A blessing to the community
Charlene Lehmann, coordinator of the Chestene M. Coverdale Food Pantry (center), with the Coverdale’s children, Terri (left) and John, in front of the new signage.

SCN/Finnegan

A blessing to the community

Story By: LIZ FINNEGAN
2/14/2019


SAYVILLE—Every year, the Suffolk County News asks readers to nominate individuals from their community who are dedicated to volunteerism in a way that benefits all. After reviewing a number of nominations this year, our committee has chosen to posthumously honor Chestene Coverdale, of Bayport, as one of our two recipients this year. Coverdale, who passed away last fall after complications from a stroke, was considered a blessing to all who knew her from the Greater Sayville Food Pantry, an agency she founded in 1991. 

The retired educator started the food pantry when she saw a need in her community. It has since grown to regularly assist hundreds of people monthly.

Last Friday, a special ceremony to rename the agency the Chestene Coverdale Food Pantry was held inside the historic Gillette House in Sayville, where the pantry is located. In attendance were pantry volunteers, including the new coordinator, Charlene Lehmann, elected officials and community members. Coverdale’s two children, son John and daughter Terri, were there as well.

In her opening remarks, Lehmann, who had been a volunteer there for the past 18 years, expressed sadness at losing their leader, noting that her vision and dedication to the food pantry was one of the reasons that it was being renamed for her. “She was the heart and soul of the pantry,” she said. “She helped many people get out of the cycle of poverty.”

The new sign was unveiled and Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter presented a proclamation to her family. 

“I’m touched beyond words,” said John Coverdale, a Blue Point resident and retired educator. “She’d be amazed at the outpouring of love and support,” he added.

Chestene, who was originally from Maryland, met her husband Fred in college. After they married they moved to Long Island, where she taught in Middle Country, Center Moriches and the Mount Sinai school districts. Fred taught in the Bayport-Blue Point District, becoming a principal and eventually assistant superintendent. He passed away in 2013 after 53 years of marriage.

Chestene was a member of many community organizations including Rotary, where she served for a time as president. She was also a member of the Brookhaven Memorial Hospital (now Long Island Community Hospital) advisory board.

Terri Coverdale, who resides in Patchogue, said her mother lived the Rotary model of “service above self” and passed that commitment on to her children, who were also expected to volunteer. “She taught by example about being willing to give back,” Terri said.

John said at the time his mom started the pantry, no one realized there would be a need in such a relatively affluent area. “Sometimes you have to go out and find that need,” he noted, adding that is exactly what she did.

“She was always dedicated and kept extra food at home [to donate],” he added.

Terri said that she, her brother, and Chestene’s grandchildren spent a good amount of time volunteering at the pantry. “They’re all very familiar here and would help unpack boxes.”

“She started the Salvation Army bell-ringing campaign in the area [during the holidays],” she noted. “All the grandkids were out there ringing bells,” she said with a laugh. “But,” she added seriously, “she never asked anyone to do something she wouldn’t do herself.”

Terri noted that her mother was more like a social service agency. In times of disaster, such as when a local family lost everything in a house fire, she was put in action and collected items and clothing the family would need in the emergency. And she helped generations at the pantry. Terri remembered one mother coming to the pantry for food with her young daughter. Years later, the daughter asked Chestene to help her with her college application, which she did. “[The girl] went on to graduate college,” she added.

Those who knew Chestene at the pantry remarked that she was there to help distribute food, clothing and in some cases fiscal support when a family could not pay their heating or electric bill. And she would always give emotional support with kind words of advice and encouragement.

Lehmann, who has assumed the position Chestene held, said for all of these reasons she will never take on her title. She noted, “There will only be one director of the food pantry – Chestene.”