story & photo
by Jon Persson
“There is a band of angels in New London,” declares Gemma Moran, as members of the New London Lions Club unload a donation of $2600 worth of food at the center which bears her name.
The food, paid for with a grant from the International Lions Club, replaces supplies lost or depleted as a result of superstorm Sandy. Waterford’s ShopRite has helped stretch the donation dollars, contributing a discount on the usual pricing of the food. It is a continuation of a mission started years ago by the self-effacing Gemma, and which culminated in the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center in New London.
How much did the dollars stretch?
“Don’t mention me, mention the volunteers!” Gemma urges. “The most important thing is to thank everyone.” She rattles off the numbers for which the many volunteers and donors have been responsible in 2012: the 2,163,000 pounds of food delivered in 2,500 supply trips to 96 food pantries and soup kitchens across southeastern Connecticut.
Thanking the volunteers for their work is “the greatest respect and love I can give them,” says Gemma.
Indeed, the volunteer Lions and regular Center crew move with great energy and purpose, offloading the supplies from a box truck in pallet-loads, quickly moving perishables to the Center’s refrigerator-freezer. Greetings, resplendent with obvious affection, are offered throughout. During a brief pause, Sam Linder, president of the New London Lions, calls the gathering together with the admonition, “Gemma is going to tell a story.”
Then, as the audience listens with anticipation for some great wisdom or historic insight, Gemma proceeds to tell a joke from her days years ago in Boston. The twinkling eyes reveal a reason she has lived so well—into her 88th year.
It’s an active place. In the lounge area of the Center, volunteers from the Sprague Community Center and the New London Food Pantry wait for their turn to load their trucks with food supplies for the coming days. At the Sprague Center, some 200 people receive assistance on a regular basis; Outreach Coordinator Brenda Keefe says that “all are welcome” though they have a special emphasis on helping the working poor, who at times live outside of the public assistance system.
Gene Stringham of the New London Food Pantry says that they work on a voucher system to gain eligibility for Federal food assistance. “I’ll tell you how it began,” says Gemma, after the work is done. “My job was to service the poor” in the union where she worked, when someone was in trouble they said, “Call Gemma!” One day a mother with two young daughters came to her office; Gemma asked what they needed, and one young daughter said, “Mommy’s got nothing in the refrigerator.”
“I decided something had to be done,” says Gemma. The United Way was offering Venture Grants, and Gemma was able to procure $5,000. The State gave her use of an old garage at Uncas-on-Thames hospital—and soon Gemma and her volunteers were supplying food to five local food pantries.
Today the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center is housed in a sizable warehouse located at 374 Broad Street near downtown New London.
The original five pantries are now 96 soup kitchens and pantries, and donations are moved in and out by volunteers and a devoted staff. It is a calling heard from many quarters—professional, social, or spiritual—answering Gemma’s admonition, “You only get out of life what you put into it.”
There is a band of angels at work in the New London community; Gemma Moran is watching over them.