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Five Towns Community Center serves as Long Island Cares donation site

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During a lull in the Long Island Cares food distribution at the Five Towns Community Center in Lawrence on May 20, Inwood resident Sarah Hayes took a well-earned gulp of water and explained why she volunteers.

“I was raised by a single mother, and being able to help means everything,” Hayes said, standing in the Community Center’s lobby. “I see myself in the faces of those people.”

On May 18, the first day of the community center’s designation as an L.I. Cares site for Five Towns residents, more than 200 people received a box full of food there, and 500 families were served in the first two days. On May 20, the line initially stretched down Lawrence Avenue to the stores on Mott Avenue.

Each 20-pound box of food is intended to feed six people for a week. It contains nonperishable items as well as fresh produce, when available, and staples such as milk and juice. If available, kosher bags are provided, but those products are limited. Pet food is also provided if needed.

Long Island Cares is a nonprofit food bank headquartered in Freeport. Gammy’s Pantry, a free food bank at the community center managed by Inwood resident Sasha Young, was certified earlier this month as an L.I. Cares distribution center, and funded by a portion of $2 million that the Town of Hempstead has allotted from a $133 million federal aid package for 14 food banks across the township to help ensure that residents in need are fed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The announcement of the allocation, made with L.I. Cares on May 5, was the first act of the town’s newly created Economic Relief Advisory Committee, which will recommend how funds from the federal government’s economic stimulus package should be distributed.

“This is Gammy’s dream fulfilled,” Young said. Gammy was her grandmother Betty Young, whom Sasha has described as “the inspiration behind everything good I do.”

That began with the pantry, which she opened in November 2018, and has expanded to include Gammy’s Closest, which takes in donated clothes and distributes them to people in need.

“Gammy’s Panty is thrilled to partner with Long Island Cares at this time to continue to serve the growing need during the Covid pandemic,” Young said. “Our pantry serves over 100 families weekly. Many are homebound and seniors.”

The connections among the community center, the pantry and L.I. Cares, she explained, began even before the town allocated the money. She and other volunteers cleaned up the center’s lobby and gave Dr. Jessica Rosati, L.I. Cares’ program director, a tour on May 5.

The visit followed several weeks of phone calls. Rosati noted that the food distribution would continue for the next six months.

“The partnership with the Town of Hempstead [and] the staff at the center, in conjunction with Gammy’s Pantry, has been a pleasure,” she said wrote in an email. “There is a well-developed team of capable and compassionate staff that are serving families safely, with dignity and respect. We’re delighted thus far to have been able to successfully provide nutritious foods to residents at a time in such uncertainty.”

State Assemblywoman Melissa Miller, of Atlantic Beach, helped connect Young with Long Island Cares. “I’m very aware of the need for food [in the community] even non-pandemic,” Miller said. “We were getting calls that the food being distributed by the [Lawrence] school district wasn’t enough, as many more people were showing up and the kids weren’t getting food. We reached out to Long Island Cares and put them in touch with Sasha.”

Miller added that she was working on pushing for more federal money for local businesses that have been harmed by the pandemic. She said she endorses creative concepts to jump-start business, including, where possible, closing off streets and allowing restaurants to serve diners outside.

The community center has been a hive of activity since the pandemic shutdown began, feeding many in the Five Towns who are food insecure.

Donations of food have come from a variety of stores and organizations, including the Cedarhurst-based Rock and Wrap It Up!, which collects unused food from concerts and sporting events, as well as stores such as the Bagelry, Trader Joe’s and Wall’s bakery.

The Hewlett-Woodmere and Lawrence school districts have also been distributing meals. Lawrence schools began distributing kosher food last week, and on May 22, there was a food distribution effort, supported by Nassau County, at the Number Four School in Inwood.

“This is a reminder of how great the need is,” said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat who represents the Five Towns and helped distribute food at the Community Center on May 21. “We have to pull together and help one another.”

The federal funding will also support the Nassau Center for Collaborative Assistance, Long Island Cares’ satellite location in Freeport, as well as food distribution in Hempstead, Uniondale, Merrick, Bellmore and Ocean-side.

A family can claim at least 20 pounds of food once a month at distribution sites including Baldwin, Elmont, Roosevelt and other communities. Times are subject to change depending on community need.

The Lawrence site, at 270 Lawrence Ave., is open Mondays and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon.

For more information or to schedule a pickup or delivery, visit licares.org or call (631) 582-3663.

Scott Brinton contributed to this story.