Jeni’s Main Street server develops reputation for giving back

(Credit: Nicole Smith)

Sitting on the couch in her Cutchogue home, Cathie Dunn is noticeably hesitant to talk about her work. But when she does, she credits those who help her with doing as much work as she puts in herself — if not more.

Her reluctance is less about discussing her job as a waitress at Jeni’s Main Street Grill in Southold — though that plays a significant role — than about discussing her dedication to helping those in need in “tightknit” Southold Town.

“You’re supposed to do it with the right heart,” Dunn said. “I guess that’s what I was taught by my mother. The left hand isn’t supposed to know what the right hand is doing when you’re helping somebody … You’re not supposed to get the glory for it.”

Dunn, who has worked at Jeni’s for 13 years, said she’s formed close relationships with her customers over the years using her position as a waitress. This platform has allowed her to learn about intimate parts of their lives — the good and the bad. And once she learns about the bad, she tries to make things good again.

That’s why, throughout the years, Dunn has donated her tips to numerous charities, cared for pets, paid to heat others’ homes, held multiple chinese auctions for various community members, donated baskets to even more auctions and made sure those who were sick had food in their homes.

“That’s what Cathie does,” said Amy Agnesini, a longtime Jeni’s customer. “She just quietly goes about her way to help everybody.”

Dunn was working on creating baskets to donate to a Chinese auction hosted by a local Boy Scout last month. Last Wednesday, tables at Jeni’s were pushed together and covered with Disney toys, blankets and goodie baskets to donate to an auction being held for a North Fork woman battling cancer.

She said that when items are on sale, especially after the holidays, she stocks up so she’ll be prepared to donate them when the time comes. If she runs out of something — a wicker basket, for instance — she’ll post a note at the restaurant. Before she knows it, she has more baskets than she needs.

Additionally, Dunn often keeps donation cans near the cash register where customers can contribute change to support local causes.

Holly Lanzetta of Greenport credits Dunn with being a big help over the past year after her 5-year-old son, Sam, was diagnosed with Leukemia. Around the holidays Dunn set up a giving tree for the single mom in the restaurant and had customers donate gift cards, gas cards, grocery cards and other necessary items.

Additionally, Make-A-Wish sent the family to Disney World for nine days last month, so Lanzetta had to board her dog, and chose a place at Dunn’s suggestion. When Lanzetta went to pay the bill an employee had told her it was already taken care of, so she immediately called Dunn.

“Cathie said ‘I just have connections,’” Lanzetta said. “She’s the queen of behind the scenes help.”

After Dunn’s 16-year-old nephew was diagnosed with glandular atrophy, she began organizing chinese auctions in his hometown of East Setauket. Per his request, she moved the auction to Southold a few years ago. Only days before the event, however, she was hospitalized herself and couldn’t attend the event.

But that didn’t stop her. Dunn called two friends from the hospital and asked them to help make sure the auction, for which around 250 baskets had been contributed, continued. She said it felt like the entire town attended the event, with truckloads of goods being delivered for the event.

“That’s what this town is about,” Dunn said. “I can’t take the credit for this because I have a wonderful support group around me that inspires me and keeps me going.”

Dunn’s sense of giving back and “lightening the load” for others was instilled in her at around 5 years old.

“When I was young, my mother did volunteer work for an organization called FISH [Fellowship in Serving Humanity],” she said. “She used to go around and take people to doctor’s appointments on her own time, with her own gas and stuff, and she always used to tell me ‘This is our job to do this.'”

Dunn said she participated in community events while growing up in Port Jefferson, but her dedication to community service really gained traction 18 years ago when she moved to Cutchogue — thanks largely to the involvement of others in the neighborhood.

Agnesini agreed that the North Fork’s small-town feel plays a role in Dunn’s charity work, but said her friend deserves more credit than she gives herself.

“You look at her and you know that she’s just a caring, giving person who, if more people were like Cathie — wow, what a world it would be,” she said.

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Photo: Cathie Dunn with five-year-old Sam Duffy. (Credit: Nicole Smith)