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A Happy VISTAversary

Anniversaries are a time when people set off fireworks, buy flowers, and buy chocolate too if the year before they forgot the flowers. Anniversaries are a time to remember, to reflect, to celebrate. This past weekend three AmeriCorps VISTAs in the Hartford Thrive! project celebrated their 6 month VISTAversary. I’m not going to light off fireworks, but I am going to reflect and celebrate.

Just six months ago, they packed up their cars and left the mountains of New Hampshire, crabs of Maryland, and shoo fly pies of Pennsylvania to dedicate a year of service to fighting poverty in the city that Mark Twain once called home. While they were driving out, I was freaking out, not really sure of what it meant to really lead a team of VISTA members and to orient them well.  I had the same feeling that I get when I’m asked to hold really small babies. I get nervous, afraid that I’m going to break them or sneeze on them the wrong way.

But now that sensation has subsided and I feel more like a proud parent. I’ve learned that it’s not really up to me to make the project fully successful. All of the VISTAs have strengths  they can use to figure things out for themselves and leave behind a trail for future AmeriCorps members to follow. In these six months I have seen them forge trails by giving Faces of Homelessness presentations to 500 high schoolers in Hebron and use their deep passion for housing justice to move towards a sustainable speakers’ bureau. I have seen them form connections with local churches to start community gardens to support our pantry. And I have seen them draw from their deep wells of creativity and engagement to receive funding from the Hartford Wolfpack to make our back packs healthier for the elementary schoolers who receive them.

And as a proud parent  I’ve gotten to see our family grow, to 10 VISTA members at five non-profits all working tirelessly so that members of our community have access to food, housing, and economic security. They are helping create job pipelines for people who are homeless, increasing the financial literacy of 500 youth, and helping women of our community break beyond living paycheck to paycheck through savings matching programs. At Hartford Thrive! we really do have a lot to be proud of and celebrate. Maybe I should get those fireworks out after all…

Logan Singerman

Americorps VISTA Leader | Hartford Thrive!

Hands On Hartford

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Hands on Hartford VISTA Family

Hartford Thrive! VISTAs atop the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch

Hartford Thrive! VISTAs atop the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch

When I was accepted into AmeriCorps VISTA, my biggest fear wasn’t moving to a city reputed for violence, or surviving on the living stipend, or relying on food stamps to eat. My biggest fear was leaving my family, friends, and life in New Hampshire, and feeling completely alone in this city.

On my first day in Hartford, our VISTA Leader, Logan, advised me to act like Jim Carrey in Yes Man for the first few weeks. That meant that I had to say “yes” to every opportunity that came my way.  For many people, this approach is intimidating – what if you agree to something horrible, like a Tupperware party? I didn’t have many options though; I was alone in a new place.

My first Yes Man opportunity came 24 hours after arriving in Hartford.  Logan brought me to a bonfire with some of his friends and fellow AmeriCorps volunteers. I brought marshmallows, because I’m not above buying friends with sugar. A few hours in, a couple approached me and introduced themselves as David and Navina. Their co-ed soccer team had a game at 7am the next day, and they needed another girl to even the team; would I play?

I do not play soccer. I do not enjoy mornings. And yet…

“Yes! That would be awesome! I would love to play.” I responded.

Seven hours later, David and Navina picked me up and brought me to the game, where they stuffed me in a jersey and released me to wreak havoc on the field.

This is not an uplifting tale about how I’m actually a soccer prodigy and scored the winning goal. I was pretty bad. I ran around and pretended to know what I was doing for 80 minutes. The ball came my way one time, and I panicked and passed it to a girl on the other team.

That was five months ago, and I still hang out with David and Navina. It wasn’t important that I’m terrible at soccer, it only mattered that I took the opportunity to get to know them better.

The Hartford Thrive! Project that I’m part of has fourteen VISTAs, many of whom are from out of state. We all start alone, without friends, in a new city, but we’ve formed a family of our own. Our work brings us together, but we hang out beyond that. We hike together, go to the gym together, go to movies, festivals, and free concerts together. We have a spreadsheet with the best restaurant deals in town, and go out every week.

