On most days, 81-year-old East Rockaway resident Renee Klein spends hours walking from business to business, drumming up donations. She then assembles her collections into hundreds of raffle baskets for an annual event that she hosts to support various charities.
Though Klein doesn’t drive, she doesn’t let that stand in the way of her collection effort or stop her from working with the blind every Thursday for Catholic Charities. “Well, people need help,” she said. “We’re not all so lucky in life.”
In recognition of her selflessness and her relentless efforts to help people of all ages, the Herald is proud to name Klein its 2018 Person of the Year.
Klein was born on March 19, 1937, in Brooklyn. When she was a girl, her mother took her to a hospital in the borough on weekends to help feed patients who had no arms. Those afternoons sparked a desire to help people, Klein said.
She continued her charitable efforts as an adult. Each September, she organizes the Bernard Klein Charity Fundraiser —launched in 2007 in memory of her late husband, who died in October 2006 at age 70. Through it she raises thousands of dollars for various organizations.
This year’s event, on Sept. 23, was held at the Oceanside Jewish Center, and attracted more than 200 attendees, who were invited to enter raffles for one of the 108 baskets that Klein created. They comprised the donations she had spent a year collecting, going from store to store in East Rockaway, Lynbrook and Rockville Centre. She also wrote each place card for the roughly 200 attendees by hand.
“You know what? When it comes down to it, it’s not really who you are, it’s what you are,” she said. “I do it for the kids. I meet lovely people. There are still good people out there.”
Leading up to the event, the halls in Klein’s home were lined with dozens of baskets. The contributions she collected were raffled at the charity fundraiser, and the money benefited Shriners Hospitals for Children and Camp ANCHOR, a Town of Hempstead recreation program for children and adults with special needs in Lido Beach.
Over the years, Klein has helped raise money for some 40 charities. In the beginning, her event drew a few dozen people, but over the last few years, it has expanded to hundreds.
Klein said she was motivated by her late husband to continue the fundraising efforts by setting up the charity in his memory after he died. She was 16 years old when she met Bernard, who lived in an apartment building next door to her family in Brooklyn. The two wed on Sept. 21, 1956, when Renee was 19. Shortly afterward, they moved to Rosedale, Queens, before settling into a newly built home in East Rockaway in 1967, where she still lives.
In East Rockaway, they raised three children, Elaine, Allen and Arthur, and Renee now has seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren as well. She was expecting a sixth great-grandchild on Christmas Day, after the Herald went to press. Though she has help from her family, her friends and peers said she does most the work herself, and noted that they were awestruck by her efforts. Renee and Bernard helped several charities over the years, and for 17 years they donated about 100 toys to St. Mary’s Children’s Hospital in Bayside, Queens, each Christmas season.
In October 2010, Klein began working for the Catholic Charities Visually Impaired Persons Center, donating each of her Thursdays to working with the blind.
“She’s an outstanding woman,” the center’s recreation coordinator, Dorothy Wallace said. “She never quits. . . . She’s very warm and not self-serving. Anything she can do for people, her heart goes out to them.”
The Visually Impaired Persons program has been around for more than three decades, and roughly 30 volunteers meet with visually impaired seniors from across Nassau County at St. James Methodist Church in Lynbrook each Thursday and spend the day with them. Klein volunteered for the program after she overheard one of the volunteers, Dorothy Haughey, talking about it in a salon.
Wallace said that as soon as Klein joined, she became extensively involved. “I once said to one of her sons, ‘Your mother has to slow down,’” she said with a laugh. “He looked at me and said, ‘She never will.’”
While working with the blind, Klein learned about Camp ANCHOR during a trip to the beach, and her instincts to help more people kicked in. Mindy Ross-Knaster, whose autistic sons Adam and Daniel attend the camp, took Klein to visit the camp. Ross-Knaster and Klein met when they were both going through physical therapy at Hands on Health, in Garden City, and Ross-Knaster, who is a member of the Lynbrook Special Education PTA, recounted that Klein was more active than her during the sessions and motivated her never to give up. “She said, ‘Listen, if I can do it, you can do it,’” Ross-Knaster recalled. “She then proceeded to get on the bike and started moving. I asked the therapist if she thought I could do what Renee did, and she said, ‘I can’t do what she’s doing.’”
Ross-Knaster said Klein was also quick to step in after her mother died about eight years ago. “She said, ‘You don’t have to worry, I’ll be your substitute,’” Ross-Knaster said of Klein. “She basically took me under her wing.”
Klein was recently honored with the Shriners Hospital Humanitarian Award and Hempstead’s Humanitarian Pathfinder Award in April.
She said she enjoys helping as many people as she can, and added that it keeps her alive. “I love people, and I felt that they needed me,” she said. “It’s a wonderful feeling to give.”