On the Monday morning before Christmas, people wandered aisles picking out food for their family’s table, staff restocked fresh produce on farmhouse shelves, and as shoppers perused clothing racks there was the familiar sound of hangers scraping against rods. These were not scenes from the pre-holiday rush at a grocery store or boutique, but rather the bustling activity inside a former church on Southold’s Main Street, the new home to the Center for Advocacy, Support & Transformation Inc. (CAST).
Formerly known as Community Action Southold Town, the nonprofit has been serving low-income members of the North Fork community since 1965. CAST purchased the building as a new home base for its many programs and services, which includes a food pantry, early childhood literacy program and computer classes, just to name a few.
From the first week clients came to the new center, the feedback has been more than positive. “Many clients had tears,” says Cathy Demeroto, the executive director, who showed off CAST’s new 9,000-square-foot space, nine times the size of its previous space in Greenport.
“The word dignity came up several times. They just really felt a whole other level of being respected and being ap- preciated as hard-working members of the community. It’s a place they are now excited to come to, and (it) takes away the stigma of helping people in need,” she says. “It’s truly overwhelming.”
When clients come in for food, they are not just standing in a line and being handed a bag of food, Demeroto explains. Instead, they grab a grocery cart and peruse the well-stocked shelves. “I think it just changes the whole ex- perience,” she says.
The organization opened its doors at the church at 53930 Route 25 on November 1. “We pretty much worked night and day for six weeks,” Demeroto says, add- ing that her staff of 14 “amazing volunteers” and even some clients made it possible by pitching in with everything from landscaping to sheetrocking. During that time, they also upgraded the electric and put in air conditioning.
The former Southold Methodist Church dates to the late 1700s and underwent extensive renovations in recent years when it was home to the Southold Opera House.
The property, which also holds the former two-story parsonage house, closed in September for $2.8 million. The building went on the market in January for $3.395 million with Douglas Sabo of Nest Seekers International. Bridget Elkin of Compass represented CAST pro bono and put her commission toward the purchase price of the property to help close the deal.
A capital campaign for the building is still underway. The goal was originally $3 million, according to Demeroto, but was increased to $3.1 million due to the electrical and AC upgrades.
So far, they have raised approximately $2.4 million. “We have a mortgage on the building, a goal to pay off by the end of 2022, then we can focus on fundraising for operation costs,” Demeroto explains.
The 2022 operating budget is projected at $900,000. CAST receives some federal money for food and rental assistance and a community development block grant money, which is federal money that funnels through a county consortium and then to Southold Town to give out, as well as some New York State funding. However, most of its money comes from private donors, corporate foundations and family foundation money.
CAST serves close to 700 families, a total of 2,000 individuals, Demeroto says. In the six weeks since moving into the new space, the organization is serving an additional 60 families. Why the sudden increase? Some were clients of another local church’s food pantry that merged with theirs, but she also thinks it’s because the organization has more exposure now.
“I think we’re more visible since we moved — we’re in the heart of Southold Town. Not only is it centrally located, we’ve been in the news a lot,” she says. Plus, she feels more people feel comfortable in the new space. “People also didn’t realize the breadth of our services … now they realize we have a wide range of programs related to education, nutrition, benefits, emergency assistance.”
Ample parking and being located on the bus line also help, she says. CAST does still have its satellite space in Greenport, where it holds a mobile food pantry on Tuesday mornings.
The food pantry is open three days a week, but staff works with clients who cannot get in during the scheduled hours. Staff are in the building every day for case management, benefit application assistance and the education programs, which take place mostly in the evening.
This week, staff members were wrapping up a toy drive for 450 children who were signed up.
Wrapped presents — and even a few bicycles — encircled the Christmas tree in the sanctuary and more presents were arriving. “I know the children are going to be very happy come Christmas,” Demeroto says.
The client-choice food pantry is located on the lower level, where people can walk the three aisles as if they are in a market and select the foods they want. Clients can shop for themselves based on their dietary restrictions. “This also helps us to avoid food waste. When we hand people a bag, it’s things we think they need,” she says.
There is no limit to the fresh produce the clients can select from the Charles and Helen Reichert Family Foundation Fresh Bounty Pantry. CAST works with 15 farms on the North Fork to supply their clients with vegetables, fruits, cheeses and eggs. Some are donated, while some are acquired through federal monies CAST receives.
“We’re surrounded by farms on the North Fork, so it’s nice now that low-income families can have access to all that fresh local produce,” Demeroto says. CAST has also led nutritional programs to help clients understand the importance of healthy eating.
The “sharing room/boutique” can also be found on the lower level with clothes, shoes, household items and baby items.
The building’s immense space also provides classroom space. The organization is planning yoga and dance classes. There are three computer stations on the main floor, available for computer classes or for clients who need access to a computer. There is also private intake space — CAST’s previous home had no private office space.
CAST is in its third year of its culinary skills program for students who aren’t planning to go to college, and because the building has a beautifully appointed professional kitchen, CAST is able to, come the new year, offer culinary classes for adults, just one of the many expanded services for which the building allows.
In the sanctuary, with the church’s historic stained glass windows, there are still pews and even a stage. CAST will use the space as a gathering hall for large classes, graduations from pro-grams and an arts cultural program launching in 2022 thanks to a state grant.
Demeroto says the plan is to create “one real community center.”