AT just three feet 11 inches in height, Suzette Sooknanan Evans may be small in stature but in her community of South Ozone Park, Queens, New York, she’s a force to be reckoned with.
When New York City was declared the Covid-19 epicentre back in April, Evans took on the mammoth task of feeding the poor and those who had lost their jobs overnight. With coronavirus cases on the rise in the US, she doesn’t see herself stopping anytime soon.
Preparing 160-200 meals twice a week comes at great personal sacrifice on the part of Evans — she hasn’t been working since April and her asthma puts her at increased risk of severe illness from Covid-19.
Despite the challenges and the personal heartbreaks along the way (Evans lost her ex-husband and a few friends to Covid-19) she refuses to drop her hands.
“When someone tells me I can’t do something, I like to prove them wrong,” says Evans who lived on St John’s road, St Augustine before migrating to America 20 years ago.
Before the pandemic Evans worked as a nanny, but with so many people getting sick around her, her employer thought it best if Evans, who is asthmatic, stayed at home. On the way back to her place one day in April, Evans looked on in shock as 200 people stood in a line outside a food pantry — in New York City of all places.
“It was heartbreaking and sad to see all those people waiting for food. Most of the people in the line had lost their jobs,” she says.
For years, Evans was in the habit of donating food to the Leviticus Church of God every Easter but seeing those people waiting for a hot meal struck a nerve. She called Bishop James Pullings Jr and offered to volunteer. Once she got the green light, Evans corralled everyone on her contact list. Evans, whose dream was to be an actress, is well known in her community for her starring role in the Problem Child series on YouTube. So she was able to rely on friends who own restaurants and businesses in NY for food and monetary donations. With the help of volunteers, the very first Saturday she prepared and delivered 150 boxed lunches to the food pantry.
“The people were happy and surprised. Some even asked if they could have an extra meal. I realised that I couldn’t stop, I had to keep going,” she says.
Once Evans decided to cook meals for the pantry on a frequent basis, obstacles started to appear; Evans’ landlady began to complain about the constant traffic in and out of her apartment, she also didn’t approve of Evans using the backyard. Then because of the stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic, the morale among some of Evans’ friends began to sink. But Evans stayed on course and her persistence paid off.
“Every time a problem came up, God opened a way forward,” Evans says in her usual spunky tone.
One of her Muslim neighbours offered her the use of his stove, propane gas and large pots with the condition that she not cook pork. And Evans traded in her car for a Dodge Caravan which serves as a delivery van and mobile kitchen. Needless to say, she takes her commitment to the food pantry very seriously.
“The weather is hot so the people who are standing in line for food are depending on us for water. If I fall short or if I’m late, then others will feel it,”she says.
If Evans doesn’t get sufficient donations then she pays for food items out of her own pocket.
“There was one Saturday when I didn’t have as much as I expected so I said, ‘God help me feed these people. If you fed thousands of people with two fish and five loaves, then help me to do something similar’,”she recalls.
That day Evans was able to spread her ingredients and she made chicken chow mein which was delivered on time. Now in her fourth month of helping out at the pantry, Evans has received tremendous support from her Trinidadian and Guyanese friends and neighbours living in and around Queens. She is calling on persons who can afford it to help others in need.
“How many times have we gone to the grocery and bought things we don’t need only to have them go to waste? And with this pandemic we don’t need to spend money on things like shoes because where do we plan on wearing them? Can we take a quarter of what we would spend on ourselves and donate it to the needy instead?”she asks.
When Evans first started cooking and delivering meals to the pantry, some people told her she was crazy and putting herself at unnecessary risk. But she has never let anything stop her before and she is determined to keep it that way. She was once discouraged from leaving Trindad and moving to the US — but she did it anyway, she was told that she couldn’t drive — but she drives and has a vehicle of her own that is modified to suit her height.
“I have a motto: I may be short but I am like a giant. At 45, I can do anything I put my mind to once I have God in my heart,” says Evans. “And I want people to know that if I can do it, anyone can.”
Evans is offering to help fellow Trinidadians who are currently stuck in Queens, New York and in desperate need of groceries. Those interested can contact her via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or message her directly on her Suzette Sooknanan Evans Facebook page.