and individual in their own right, is a beautiful thing. That’s super important.

Also, the students in the yoga studio — people who have started with us and are still here 13 years later — knowing every aspect of their lives and being a part of their lives is super rewarding.

Finally, the yoga school. I’m talking to you on a yoga mat waiting for the 10:30 class to start. It’s being taught by Bonnie Knote who came into the studio about six years ago and became one of our most dedicated students. She took our yoga teacher training twice, she just came back from India and now she’s teaching the teacher training with me and Heidi Fokine, another one of our senior teachers. To be able to take class from someone like that is just beyond rewarding. It’s a beautiful thing.

Would you like to add any closing thoughts?

Over the 23 years now, I’ve seen the changes on the North Fork in such a way that I believe it’s becoming more of a center for wellness, more of a center for action that is dedicated to becoming a more compassionate community. I feel very fortunate to be a part of that.

The Giving Room is located at 56215 Main Road, Southold. To inquire about signing up for a class, the Full Winter Moon Wellness Retreat (February 5–10 on the North Fork), the Enchantment Resort destination retreat (March 27–April 1 in Sedona, Arizona) or the next open yoga teacher training course (expected in the fall), call 631-765-6670 or visit givingroom.net.

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