From Trump Plaza to a food pantry

how a Filipina unwittingly launched a 20-year career serving New York’s socialites

O n a recent summer day, Jossie Reyas, 77, sat on a bench outside a small food pantry in Woodside, Queens, waiting her turn to get cans of beans, fruit, soup and vegetables.

Reyas, wearing frayed slippers and a faded floral blouse, was quiet and soft-spoken, but when asked about her life, she spun a tale of cooking for New York socialites, including a European countess and a future president of the United States.

She still keeps signed post-it notes, checks, menus, pictures and holiday cards from all of her employers. She keeps them in a plastic tote bag along with her flip phone and paper napkins.

Reyas keeps cards, notes and memos from her employers as prized mementos. — Photos by Mariel Padilla

One Christmas card, with cartoon angels and musical notes scattered across the front, reads: “Dear Josie, Thank you for your help this year. You do a great job and we certainly appreciate having you with us. Warm wishes for 1990! Mr. Mrs. Trump and Christopher.”

Born in the Philippines, Reyas was the oldest of eight children: three boys and five girls. In 1970, she studied business administration at Manila’s University of the East before moving to Madrid with her sisters. There she worked at the Denmark, Mexico and Urugaian embassies.

The Countess of Romanones, Spain just happened to live across the street from the Urugaian Embassy. One day the Countess recognized Reyas as a Filipina and asked if she would cook for her.

Reyas both cooked and decorated for the Countess of Romanones’s evening cocktail parties approximately 30 years ago. Reyas keeps photos and news clippings in her bag along with her other mementos. — Photo by Mariel Padilla

“Europeans love chicken adobo,” Reyas whispered.

It was there she heard of her father’s sudden death. Her parents were en route to the United States when he suffered a heart attack at the airport. Her mother handled the funeral arrangements before moving to America months later.

In 1986, Reyas’s mother summoned her to New York City saying, “it is time,” as the rest of her siblings had already moved. Reyas, in her mid-forties, dutifully obeyed.

In 1987, the Countess asked Reyas to cook for a private party she was hosting in New York. Reyas’s cooking, attention to detail and dedication to decoration garnered praise from the wealthy guests.

Soon, Reyas said, her services were requested by socialites such as:

  • Nancy Reagan
  • Mark Thatcher
  • Lally Weymouth
  • Prince Dimitri of Yugoslavia
  • Susan Hess
  • Betsy Bloomingdale
  • Vera Wang
  • Barbara Kummel

Reyas even lived with Robert and Blaine Trump at Trump Plaza for six months during the construction of the Trump Taj Mahal in 1989. Robert’s brother, Donald, and his family were frequent visitors.

“They are nice. Even Donald, even the children of Donald — simple; I don’t know why many people don’t like him.”
— Jossie Reyas

Several employers asked Reyas to move with them, but she declined every offer that would permanently take her away from Manhattan.

“I came here because of my mother. Why would I leave her?” Reyas said.

Reyas’s mother died in her Manhattan home in 1994, but Reyas doesn’t want to move back to the Philippines like her siblings. She hasn’t been back since 1975.

“They all go home when they get married because they have business in the Philippines,” Reyas said. “I did not get married. I stay here, that’s why. If I [got] married, [had] children and a family, then I [would have gone] home also.”

These days, Reyas says, she makes a meager living as a decorator, working only for select employers of her choosing.

“No more cooking,” Reyas said smiling in a faded floral shirt. “I cannot cook anymore. I’m old.”

The Food Pantry

The Corpus Christi food pantry, located at 31–30 61st St. in Woodside, Queens, is a small operation housed in the Catholic church’s parish center.

For the past decade, the food pantry has been run by two retired women: Karen Sherlock and Sharon Callaghan. They have four volunteers that assist during the main distribution days every other week.

Chairman of the Food Pantry Sharon Callaghan and Outreach Coordinator Karen Sherlock are the only full-time employees of the Corpus Christi food pantry. Callaghan works with clients while Sherlock handles the paperwork. Close friends and longtime coworkers, the two practically finish each other’s sentences.

The pantry relies on government funding and serves about 225 people every month, according to the church website. Inventory typically includes chicken, salmon, beans, cereal, fruit, soup, vegetables, pasta and sauce.

“Whatever we have, we give,” Callaghan said.

Brigid McCarthy (left) and Marion Erickson (right) are volunteers at the food pantry every other Wednesday. McCarthy helps fill the bags with cans, and Erickson typically logs in client names at the door. — Photo by Mariel Padilla

Rita Lawler, Jean Wolejsza, Brigid McCarthy and Marion Erickson are the four regular pantry volunteers. All four are retired, Corpus Christi parishioners and live in the area.

Lawler, who started volunteering five years ago, is the newest addition to the group. Now, she recognizes some of the clients at the grocery store and in the neighborhood.

According to the volunteers, many of the clients are repeat customers. They’ve been coming for years.

“People are grateful, most people are grateful. We know a lot of them and call them by their first name,” McCarthy said. “And it’s nice being with my little crew here.”

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