2022 Person of the Year: Erica Steindl

Take a walk through the headquarters of the Center for Advocacy, Support and Transformation in Southold — it was once a Methodist church — and it’s possible to get an idea of all this organization does in a typical day. The lower level houses a food pantry — baskets of fruit and vegetables fill the room — and a room next to it is packed with clothes for people who need them.

Climb the stairs to the main floor — where church services were once held — and you will see desks busy with people and a kitchen where students, both young and old, can learn the culinary skills necessary to land a job in the restaurant industry. 

A tour of the building shows that CAST, which moved to the former church in 2021, is using every nook and cranny in their new headquarters. CAST serves thousands of people in Southold and on Shelter Island and the activity in the building backs that up.

One member of the staff — Erica Steindl, CAST’s bilingual education and outreach coordinator — is The Suffolk Times’ Person of the Year for 2022. In an office filled with dedicated people, Ms. Steindl stands out for her contribution to the community she serves.

Many families are struggling. They all want a better life for their children. In that way, we are all the same.

erica steindl

In her nominating letter to The Suffolk Times, Cathy Demeroto, CAST’s executive director, described Ms. Steindl as “an extraordinary teacher who develops innovative programs for both children and adults in our community. Erica is creative, kind and cares deeply about providing opportunities for both children and adults to learn and grow. She is passionate about helping those who face barriers to learning, including language, technology, transportation and financial resources.”

Sitting with Ms. Steindl in CAST headquarters and hearing all that she does, it’s hard for an interviewer to keep up. It’s not an exaggeration to say her plate is full every day. After the late-afternoon interview, she explained, she was going to a home in Greenport to work with a Spanish-speaking family with a preschool child.

“The goal is to prepare the child for kindergarten so that child can start right in with the learning process,” Ms. Steindl said.

Many times, she said, she will go to a family such as this one and see they are food challenged or facing a housing crisis. She brings that information back to CAST to help find solutions. If it means bringing food from the pantry to the family, she will do it, or a volunteer will fill up the trunk of a car and drive to the house.

“It’s pretty much whatever we have to do to help in any way we can,” she said.

Here is a list of some of Ms. Steindl’s duties at CAST: She coordinates the North Fork ParentChild+ Program, a parent support and school readiness program for at-risk families, visiting a family weekly, like the one in Greenport, to bring books and educational toys and teach literacy skills. She oversees the North Fork Culinary Program for youth and adults, which teaches workplace communication and resume writing in addition to culinary skills. She teaches in the English as a New Language and citizenship program. Oh, and she oversees CAST’s art education program, which offers dance, sculpture, photography, music and jewelry-making to youths and adults.

“Helping children be prepared for school is very important,” Ms. Steindl said. “Without it they can be lost going in; this prepares them for what they will experience. It can be as simple as how to cut and paste or how to use a pair of scissors.”

A universal truth she has encountered is that “many families are struggling. They all want a better life for their children. In that way, we are all the same. The parents’ concern is for their children, living happy, confident lives, and getting a quality education. When we enter the home, we let them know they can make a big difference. We are also teaching the parents to do this themselves. We want education to be important in the house. Without books in your home, the world is a lot smaller.”

The culinary program in the CAST kitchen is also critical. “The goal is to train people so they can enter the restaurant workplace. Here, on the North Fork, this is particularly important. Restaurants can’t get enough help. The need for employees is enormous. We teach them the skills they need. And we teach them how to be a great employee.”

It goes without saying that Ms. Steindl is bilingual. She could not do what she does without knowing both English and Spanish. Her language skills help her with another of her duties: the Spanish-speaking mother’s club. It also helps her identify what a family needs — say, math tutoring for a child.

“With families, we ask what they need, or what they are worried about,” she said. “Some are concerned about developmental issues or food security.”

A family she has worked with — and this is typical on the North Fork — was living in a two-bedroom house in Greenport. The house was sold and the rent jumped from $1,800 a month to $2,600 a month. The household was a mother with four children, including a 2-year-old. Where do they go?

“It’s a hard problem to tackle,” she said. “We do whatever we can, but the need is only growing.”

At the end of a long week, does she feel discouraged?

“I don’t,” she said. “Not here at CAST. I can’t be discouraged. I want to provide hope. When we see a family doing better, it makes us feel like we are doing good.”

Previous Winners

2021: Gabby Stroup
2020: Shari Hymes and Dr. Lawrence Walser
2019: Father Joe Staudt
2018: Mary Latham
2017: Eleanor Lingo
2016: Charles Reichert
2015: Kait’s Angels
2014: Jeff Heidtmann
2013: David Gamberg and Michael Comanda
2012: Southold Emergency Response Team
2011: Paul and Barbara Stoutenburgh
2010: Scott Russell
2009: Ryan Creighton
2008: North Fork NJROTC
2007: Maureen’s haven
2006: Southold Town Animal Shelter
2005: Ronnie Wacker
2004: Josh Horton
2003: Regina Maris Crew
2002: Colin Van Tuyl
2001: Frank LePré
2000: Ellie Hall
1999: Sister Margaret Smyth
1998: Reverend Lynda Clements
1997: Tim Caufield
1996: Dr. Micah Kaplan
1995: David Kappell
1994: Bob Levy
1993: Walter Dohm
1992: Reverend Summers
1991: Planning Conference
1990: 350th Committee
1989: Lynne Richards
1988: Franklin Bear
1987: Linda Graham