AURELIUS — In December 2013, Meeghan Seastrom started a Facebook group with about 25 other people called Friends Helping Friends of Cayuga County with the goal of connecting those who needed help with people, programs and services who could assist them.
Less than five years later, Seastrom's Facebook group has grown into a community with over 5,500 members and, as of Monday, a new food pantry. The pantry is located in the Fingerlakes Mall, near Savannah Bank, and has a stock of perishable and nonperishable food items, men's and women's hygiene products, diapers and pet food.
The group previously had a pantry in a volunteer's home, but when the volunteer was no longer able to store the donations, Seastrom began searching for businesses that would house the nonprofit's pantry for free. Seastrom has been looking for a few months when Tiffany Whittaker, the director of marketing at the Fingerlakes Mall, reached out to her and asked if the group would be interested in hosting a back-to-school giveaway at the mall. The two women began talking and then Whittaker offered Seastrom the spot in the mall.
"We think (the pantry) is a good cause, and it gets us involved in the community, and it's going to lead to other things," Whittaker said. "The mall is more of a community-based center now than a shopping center. We want to make it a place for the community."
Friends Helping Friends is renting space in the mall free of charge for the first year, Seastrom said, until the group is able to register with the Food Bank of Central New York in October to receive a grant to help pay operating costs, as well as receive food and personal care product donations.
The pantry is open on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday from 10 a.m. until noon for the rest of August. Once school is back in session, the hours will change slightly, Seastrom said, but she will post those updates on the Friends Helping Friends website and Facebook page.
Assistance is open to any Cayuga County residents in need — they just need to show ID and proof of residency and household size. Then, that individual or family can visit the pantry once a month for the items they need. Seastom said the group helps an average of 30 families each month.
Seastrom said the pantry is more of an "emergency" pantry for people who have already gone to their local food pantry or used other assistance but are still coming up short.
"We're here for more of an emergency help, like if you've already gone to the pantry but you still need to get through for a few days at the end of the month, we're here for that."
In addition to the pantry, the group also holds giveaways during the holidays and back to school time. The group will hold a school supplies giveaway on Saturday, Aug. 25 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the mall. Seastrom said there will be a bounce house and other activities to occupy the kids while their parents get their supplies.
"Anyone in Cayuga County is welcome as long as they haven't received help from another school supply giveaway, that way we can spread the help to as many people as possible," Seastrom said.
Parents will need to show ID and proof of address and provide the name of their children, their grades and which school they attend in order to receive supplies.
Seastrom said the pantry is most in need of perishable food items, such as meat, eggs and milk, diapers, hygiene products and school supplies, such as pencils, crayons, markers, paper, binders, folders and notebooks. To donate, people can bring their items to the pantry. To make a monetary donation via PayPal, visit friendshelpingfriendsofcc.org. Monetary donations can also be made in person.