A benevolence movement has quietly been growing on Long Island, drawing families out into the early summer sun for what looks like your run-of-the-mill church carnival. Kids face painting, inflatables, hot dogs and smiles, but a closer look at the ever-growing Hope Day event series shows it’s no ordinary carny. All of the services and attractions are free and attendees have the chance to walk away with a free haircut, bag of groceries and even a family photo.
The Hope Day movement began in 2012 when local Valley Stream pastor, Steven Milazzo of Bethlehem Assembly of God, partnered with international non-profit organization, Convoy of Hope, to bring food and services to one Nassau area in need. “I always wanted to do more as a pastor and a church to impact our community and make Long Island a better place to live. I feel like so often churches get isolated in doing what they do,” Milazzo said. “We can be really great at connecting with God and each other, but sometimes we’re not so great with connecting one on one with our community; with people who have needs.”
His vision for community impact became realized at the first Hope Day rally that same year. “We wanted to find the community that was most in need. We knew that Hempstead had a lot of need. We decided to go there but instead of going as one church, we wanted to join together and unite churches on Long Island. So we started developing relationships with pastors that we didn’t know. We connected with over 50 churches across the island and put on our first event at Mitchel Field (across from Nassau Community College).” More than 5,000 Long Island residents attended the event, the majority of whom were in need of what Milazzo calls practical necessities: free food, entertainment for the family, medical tents, and even psychological services and counseling provided by Jamaica Hospital.
Hope Day NY has served Long Island for four years now, partnering with Convoy of Hope and local businesses each year to bring those practical services to locals in need. Hope Day event coordinator Victoria Markou said an average of 4,000 volunteers in total have served over 23,000 “guests of honor.” With more than 19,000 bags of groceries, nearly 8,000 pairs of shoes, and 24,000 jars of baby food donated and distributed, Hope Day has become a massive outreach for multiple locations simultaneously across Long Island. The event has grown to include haircuts, medical counseling and family portraits. What started out as a single food drive has become a social phenomenon with reach stretching as far as the Middle East.
The Hope Day vision continues to grow. “The vision is to get churches and organizations to work together. Out of this event we have organizations partnering to do things in the community year round. We have ESL services and the House of Hope in Valley Stream, but if we don’t have a certain service, we can redirect those in need to another church or organization that can serve them because we’re now in touch with one another,” Milazzo said.
The event expands this year to include the five boroughs, Long Island and New Jersey locations. With about 21 potential sites interested, news of the event has spread internationally due to their partnership with Convoy of Hope. Churches in New Jersey and Maryland are now interested in doing a similar Hope Day outreach and last year one individual from Israel flew to the US to see one of the Hope Day events. Upon their return home, a Hope Day-styled community fair was thrown in Bethlehem, Israel, and the group is planning on doing another event.
Milazzo believes that this is more than a one-day carnival: “This is a movement that’s spreading across the country and into other countries across the world. We are showing Long Island (and the rest of the world) what the church really looks like. They always see what we’re against, they never see what we’re for–and that’s to love people. Everyone needs to be loved, everyone needs to be respected and treated with dignity.”
Hope Day NY returns to the tri-state and the five boroughs on June 4 2016. For a location near you, visit hopedayny.org