The overwhelming support we give each other enables us to do our jobs better. Personally, I’m working with the Backpack Nutrition Program and food pantry at Hands on Hartford. My job is to expand knowledge and capacity of the program by acquiring new partners for food drives and donations. I’m also working to make the food in the backpacks healthier, and include non-food items that promote physical activity and health among the kids. This year, we will be able to provide jump ropes, pedometers, water bottles, toothbrushes, fire safety information, and other such items to the kids and families participating in the backpack program. It’s a challenging position, yet intensely rewarding.

If you stop by central office or see Hands on Hartford around town, you’ll probably see a group of VISTAs chatting or doing dorky dance moves. We’re lucky to be connected through Hartford Thrive! and Hands on Hartford!

Kyla Jones, AmeriCorps VISTA

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A Humbling Experience

Words from Stephanie Boyce, MSW, Hands On Hartford Case Manager

Last August I began my journey as a supportive housing case manager to 15 individuals living in the greater Hartford area. A number of those individuals were experiencing homelessness. It was through the Connecticut Integrated Health Care and Housing neighborhoods project that the 15 individuals received a Rental Assistant Certificate to assist in obtaining housing. When I began this position 9 individuals had obtained housing. I am going to share my experience with one of the individuals that I worked very closely with to obtain housing.

Carol is a 51 year old African American woman. When I first met Carol we drove from Hartford across the state so that she could obtain her housing certificate. Carol was in a housing crisis, she had just left a shelter in Hartford due to difficulties with other people staying at the shelter. Carol had nowhere to stay that evening. Once Carol and I were back in Hartford we began to call other shelters to see if they had any openings. Unfortunately they did not. Carol was able to find a friend who could put her up at her house for a few nights. Over the next week Carol and I called several places every day to see if they had any openings. Finally, Carol was able to get into a shelter in a town near Hartford.

Over the next several months, Carol and this writer looked at apartments all throughout the Greater Hartford area. Even though Carol had a housing certificate, it was still extremely challenging to find an apartment. There are many landlords who require that prospective tenants have a certain income and no criminal history. Carol became very discouraged and did not think she would ever find an apartment. I kept reminding Carol, “there is a landlord out there that is willing to work with you and we just have to find that person!”  A week later, we did.

Carol obtained her apartment in December of 2014. She is no longer in a housing crisis. She attends all of her medical and behavioral health appointments because she no longer has to spend all her time looking for a place to stay. Carol has a very spacious one bedroom apartment. Over the past 8 months, she has worked hard to make her apartment into her home. Every month we go to various stores so that she can buy household items such as a dining room table, a bed, sheets for that bed, and the list goes on. Carol has a place to call home.

Going through this process with not only Carol but 5 other individuals has been such a humbling experience that I find hard to explain, but I am going to try my best. The individuals that I have the pleasure of working with have changed my life. The process of finding an apartment cannot only be challenging but very frustrating. However, to see the smile on their face when they sign a lease and are given keys to their apartment is worth all of the frustration in the world. To be able to help and individual through the process of obtaining an apartment after experiencing homelessness is something I feel everyone should do. Working with the Connecticut Integrated Healthcare and Housing neighborhoods project has been such a wonderful experience and I continue to learn from the individuals that I work with.

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You Only Need a Heart Full of Grace

“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

This year of service with Hands on Hartford at Community Meals has led me to meet many great people. When I began this year, I knew that I would both serve and be served. Doing service is like that; it’s reciprocal. You can’t give and not receive something in return. I knew that going into this experience. What I didn’t know was how many people would serve me or how big of an impact they would have on my life.

Alex connecting at Community Meals

Alex connecting at Community Meals

Hands On Hartford is made up of a passionate, dedicated team. Every single staff member and board member is full of grace and love. Their compassion shines through in the work they do to bring help to those in need in Hartford. Each person I have interacted with on this team has inspired me to keep pouring myself into my work at Community Meals. We all know that the work we do helps someone in a very real, tangible way, and we also know that we couldn’t do it alone.

