Sasha Young, of Inwood, the founder of Gammy’s Pantry in the Five Towns Community Center, worked as an aide at the Lawrence school district for over a decade until she was furloughed in April 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded.
She received a call to return to the district that September, and chose not to. The Community Center had become more of a priority for her.
“I was able to directly impact and help families and provide the services that I knew they were lacking,” Young said. “No regrets at all.”
The pantry was created in 2019, inspired by Young’s grandmother Betty Young, whom she called “Gammy.” It occupied a small space in the Community Center, and offered food to those in need. Its services would expand to include clothes and medical equipment.
In the beginning, Young said, she served roughly 100 families. But as the pandemic deepened, the need for food grew as many people lost their jobs and the pantry would become the one place they could come for any resources, with lines that went around the Community Center.
“It was a little scary at first,” Young recalled. “But we found out quickly that people depended on us, and looked forward to seeing us, with everyone being confined to their house. Really, the only people they saw for a year were me and the volunteers.”
Those volunteers included community members, students in the Lawrence school district and Young’s twin daughters, Alexandra and Alexis Acosta. Many were dedicated to helping those in need.
County Legislator Carrié Solages, who represents the neighborhood, worked closely with Young, and saw firsthand the sacrifices she made for families across the Five Towns.
“I am very fortunate to have witnessed her and the people she worked with at the Gammy’s Pantry,” Solages said. “They do a tremendous amount of humanitarian work in very difficult circumstances, and it was my honor just to have worked next to them and be able to assist.”
“Despite these conditions, they served well over 1,000 people during the pandemic,” Solages added. “Whether it be food pantries, clothing and flowers. It gave people hope just from that pantry. The people who needed services were diverse. It was the Jewish community, the Latino community and the Black community — it was even from beyond the Five Towns.”
As the pantry prepares to celebrate its fourth anniversary, Young said it has now served nearly 6,000 South Shore families. She has also collaborated with local organizations with similar missions, including the Cedarhurst-based Rock and Wrap It Up!, run by Syd Mandelbaum; stores such as Trader Joe’s in Hewlett; and Long Island Cares, a Freeport-based hunger assistance organization.
“With all the great work that Sasha has done, she was able to grow the pantry and partner with Long Island Cares,” said K. Brent Hill, the community center’s executive director. “Originally, Sasha had a little one-room, (the) size of a little walk-in closet here in the building, but because of the partnership, we were able to get a larger space and to serve more people during the pandemic.”
The Biden administration ended the pandemic-related public health emergency on May 11. But despite the perception that the pandemic is over, Young emphasized that its effects linger, and many community members continue to struggle, amid constantly rising prices increases of food and other goods.
“We have inflation right now,” she said. “Rent in our area has almost doubled. We have no grocery store. They moved our only grocery store for a town up Rockaway Turnpike, so we’re in a food desert.”
In 2020, the Inwood Stop & Shop was closed to make way for a new, larger one on Rockaway Turnpike in Woodmere, 1.7 miles from the Community Center. Young said that many neighbors come to her pantry because they don’t have transportation to get to the market.
Adding to the challenge is the uptick in migrants coming to the community, which has increased the need for the pantry and the center’s other services.
“A lot of them don’t have some of the resources needed to really take care of their families,” Hill said. “The need is still there.”