When Hartford resident Maggie Gardner was struggling with breast cancer and felt like she had nowhere else to turn, in Avon provided her with food and other basic needs that she was otherwise having trouble affording on top of it all.
Gifts of Love, which has operated for 20 years, assists over 500 Farmington Valley and Greater Hartford families experiencing financial difficulties, providing them with clothing, food, household items and other basic needs.
"I wanted to die at the time," Gardner said. "I didn't know where to go. Coming here made me see I could beat the disease and the depression. Because of their help, I was able to hold my life together."
Her cancer has been in remission for four years and she has undergone three breast implant surgeries. Now she has founded an organization of her own called Gardner's House Inc., a "wellness and respite cancer center." Her company focuses on the "person, the one that has the family and the bills" versus the medical side of cancer treatment that takes care of the patient.
Not being able to afford the basic necessities like food, clothing, rent, medicine, gas and electricity can augment the stress of a person with cancer and "can hinder recovery," said Gardner, who has one adopted daughter who is living in Barbados. Unfortunately, she said, there is not enough of a focus on "mental health" when treating cancer.
"The mind is a powerful thing," Gardner said, and she said that cancer patients sometimes develop depression, as she did herself.
So, Gardner gives her clients emotional support and helps them find the resources they need, finding a safe haven to give people hope." Gifts of Love is a resource to which she refers clients. The nonprofit provided meals for her when she was a client on Thanksgiving and other holidays, as well as other necessities for everyday living for a year when she was originally signed up for three months.
"They're family," Gardner said."It's not just people in Avon they help. They just help people."
She recently brought a family there and when they saw the food pantry, they felt a "sign of relief because they were able to choose" what to eat, as well as to find other needed items.
Gardner shared her personal experience with Gifts of Love volunteers and supporters who attended an open house Friday.
Volunteer Caroline Davenport, a Northwest Catholic student, was awarded the Katherine Bombard Student Volunteer of the Year Award at the event.
"I love volunteering," said Davenport, who initially started volunteering her freshman year for a service requirement at school and kept coming back to help for three years.
Attendeees toured new office space expanded into one of the neighboring buildings of its original Avon office and see the expanded food pantry, housewares and clothing closet, and learn about the nonprofit's programs. Food dishes made from garden products on Gift's of Love's on-site garden and plot at the Community Farm of Simsbury were served.
One of Gifts of Love's major programs is the Weekend Backpack Program. It is not uncommon for children from financially struggling families to get agitated and start acting up on Fridays because they don't know if they are going to have food to eat over the weekend, Diana Goode, director of Gifts of Love said. The program addresses that, providing children in need with a backpack of food on Fridays so that they will not have to worry about having meals when they go home.
The program launches in West Hartford, which has thousands of kids on free and reduced lunches, next Friday. Through the program the nonprofit has already served 100 children and 17 schools in the Farmington Valley, predominantly Avon, Farmington and Canton. The food comes from donations and Food Share, and sometimes Gifts of Love purchases the food.
"It's good for the kids," Goode said, because it is telling them, "we've got this guaranteed backpack in the office for you [every week]."
At the open house, Gifts of Love also held a bench dedication ceremony in memory of teen volunteer, Rebecca Joy McCahill, of Canton.
More information about Gifts of Love is available at http://giftsoflovect.org.