The volunteers and donors who make it possible to run Hands On Hartford have also served me this year, especially the volunteers who come to Community Meals. Many come regularly to serve lunch or dinner, giving of their time and treasure to keep our meal program going. Their dedication and enthusiasm remind me of why I signed up to do this year of service in the first place. They are open to each client who walks through our door, ready to serve the meal with a smile and some conversation. They give of themselves freely and fully, putting aside their work and personal cares for a while to serve meals. Their dedication to service in the midst of their busy lives has continually reignited my passion for service; I know that even when this year of full-time service is over, I plan to serve regularly wherever I go.

The clients I have met this year have served me in the most unexpected of ways. So many small interactions have touched me and given me strength and hope this year. I will never forget one time I opened the door five minutes late in the morning. After I apologized, someone said to me, “It’s okay, you’re only human.”Alex1 (1)

            You’re only human. That has stayed with me through the challenges of this year. Sometimes, when you are in the profession of helping people, it can feel as though you are seen as more than human. You give and give, serve and serve, and you don’t show your frustration or impatience, hunger or exhaustion. Clients depend on you, no matter what you may be going through on the inside. To be seen and recognized as only human, even if by one person, gave me the strength and freedom to know that I cannot always do everything perfectly, but I can do my best to serve and give to the people I meet. With grace and love in my heart and soul, I can be great enough to serve others, inspired and encouraged by the other great people—clients, volunteers, and staff alike—who serve me.

Alex Pierlott

Mercy Volunteer at Hands On Hartford

July 2015

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A Year of Connecting at the MANNA Community Pantry


As many people might know, I am nearing the end of my year of service as a Mercy Volunteer at Hands on Hartford. My days at the food pantry were filled with answering phone calls, greeting clients, guiding folks around the pantry, entering statistics, and assisting with other various supportive services. This year began with a feeling of anxiety and is now wrapping up with a sense of accomplishment.

Personally, my biggest challenge was communicating with our pantry clients when there was a language barrier. At first I would shy away from any interaction where I might not be able to communicate fully. Over time I have managed to pick up a few Spanish words, but one I like to use frequently is “Me gusta…” and then I point to the part of a client’s outfit I find cute. I have one particular interaction in mind that includes an older Spanish-speaking woman, a pair of earrings, and myself. As usual, I greeted this client with a smile, “hola,” and then my famous “Me gusta…”, followed by a point to her earrings. I never saw someone smile so brightly! This elderly woman radiated with ejewelry for blog postxcitement since I noticed her earrings that she immediately offered them to me. Through her broken English and my broken Spanish, we laughed, smiled, and somehow I ended up with the earrings.  This client was so happy to be able to make a gift instead of just receiving, she brought me a necklace at her next month’s appointment. I received much more than these two pieces of jewelry in interacting with this woman. She taught me that we always have the power to give to one another- whether it be a smile, hug, food, or something else. It’s these types of interactions that remind me of how much we all have in common in our desire to be appreciated for our own gifts to the world.

My time at Hands on Hartford has been full of new experiences, meeting new people, interacting with a different culture, and also finding ways to help those who are less fortunate. In my social work role, I have come to truly love assisting clients, especially with their utility bills. Whenever I schedule an appointment for utility assistance, I dedicate one full hour for them. This time is special to me because I am able to sit down with a family and hear more about their story- their jobs, struggles, family dynamic, and expenses. My first client this year was one that I will remember forever: The woman worked a job that gave her hours only during certain seasons, received limited assistance from the government, but for the most part was trying to make it on her own. I then advocated for her to her electric company. Together, we were able to set up a payment plan that she could afford- $90 a month. I submitted the proper paperwork and then was happily surprised when I learned we could provide her with 3 months of payments- a total of $270! Upon calling the lady to let her know of our assistance, I received the delighted reply of “I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!” I guess you could say she was grateful and excited. While not every client reacts with such strong emotions, I know that by advocating for them, I can help to alleviate a portion of their financial burden and stress.

