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Mary Sanchez of Laurel brings her neighborhood together (Photo Credit: David Benthal)

It was on a cold winter afternoon five years ago that Mary Sanchez discovered the place she now calls home.

The hamlet of Laurel meant very little to her at the time, but on a trip to the North Fork looking for a second home to share with her husband, Ron, Sanchez attended an open house on the water at the end of South Oakwood Road.

The Syosset native remembers standing in the yard looking out at the rare sight of a frozen Peconic Bay.

“I just didn’t hear a sound,” she recalls of the moment she knew she found what she was looking for. “It was the most peaceful place I’d ever been.”

The transition to full-time North Fork living wasn’t expected to occur for several more years but in mid-March 2020, in the midst of a global pandemic, the couple left their Manhattan apartment and headed east. Approaching one year later, the Sanchezes remain in Laurel, where Mary, who worked as a volunteer at the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan before COIVD-19 forced it to close, has found a new sense of purpose.

(Photo Credit: David Benthal)

Herbs for Humanity is a small farm stand on Peconic Bay Boulevard that Ron sets up each day, where Mary sells plant seedlings, baked goods, candles and other items she crafts at their home down the road, using every dollar received to purchase items for the food pantry at Goodwill AME Zion Church in Riverside. The small Methodist building the Sanchezes would pass on their way out to Laurel is the oldest remaining Black church in the Riverhead area and the first designated historic landmark in its hamlet. Its food pantry serves Riverhead’s homeless population and beyond for two hours every week.

Neighbors, inspired by Sanchez’s infectious positivity and giving spirit, have also contributed items to be sold at the farm stand. It’s a pandemic-era hobby, a philanthropic way to kill the time in quarantine, that has grown into something truly special.

She’s just one of those people that gives, gives, gives. She single-handedly banded us all into this solid purpose.”

Mary Sanchez’s neighbor Anne Whalen said of Sanchez

Whalen said Sanchez, the mother of three grown children, has become a quiet force on their 12-home street, where since last spring more people have been living full-time than ever before.

(Photo Credit: David Benthal)

It started around Easter, when Sanchez invited her neighbors to her yard for a socially distanced nondenominational prayer service. A devout Catholic, it had dawned on Sanchez that this would be her first time celebrating the holiday outside of a church building. She thought, at a time when her neighbors were also yearning for some level of responsible human contact, it was a good time to bring people together. They set up chairs six feet away and came together to practice their different faiths. One of the neighbors is a classically trained opera singer, another brought his ukulele and one more practiced sign language during the service. In a waterfront community, where people often come and go in the warmer months, it was a new exposure to the talents and personalities of neighbors.

From there the neighbors started a text chain to begin checking in on each other and to help with some of the older residents in their community who might not have as much contact with the outside world during the pandemic. At a time when people were more isolated than in the past, the sense of community on South Oakwood Road was growing stronger. Their gatherings have continued.

Before the pandemic, Sanchez had actually never planted a garden or made a candle. Yet her farm stand, her neighbors say, is sold out most days. She often returns to check in and finds notes from passersby who purchased items and wanted to let her know how much they appreciated the stand’s presence on the bucolic North Fork road.

When she made pumpkin cookies last fall that featured a design of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous “dissent collar,” a woman wrote to tell her how much she appreciated the tribute and that she wanted to order more.

“I didn’t even know if anyone would recognize what it was,” Sanchez said with a laugh.

(Photo Credit: David Benthal)

“Generous and humble are two words that come to mind when I think of her,” added neighbor Stephanie Keys.

One day on her way out to the food pantry, her vehicle stuffed with bulk grocery items, Sanchez stopped to pick up her CSA share at Jamesport Farmstead, where the farmers couldn’t help but notice all the items. They asked if the church would accept fresh produce. For the remainder of the growing season Sanchez’s donations included hundreds of pounds of fresh no-till carrots, lettuce, squash and more from the farm.

“At the pantry, they said everyone just appreciated it so much,” Sanchez said. “They were so happy to have fresh produce.”

It will be another year before Ron, who works in finance, returns to his office. By then they’ll be a little closer to the time the couple had initially intended to make Laurel a full-time home.

That’s 12 more months of the people on South Oakwood Road and at Goodwill AME Zion Church experiencing the Mary Sanchez effect. “She has turned the stress and burden of the pandemic,” said neighbor Alan Schlesinger, into something “productive and positive.”