Pumpkins pepper the Community Church of East Williston lawn, marking the start of Halloween season. More than 2,000 are sold each year to benefit the church and the Navajo Nation, which grows the pumpkins in Farmington, New Mexico.
“The [Navajos] use the pumpkin revenue for their school programs and community enrichment,” said Doug Olitsky, 49, who co-chairs the church’s pumpkin committee with his wife. “It all goes directly into the community, whether it’s theirs or ours.”
When a pumpkin is purchased, church members hand the customer a leaflet provided by the Navajo Nation that describes the fundraiser.
“Nearly 100 percent of our farm workforce is Native American. We believe it is very important to use domestic labor as unemployment in this region is over 40 percent,” according to the leaflet. “This project and others like it create roughly 25 full time jobs and 550 seasonal jobs for Native Americans.”
Last year, a hailstorm wiped out the smaller pumpkins. The Navajo Nation instead sent the church nearly 2,000 large ones, Olitsky said. The church still raised about $11,000 for itself and $31,000 for the Navajo, he said.
“They’ve been doing this for 35 years and it has always been done on a handshake,” Olitsky said. “We send them a check for their part when we’re done.”
Bellerose resident Bonnie Macchio, 29, pulled her 16-month-old son, Logan, through the patch on a Radio Flyer wagon Monday afternoon.
“We’re part Blackfoot Indian and go to the powwow at the Queens County Farm every year. So I think it’s a wonderful cause,” Macchio said. “This is our first time visiting this pumpkin patch and my son is just loving the huge pumpkins. I want to get a big one so he can carve it.”
Small pumpkins weigh as little as eight ounces. Larger ones can weigh more than 100 pounds. Some pumpkins are so large that the church had to locate a hand truck to move them, Olitsky said. When the truck comes, about 30 local Boy Scouts help unload it.
Professional carvers early in the fundraiser scoop up the colossal pumpkins. Usually, the children go for the biggest ones they can carry, Olitsky said.
He said the hardest part about the fundraiser is worrying about pumpkins getting stolen or destroyed.
“We used to take everything inside. Now we just leave it all out,” Olitsky said. “We never find the pumpkins in the streets and pumpkins are never missing. It’s really cool that nobody messes with anything. That says a lot about the local community and the respect they have for the kids, the church and the Navajo.”
East Williston resident Mary Picciuca, 43, hunted for “oddly shaped and differently colored” pumpkins with her 8-year-old daughter, Olivia, on Monday.
“It makes you feel safe and that you live in a good community knowing that nobody destroys the good event that they put on for us,” she said. “We like going here more than any of these big places that have pumpkins. It’s very quaint, friendly and warm here.
“It’s not a gimmick. It feels like home here.”