It is in these moments of interacting with clients that I have come to realize that my passion lies in helping others. My time with Hands on Hartford has solidified my plan of attending graduate school for social work. I have truly found myself while serving my clients each and every day. Even though I cannot solve all of the world’s problems, I can make a positive difference on the lives of those I do encounter. Saying good-bye to everyone has been difficult, but I appreciate the well wishes from clients for my next endeavors for graduate school back home in Rochester, NY. Thanks for making this year so memorable!

In Gratitude,


Mercy Volunteer at Hands on Hartford

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First Church of Vernon’s Week of Service

IMG_5934“It felt good to know we were helping others…. it was fun to serve people a meal, because they were thanking us and telling us how appreciative they were.” Maddy was a returning participant in the First Congregational Church of Vernon’s Week of Service – this was the church’s third year completing its Week of Service with Hands On Hartford’s Community Engagement team. During one hot, sunny week in July, a group of 15 youth along with two adult chaperones gave their time all across the City of Hartford. This immersion experience gave participants the opportunity to learn about the effects of poverty in Hartford, and then the chance to step in and make a difference.

IMG_5887 The kids spent their first day at Peter’s Retreat, Hands On Hartford’s supportive housing program, where they painted a resident’s room, weeded and raked the meditation/oriental garden and had some fun playing bingo with some of the residents. The second day was also spent doing out-door work, this time at Keney Park in Hartford. This park is tremendously important to the residents of Hartford and has, for years, given people in the city a chance to enjoy the great outdoors, especially in the hot summer months. At Keney Park, the youth group spread a mulch walkway from the Park House to the entrance of Keney Park. This walkway will allow for better access for more people to enjoy the park. They also weeded the vegetable garden and started to clear an old walking trail that was grown over with weeds. Keney Park has over 15 miles of trails, many of which are in need of clearing and upkeep, and the group made great headway on this project. In the words of one of the participants, Jewel,  “I had a fantastic time- even though I got poison ivy.  I will do it again next year!”

The next two days were spent at our MANNA programs – first at the MANNA Community Pantry, our full-choice shopping model food pantry. The kids ran a food drive at Stop and Shop of Hartford, where they collected 141 pounds of food, and then they stocked the food pantry shelves, assisted clients of the pantry in shopping for food, and did some general cleaning. At the MANNA Community Meals program, they prepared and served lunch for 78 guests, and, much to the delight of the guests, hosted an ice cream sundae party, providing and prepping sundaes with a choice of caramel, hot fudge or strawberry topping – a welcome treat on a hot summer day.
IMG_5891This energetic group of young people wrapped up their week at Simpson-Waverly Classical Magnet School, one of Hands On Hartford’s community partners. They planned and painted parking lot lines to ensure the safe parking of vehicles in the school’s parking lot, and also weeded, mulched and planted flowers. With the limited funding available to Hartford public schools, it makes a huge difference to have this help beautifying the grounds so that when the school children return in the fall they can be proud of their school inside and out.
Altogether, First Church of Vernon completed 435 hours of service the Hartford Community, and touched the lives of hundreds of our Hartford neighbors in need. The energy, good will and hard work of this entire group was a real inspiration to all of us here at Hands On Hartford and we definitely look forward to working with them again in the future.

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2014 Volunteer Awards

On Thursday, March 27, we had the pleasure of hosting our annual Volunteer Appreciation Event, held at South Congregational Church. We welcomed over 100 of our loyal volunteers, who joined us for delicious appetizers prepared by HOH Chefs Lise Jaeger and Kim Bunton, and cool jazz played by Steven Donovan on piano and Mike Asetta on bass. After a brief welcome by Executive Director Barbara Shaw, Karen Bailey-Francois, our board chairperson, shared a few words about the work our volunteers have done over the past year.

In 2013, 2,500 volunteers engaged in work at Hands On Hartford programs and throughout the community, completing an amazing 29,000 hours of volunteer service. In addition to individual volunteers, we worked with over 125 volunteer groups from businesses, faith groups, schools and other organizations, and with the help of volunteers we were able to make a difference in the lives of 5,500 people in the Hartford community, including residents, guests and clients of our programs.

