Article and photos by Urban Alliance staff.
Gary was an insurance manager for more than twenty years. He made good money putting his college degree to work and was a respected executive. He married his college sweetheart and moved his family to Avon and then Simsbury in an effort to give his children a life more privileged than he had growing up. He was doing all of the things he thought he needed to do to be successful and live life to the fullest.
And then, everything changed.
In 2004, Gary was diagnosed with diabetes. What followed were some tough years that ended his marriage and left him jobless after he suffered two heart attacks and was diagnosed with congestive heart failure all in the course of one year.
“My family didn’t talk about their medical history so it caught me off guard,” he said. “I had to stop working. I was totally disabled. Unfortunately, all of us are just one chronic illness away from needing help. All of us.”
Yet, Gary sees his disability as a gift that has humbled him.
“When you lose things or things are taken away from you like that, it helps to give you clarity. And that’s what I developed,” he shared. “I was ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ and it was worthless. It wasn’t what was important. So I started doing things differently and became more appreciative of things and people. My stress level came right down and my relationship with God increased.”
After his life changed so drastically, Gary struggled with accepting that he needed services. Because he now has to make ends meet with a much more limited income, Gary was referred to the food pantry at Crossroads Community Cathedral, which is supported by Urban Alliance’s Beyond the Basics initiative.
By participating in this initiative, the pantry is receiving resources including consultation, training, volunteers and basic needs items to help foster a program culture that promotes client dignity and effectively connects clients to additional resources in the community, so they can not only meet their basic needs but also gain greater stability in their lives.
Urban Alliance has equipped 15 staff and volunteers from 11 organizations in Greater Hartford to operate community resource tables that help effectively connect people to the services they need. Nancy Sylvester, a UAServe volunteer champion, runs the resource table at Crossroads.
“Being at the table is about being able to talk with and connect with clients each month. While the table helps with resources, it is also helping us to build relationships,” she shared.
Carol Warner, who helps run the pantry with her husband Dave, remembered when Gary first visited. “He was rather reserved the first few times, but then he told me about tooth pain he was having. I gave him some Sensodyne to try. When he returned a month later he was amazed that I remembered his name and his tooth problem. This is how we attempt to relate to every client, as if they were family members.”
“The hardest thing for me was my mind set,” shared Gary. “So to come to a place where they treat you with dignity makes me feel respected as a person. I don’t know anyone else’s story so I never look down on anybody and I don’t want anyone doing that to me either. These guys have been incredibly helpful on a person-to-person level. They call me by name. They remember me when I walk through the door, so I feel such a connection here.”
Gary is grateful for the community he’s found at Crossroads.
“After I became ill, I realized I’m missing the point,” he said. “The point is the simple things. Small things. Resources like this food pantry. Being able to go and have these things available to me at a time when I could have been ruined, it’s just another example to me of how fortunate I am. And how wonderful it is when people help other people. When someone smiles at you, it’s a warm feeling. We’re all just people. We all want the same things.”
If you are interested in learning more about how your church or ministry organization may participate in Urban Alliance’s Beyond the Basics initiative, contact Angela Colantonio, Urban Alliance’s Director of Implementation, Health & Basic Needs Initiatives, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 860.986.7328.