For many people, the holiday season is the time of year to give back, to think about the gifts they’ve received and how to pay them forward. For others, such as Barbara Costello, giving is a calling that isn’t limited to one season of the year.
The 38-year Glen Head resident says she has always loved helping others. For years, while raising her three children with her husband, Jimmy, she was an early-intervention therapist in the North Shore School District, working with children with developmental delays and physical and mental disabilities.
Costello’s eureka moment came 14 years ago, after she had spent some time traveling internationally. “I really saw the needs of what it’s like to have nothing,” she recalled. “Then, when I came back, I realized we need to be just totally aware of giving things back and committing to our community.”
This led her to found Guardian Angel Family Crisis Center in Sea Cliff 13 years ago. Guardian Angel is a nonprofit outreach resource for families dealing with financial hardship, helping to meet their basic needs with food, clothing and children’s supplies. The organization has also dealt with critical situations such as families facing eviction from their homes and domestic abuse.
All of the clothing, toys and children’s books that Costello sells at discount prices are donated by North Shore stores and residents. She emphasized that this was partly a way to show struggling families how much the rest of the community cared for them, and that they aren’t alone in their struggles.
“It’s really about the spirit of giving, and just being aware of our community and how we reach out to make a difference and just commit to caring,” said Costello, who is 65. “Just showing that we’re all in this together and that no one’s alone.”
Roughly 50 people in need come through the doors of Guardian Angel every day, according to Costello. When they can’t pay, she says, she’s always willing to give something for free if it’s needed.
Jayne Ameri, a resident of Sea Cliff, is one of the many people who frequently donate toys, clothes and other goods to Guardian Angel. She recalled how amazed she was at the work Costello does throughout the year, and how it helped her realize that donating things that seem trivial, such as children’s socks or old toys, rather than throwing them away, can make a big difference to families in need.
“For me it’s two-sided,” Ameri said. “I bring her things from my grandchildren and I purchase things for her, because we don’t always need to buy new things — we can recycle. It’s a wonderful thing, and … I see more and more people shopping here and supporting her, which is great.”
While Guardian Angel is mainly known in the community for its clothing and essential goods, Costello’s work doesn’t stop there. She also hosts English as a Second Language programs for adults throughout the year, and in the summer she expands them to include high school students as well.
She noted that one of Guardian Angel’s most meaningful functions is teaching the next generation the importance of giving back to the community. Whether it’s encouraging ESL students to take part in local fundraisers or teaching young children how meaningful it is to give their possessions to those who need them more, Costello says that educating and advocating charity is essential to creating a legacy of kindness.
“My feeling is that when you create a foundation, what blooms from that is like the biblical mustard seed,” Costello explained. “It’s the mustard seed that grows into a mighty plant, or the rippling effects of a drop of rain in the ocean. You may plant it, but eventually it just multiplies on its own.”
One large mustard seed she has planted is far from Long Island, and not even in the United States. Costello also runs the Angel Gardens Center, an educational enrichment program in Comayagua, Honduras.
The project came about, she said, when one of her former volunteers, who was originally from the region, told her how serious the need was in Comayagua for the same essentials Guardian Angel provides for families on the North Shore. In order to provide these goods in the Central American nation, as well as training in such skills as gardening, work on a facility began in April 2018 and was completed in September 2019.
The need for this type of assistance in the area is serious, because the region suffers from low education rates and serious wealth disparity. Approximately 66 percent of the population of Honduras lives in poverty.
The Angel Gardens Center focuses mostly on children, helping families purchase uniforms and school supplies, offering children free educational services and diagnostic evaluations, and helping defray the costs of caring for children with special needs.
“The vision is supporting women and children… whether it’s here or there,” Costello said. “Families are families, children are children, and if we can, we should come alongside people, whether it’s internationally or locally.”
Although the Angel Gardens Center is associated with Guardian Angel, the project is supported and staffed by separate donations and volunteers. Costello plans to take roughly 30 volunteers down to Honduras in March, and she continues to take an active role in running the facilities.
Ultimately, she said, the goal is to get to the point where the residents of Comayagua can run the project themselves.
Whether it’s locally or internationally, Costello’s work has made an impact in her community. Sea Cliff Mayor Elena Villafane noted that although she does not know Costello personally, she has been thoroughly impressed with Guardian Angel and the work of its volunteers.
“I have always been so in awe of what Guardian Angel does in Sea Cliff, and they really are such a great value add for our community,” Villafane said. “It’s people getting together to try and do good things, so I have always thought that it’s a really special piece of the village.”