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Charity offers at-home parenting help for at-risk East End families

Home visitors of CAST are shown from left

Home visitors of CAST are shown from left to right, Miriam Sostre of Greenport, Amy Burns of Southold, Amanda Davidson of Center Moriches, Amy McGrath of Southold, Kerry Ward of Southold, Abigail Hansen Corrigan of Mattituck and Sarah Benjamin of Geenport. The coordinator of CAST holds items that will go in home visit bags. (Dec. 6, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

A Southold charity is recruiting families for an in-home teaching program for impoverished parents with young children.

For the first time on the East End, Community Action of Southold Town, or CAST, plans to start serving 20 to 25 families in January to address what advocates say is a growing demand for services on the North Fork.

"A lot of communities that are really affluent have a ring around them of people that are struggling" and below the radar, said Denis Noncarrow, president of CAST. "Many times, they're not noticed."

Sarah Benjamin, director of CAST, said that counter to perception, "it's not all vineyards."

The North Fork Parent-Child Home Program plans to send an instructor, armed with puzzles and toys, into the homes of families in poverty. Twice a week for a half-hour per day, workers intend to model to parents in poor families how to interact with their children.

Next year, the program is expected to grow to between 40 and 45 children, Benjamin said, as another group of youngsters joins.

The nonprofit has raised $28,000 toward its goal of $30,000 to pay for the program's first year, Benjamin said. But that's with Benjamin serving as coordinator of the program. She has other responsibilities, including running the nonprofit, which provides a food pantry, offers free clothing and helps families apply for food stamps, among other services.

Shelves in the nonprofit's Greenport offices are stacked with new puzzles, play dinner plates and toy trucks in bright colors. CAST staff is being trained to take the toys into homes, where the staff can show parents how to put them to use.

While it might seem basic for some parents, creating a "language-rich" home setting -- with plenty of interaction with children -- has been shown to help children's development and education, she said.

Benjamin, 63, a former teacher with Eastern Suffolk BOCES, said the program has been used nationally and in other parts of Long Island for 50 years.

It will include both migrant families for whom English is a second language and those with intergenerational poverty who have lived on the North Fork for years.

Southold in 2009 had an estimated median household income of $66,464, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The census found 4.5 percent of families in Southold live below the poverty line. In Suffolk County the poverty rate between 2007 and 2011 was 5.7 percent. In Nassau County, it was 5.2 percent.

"It's a low amount," Benjamin said. "But it still translates into a significant number."

And there are particular struggles to being poor on the North Fork. Transportation can be a significant problem, Noncarrow said. There are no homeless shelters on the North Fork, and county offices for services are often 18 miles away in Riverhead.

"It's not just in Bed-Stuy or the Bronx anymore," she said. "People affected by poverty are everywhere, in towns like Southold and Southampton and East Hampton."She said families come out to the North Fork often looking for work, but housing is expensive. "If you haven't inherited a home, it can be difficult."

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