The director’s office at Community Action Southold Town’s two-story headquarters in Greenport is lined with shelves overflowing with toys, books, puzzles and games that will soon be distributed to needy families across the North Fork.
Downstairs, in the nonprofit’s pantry, a fresh shipment of donations from the Greenport IGA has just arrived. Boxes of pasta, soup, frozen food and more cover the floor.
Executive director Sarah Benjamin, who will step down from that role at the end of December, said the generosity of local residents has helped CAST — now in its 50th year and preparing to celebrate its golden anniversary in 2015 — not only survive through decades of funding crises and economic recessions, but thrive.
“I just can’t even believe the outpouring of support that really comes here,” she said. “I think Southold Town is still kind of a small town that takes care of people. It’s neighbors helping neighbors, but they actually do it.”
The support means even more to people like Rocio Diaz, a Mexican immigrant who has been living in Greenport since 2007. Ms. Diaz, who works part-time during the summer to support her family, is one of close to 40 people enrolled in CAST’s North Fork Parent-Child Home Program. Through the program, volunteer teachers visit the homes of young children across the town to help them learn reading, writing and other skills — with their parents’ help.
Ms. Diaz’s 4-year-old son, Brandon, is in his second year of the program and has already benefited from working with his bilingual CAST teacher, Miriam Sostre.
“I know some English, but whenever I don’t know, the program teaches my son a lot,” Ms. Diaz said through a translator. “He’s picked up a lot of words that even I don’t understand.”
With a new executive director set to be installed at the beginning of next year, CAST plans to expand its programs to meet the changing needs of the less fortunate in Southold Town.
The organization was founded in 1965 through an alliance of concerned citizens and local church leaders as part of the “War on Poverty” movement launched a year earlier by President Lyndon B. Johnson during a State of the Union address.
“There was no community action before CAST,” said the Rev. Ben Burns of Greenport, who was one of the group’s nine founding members when he was affiliated with the former Southold Methodist Church. “There was a ‘War on Poverty’ and the goal was to find the target group and find ways to serve them and help them to become self-sufficient.”
The Rev. Burns served as the first treasurer of the organization, which at that time met at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Greenport. The Rev. Arthur Bryant — who helped migrant workers across the North Fork in the 1960s with the Rev. Burns — was also among the group’s founders.
Originally, CAST was federally funded, but “that money ran out and wasn’t renewed,” the Rev. Burns said.
“It’s interesting that it’s persisted as long as it has, because at the time it was founded it was kind of a branch of the county’s community action program,” he continued. “Many of [those groups] don’t exist [anymore].”