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Martin Luther King Center food pantry in Rockville Centre is renamed for founder

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Since the start of the pandemic, residents of Rockville Centre have provided support to neighbors in need in numerous ways, and that generosity has continued through the holiday season. Last week, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center’s pop-up food pantry opened for the final time this year, and donors ensured that Christmas would be bountiful: About three weeks’ worth of groceries, as well as gifts, were given to the approximately 100 families the pantry serves each week.

“We were so happy to see so many of our neighbors helping each other out,” Rena Riback, who has been organizing the collection and delivery of donations since April, said on Monday.

Ahead of the holidays, with dwindling donations, Riback said she got nervous about whether there would be enough of a supply to satisfy the demand. “But the town came through,” she said.

The food pantry only operates on Fridays, and because of the Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays, it will be closed until Jan. 8. Riback issued social media blasts and also put out a call for private sponsorships. As a result, she said, seven families are being privately sponsored by individuals who will supply toys, grocery items and catered meals for Christmas.

Riback, a co-administrator of the Anti-Racism Project and a member of the Sisterhood of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth, said that, in addition to grocery items donated by village residents, the pantry relies on monetary donations from these organizations as well as the generosity of Sons of a Butcher, in Oceanside, for meat and poultry, and Fruit Tree Farm, in Baldwin, for produce. Riback said that Sons of a Butcher collected a box of toys for the holidays, and she collected about 100 toys herself through donations. All of the items were delivered from Riback’s home to the MLK Center last Friday, in two pickup truckloads and two carloads.

She said that the pantry ordered three weeks’ worth of meat from the butcher, and had extra groceries that should last until it reopens. “Most families were able to stock up,” Riback said. “It’s not ideal, but it should get them through.”

The MLK Center’s assistant director, Sharon Sheppard, started the pantry in March after seeing the need early in the pandemic, and on Friday it was announced that it would be renamed Sharon’s MLK Pantry in her honor. Sheppard, 53, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July, and her twin sister, Karen Mobley, stepped in to make sure the pantry continued operating. She drives from her home in Huntington Station to set up and run it each week, along with her son and a handful of volunteers. “I’m dedicated to keeping it going,” Mobley said. “It really lifts my sister’s spirits to see it continue.”

When the pantry opened, Sheppard said, it served about 20 families a week. The need quickly grew to about 40 by early April, and now serves 70 to 100 families.

Though the facility is closed, Riback said she was still accepting food donations on her porch — and they’re still coming. “It hasn’t slowed up,” she said, “but that’s a good thing.”

Those interested in donating can email antiracismprojectli@gmail.com to find out where to send cash or deliver items.