We love and appreciate every single Hands On Hartford volunteer, but each year we recognize some extra-special individuals and groups for going the extra mile. This year’s awards were as follows:

He ServesFaith Group Volunteer Award: He Serves Ministry

He Serves Ministry puts their faith into action, consistently answering the call to end hunger in our community. For many years they have spent a weekend every month at Peter’s Retreat, where they donate, prepare and serve a delicious meal, along with cleaning, spending time with residents and running activities. They have further opened their hearts to include donation and serving of dinners at Community Meals and have been true partners in making a difference in the lives of those we serve.



School Volunteer Award: Trinity CollegeTrinity College

The staff and students of Trinity College exemplify leadership and dedication to the Hartford community. Students from Trinity College have logged hundreds of hours volunteering across all of the HOH programs. This includes students cleaning and running activities at Peter’s Retreat, serving guests at Community Meals, assisting pantry guests with their shopping and running food drives to benefit both the food pantry and the Backpack Nutrition Program. And this fall, Trinity kicked off a new venture to further support the needs of children in our community: working with the Trinity Community Service office and Chaplin, clubs across campus have answered the call to fill and deliver 30 backpacks each week to the Backpack Program.

AetnaCorporate Volunteer Award: Aetna

Aetna has been a steadfast supporter of holiday volunteering: over the past several years, employees have generously volunteered at the annual Toy Shoppe Holiday Party, fostering a bright and cheerful celebration for hundreds of children. In addition, Aetna employees have adopted 40 families through the Adopt-A-Family program run through the MANNA Assistance & Advocacy Program, donating clothing, household items, toys, books and gifts of warmth. Aetna’s caring knows no bounds, as representatives from several departments actively seek out the opportunity to serve others across Hands On Hartford programs, including Peter’s Retreat and the Backpack Program, and customized service projects.



Corporate Partner Volunteer Award: Shipman & GoodwinShipman & Goodwin

Hands On Hartford’s Community Engagement Program connects volunteers to non-profits through the greater Hartford area to strengthen community through meaningful civic engagement and service learning opportunities. Shipman & Goodwin began volunteering in 2011, and their service over the years has evolved to include not one but two annual customized service projects, including sending out a team of more than 80 volunteers to prepare Camp Courant for its 2013 season. Shipman & Goodwin has contributed tremendous resources of time, talent and treasure to the Hartford community, has held numerous food collections for the Backpack Program and food pantry, and has been a strong supporter of HOH in the Walk Against Hunger for multiple years.

LuisProgram Participant Volunteer Award: Luis Lopez

Luis Lopez has a long history of serving others. He is always willing to lend a helping and guiding hand to others, helping out at several HOH programs and events. He volunteers weekly at the food pantry, helping clients shop and assisting with translation when necessary, organizing food and assisting at the Backpack Program. He has also assisted at the annual Toy Shoppe Holiday Party, escorting parents to the Toy Room to choose gifts for their children. And Luis is a peer assistant at Peter’s Retreat, providing a true sense of community to this program. He goes above and beyond to ensure that all feel welcomed, valued and comfortable. He gives tours to new volunteers and helps with orientation, and is a listening ear and respectful and supportive visitor with residents in times of need.

R. Regnor Arvidson Exemplary Volunteer Award: Nathan FoxNate Fox

The Reg Arvidson Exemplary Volunteer Award was established by Harold and Joyce Buckingham in memory and honor of our late volunteer Reg Arvidson. Nate Fox’s dedication of time and talent were instrumental in establishing the Faces of Homelessness program in Connecticut. For over a year, first as a UCONN School of Social Work intern and subsequently as a volunteer, Nate worked to establish the Faces of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, working with speakers to develop their messages and advocating for them as they overcame injustices and challenges. He worked tirelessly to ensure the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights in Connecticut. And in addition to Faces of Homelessness, Nate has touched the lives of participants in our other programs, from Peter’s Retreat, to Community Meals, and has brought energy, perseverance and a good spirit to everything he does.

We offer a special thank you to everyone who made the Volunteer Recognition Event possible – our guests, first of all, but also to the many HOH team members who volunteered their time during the event to honor those who serve the Hartford community.

