Norwich — An opportunity that “fell out of the sky” has landed in the form of more than $2,100 in grocery store gift cards at the Norwich Human Services office.
In early June, City Planner Deanna Rhodes agreed to take, “sight unseen,” 12 bins containing hundreds of new, stylish canvas and faux leather shoulder and handbags. The bags had belonged to Jessica Daniska, ex-wife of Assistant Planner Dan Daniska. She had received them free from a business that had closed and had hoped to sell them for a fundraiser. That never happened, and when Jessica Daniska was moving, she needed a new home for the bags.
Rhodes had a fundraiser of her own in mind during the COVID-19 emergency that has thrown 20% of the city’s workforce on unemployment.
“I remember as a teenager, my father was out of work for two years,” Rhodes said. “I remember not being able to go to the grocery store as much.”
Rhodes called Norwich Alderwoman Stacy Gould, and the two sprang into action.
They started a Facebook Page, “Help Bag Hunger in Norwich, CT,” and added several hashtag slogans: #fashionforfood, #foodforfashion, #Norwichstrong, #Peoplehelpingpeople.
They posted some of the bags, which came in 21 styles and seven colors, and offered them for a $10 donation per bag. All bags are prewrapped in plastic, easing concerns about the coronavirus, Rhodes said. She donated bags that were unwrapped in the bins to Goodwill.
Gould, an East Great Plain volunteer firefighter, took orders and set up a table at the fire station for people to pick up the bags. Good thing they brought extra bags, because passersby stopped and asked what they were selling. Rhodes had to retrieve bags from her trunk. Some people gave donations without taking a bag, Rhodes said.
They next reserved a table at the Friday evening Bozrah Farmers Market for people to pick up reserved bags. Again, walk-ups asked to buy some or made donations. They plan to return to the Bozrah Farmers Market on Aug. 7, Sept. 4 and Oct. 2, which runs from 4-7 p.m. at 45 Bozrah St., Bozrah.
Gould also brought some bags to her family business, Treat’s Pools in Uncasville.
Rhodes stressed she is doing the fundraiser on her own time, not city time. She can be contacted about the program by email at [email protected].
Summertime fashionable colorful striped bags sold out fast, Rhodes said. White, light blue, black and maroon bags are available, all with multiple pockets, some with shoulder straps and others with handles. She has some fall fashion colors she will roll out soon.
“It’s been fun,” Rhodes said.
On Thursday, Rhodes and Gould delivered Shop Rite gift cards totaling $1,100 to Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes after having donated $1,050 worth of cards earlier this month. Gould said she purchases $25, $50 and $100 cards, so Gomes can distribute appropriate amounts to individuals and families in need.
Gomes said the fundraiser has been “a godsend” during the coronavirus emergency, especially as the supplemental $600 payment to unemployed people expires. Norwich Human Services has received a $200,000 grant through the Community Development Block Grant program to assist families with expenses such as rent, mortgage payments, utility bills and food.
Gomes has 178 applicants for the grant thus far. Since each household has a cap under that grant, she can use the grant money for other bills and to provide gift cards for food. Also, she said, the gift cards are helping families that don’t qualify for the CDBG grant money, such as undocumented immigrants who also have lost their jobs in the pandemic.
Gomes said she is spreading the word about the assistance programs through various agencies and churches. “There are just so many sad stories about people not being able to return to work, and people getting called back for just four hours of work per week,” she said.
Gould gave most of the credit for the success of the fundraiser to Rhodes, saying, “She’s the 80%. I’m the 20.”
“It really was something that fell out of the sky,” Gould said. “And Deanna took the bull by the horns. She called and said, ‘What can we do with these bags?’ And I said we can do something through Human Services. They’re on the front lines. They know which families are in need.”