Woman of the year: Those in need come first
A few weeks ago, a woman was walking in East Patchogue, not far from the Angels of Long Island headquarters, carrying two babies. Seeing this, Patricia Peterson knew she was in need. Peterson ran out, but the woman didn’t speak English. Peterson found a translator, who communicated that the woman was without a stroller because she had just saved to buy a car that was being used by her husband. Peterson ran over to the Angels store, and came back with a stroller. The woman was overwhelmed and didn’t want to take it, but Peterson persisted and wouldn’t take no for an answer. The woman needed a stroller, and Peterson would stop at nothing to help. That’s just who she is.
Peterson, nearing 60, founded Angels of Long Island with Debbie Loesch, last year’s Woman of the Year, in late 2016, when she was looking for a place to donate goods. She came all the way from Lindenhurst to Loesch’s house in Bellport, where she dropped off a carload of items, and Loesch couldn’t believe it. The two made an instant connection, and Peterson has been involved with, and has helped to grow, the organization ever since.
Peterson does not have a day job. She was forced into retirement in 2005 when she was diagnosed with debilitating illnesses that cause her chronic pain and other issues. She is a life coach, mostly for free, in which she meets with people who want to accomplish certain goals. She talks them through their difficulties and helps them make a plan to succeed. Any money she earns from coaching goes directly to Angels of Long Island, which, she said, needs it more. She had been living in Lindenhurst and commuted for two years to East Patchogue to be a part of the organization, but bought a house in Bellport just a few months ago.
“I need to be in the community I grew up in,” she said of her choice to relocate, despite her husband, Gary, still having a job in Farmingdale. “I need to be close to people.”
Her entire house is furnished with items from the Angels of Long Island thrift store — and she loves it. Her wardrobe comes from the store, as does her jewelry.
“I’m not rich, and I don’t need to be rich. I’m happy as hell,” Peterson said.
Peterson grew up in Medford, after her family moved from Brooklyn when she was 5. As she described it, her family had nothing — except their values. Her mother, now 76, taught Peterson and her siblings to be there for others and to seek out and befriend people who were different or bullied. After her corporate career ended in 2005, she realized her happiness wasn’t real and searched for a larger purpose.
Upon meeting Loesch in 2016, when the Angels of Long Island organization was in its early stages, she helped the group find a home. Despite having never worked for a nonprofit before, she helped the organization raise $15,000 in 27 days, which they used to move into their Main Street location. She believes her partnership and friendship with Loesch has created real change in the community. Although it’s only been a couple of years, it feels like forever to her, and the two families have all but merged into one.
“We are so much alike, it is spooky,” she said.
Peterson constantly puts others before herself. She’s received donations of computers and other things that would be useful for her small office, but has instead put them aside for others who need it more. And she refuses to take a salary. Her office is lined with hygiene products, baby products, and toiletries that are available to anyone who needs them. People who need help often share their stories, but Peterson never asks, because to her it doesn’t matter.
Her ability to help was put to the test this past month, as hundreds of federal workers without paychecks came to the makeshift food pantry created by Angels of Long Island. She helped secure donations of food from her Lindenhurst church, Grace United Methodist. The increase in need only made the staff work harder, she said, although she was shocked at how many people couldn’t survive a few weeks without pay. But she has gone around and personally thanked those that lended an extra hand during the difficult time.
Helping others is Peterson’s purpose in life, she said, and she has never been happier than right now. The task sometimes feels heavy, but she has taken to meditation, praying, reading, and self-care to keep herself healthy and focused. Some days she is forced to call out sick due to her condition, but does everything in her power to be of service as much as possible.
“When I can come, I come like thunder, and I don’t leave,” she said. “As long as I can be here, I will be.”
Her faith is what often drives her more than anything, and feels her purpose is what gets her out of bed every day. She’s dealt with chronic disease, cancer, several concussions and four miscarriages, but feels blessed to be able to provide life-altering help. Somehow, she makes a point of being present for every person she meets, even if it means shooing her husband away while she’s busy at work. But her family, consisting of 30 nieces and nephews and 11 brothers and sisters, has continued to support her mission and that of Angels of Long Island.
Peterson has countless stories of people she’s seen who have had their lives changed by a simple gift or act of kindness. With the help of her cell phone, she personally remembers who needs what, when they need it, and how she can make their lives better. Despite her own personal setbacks, she has never felt helpless.
“There is always something you can do,” Peterson said. “I have the best job in the world.”
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