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Serving the Hartford Community

Serving the Hartford Community

We were happy to welcome Gov. Dan Malloy to Peter’s Retreat on December 14, the anniversary of the tragedy at Sandy Hook. In Gov. Malloy’s words: “It’s my belief that the best way to honor those we lost is to find again the spirit of compassion and togetherness that we felt in the days that followed the heartbreaking events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Donate to a local charity, volunteer your time in service to your community or simply come together with friends and family and appreciate the time that we have together.”
In this spirit, Gov. Malloy worked in the kitchen at Peter’s Retreat with several residents, helped prepare dinner, served folks and then sat and visited for quite a while, showing a genuine warmth and presence. Resident Evelyn C. fondly remembered her encounter with the Governor, stating “He was very friendly. My sister was very excited and we enjoyed sharing with him in the kitchen. It was a pleasure meeting him”. We are glad to be able to count Gov. Malloy as a part of our extended “Peter’s Retreat family.” At the same time, our hearts go out to the friends and families of those lost a year ago at Sandy Hook.

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January 14, 2014 · 1:11 pm

Hands On Hartford Hosts goLEAD Facilitator Training

On Thursday and Friday of last week, Hands On Hartford had the honor of hosting a generationOn goLEAD Facilitator Training.  Congratulations to Hands On Hartford employees Wanda Guzman and Jacob Aparicio, who attended the training, and are now certified goLEAD facilitators!  generationOn is a program of the Points of Light Enterprise and is a youth service movement that ignites the power of kids to make their mark on the world.  goLEAD stands for “generationOn Leadership, Education and Development” and is a youth leadership training program that empowers youth to lead through community service learning.

Wanda and Jacob will now have the opportunity to work with a youth group to teach them about leadership, empowerment and making an impact on their community through service projects.  This training program will take the youth through a nine-part curriculum covering a broad range of topics, from understanding diversity, problem-solving and teamwork, learning about their community and its needs, setting goals, making plans, and taking action.  The program culminates in a community service project planned and managed by the kids

The Facilitator Training was attended by several dozen people from all around the northeast and as far away as Macon, Georgia.  We were proud to host this truly inspirational training program, and are excited to be looking forward to involving more youth in making a difference in our shared community.

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Grand Opening of Community Meals Thursday Lunch

Thursday, September 12, 2013 marked the grand opening of Thursday Community Meals at Center Church in Hartford.  This collaboration between Hands On Hartford and Center Church/The First Church of Christ in Hartford was supported by people from across the Hartford community:  staff from Hands On Hartford and Center Church, student nurses from University of St. Joseph, volunteers from the IRS Taxpayer Advocate office, bagels and cream cheese donated by Panera Bread at Statehouse Square, and cookies donated by Downtown Subway.

We welcomed about five dozen guests for morning bagels and coffee, conversation and a delicious sausage and sauerkraut lunch.  We expect that as word gets around, our guest-list will grow.  The dining room has a seating capacity of 85-90, and we already have a number of groups lined up to help out by donated food, paper goods and helping to cook and serve.

 Hands On Hartford’s MANNA Community Meals currently offers lunch hours Monday through Wednesday, and dinner hours Mondays and Tuesdays at Christ Church Cathedral on Church Street in Hartford.  This April, the agency was forced to curtail services and stop providing lunch on Thursdays and Fridays due to budgetary constraints.  Since then, the staff has been actively seeking support from donors in the Hartford area with a goal of re-opening Community Meals for Thursday and Friday lunches before the weather turns cold.

 “We are thrilled to announce that we’re halfway to our goal,” reports Barbara Shaw, Executive Director of Hands On Hartford.  “Center Church is one of our founding congregations and has been tremendously supportive of our mission over the decades, and we are delighted to be deepening our partnership with them.”  Service at the Thursday lunch period will be jointly managed by Center Church’s Warburton Director of Outreach Ministries, and Hands On Hartford’s MANNA Program Manager. 

Community Meals is also looking for volunteer groups and donors who are able to serve or assist with funding, so that they can re-open for Friday lunch in the fall.  Anyone interested in joining this effort can contact Volunteer Coordinator Wanda Guzman at  

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