The Big Picture: Vicki Anderson, Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center

Vicki L. Anderson is the executive director of the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center. One of the most helpful fundraisers for the center's food pantry is the Community Carol Sing at Mystic Seaport on Dec. 23. Visitors are admitted free that day with a donation of a non-perishable food donation. "We rely most heavily on donations from the public," Anderson said. "And we consider the Seaport an absolutely magical place for that, and many other reasons." You can tour the grounds; there are activities for kids; and the sing begins at 3 p.m. on the seaport green.

Who she is: A social service agency leader. A business management and human resources professional. A wife, mother, grandmother, quilter. Loves Georgia O'Keefe. Plans to hike part of the Appalachian Trail.

What she does: Everything. The PNC offers emergency food, emergency fuel, infant formula and diapers, free clothing and essential living supplies to people in need in Pawcatuck, Westerly, Stonington and North Stonington. There is a professionally moderated Job Seekers Club, where people can hone their resume, practice interview skills and get support. There is a Weekender Backpack Program that ensures that children receiving free and reduced lunch at school have food to get them through the weekends. There are activities for seniors, and a transportation program for medical appointments, banking and shopping. There are guest lecturers on everything from community history to maximizing coupons. There is a 'Zumba Lite' class in the works. On the day Grace visited, Anderson was writing grants for gas cards. "One of our goals is to keep working people working," she explained.

Why she loves it: "You know you come to work every single day and you can make a difference. We are a safety net here that is working."

What she wished more people knew: Hunger can be an invisible problem. People assume that since someone has a car or an apartment, they have food. "I don't like to use this expression, but there really is a tsunami of need right now," she said. "Only halfway through our fiscal year, we're serving a total of 532 families (364 children). Last year, we served 685 for the whole year. So that gives you some idea. People are not making enough money" to keep up with inflation, she added. "We all see it when we go into a grocery store. A can of soup used to be under $1. Now it's $3. And the cost of fresh vegetables ... You can work a full-time job and have food stamps and it still doesn't do the trick. There are people who can afford rent and heat, and food for three weeks but for the last week, they're out. There's nothing."

What the center needs most: "A million-dollar donor," she said plainly. Anderson describes the PNC as a "very bare-bones agency." It has grown in its 27 years — the original food pantry is now the center's maintenance closet. But its programs are staffed almost entirely by volunteers. It hasn't been able to afford to offer employees health insurance or a pension plan. A donation of that size would cover the center's most pressing upgrades: a redesigned food pantry, energy-efficient freezers, a generator, and another bus for seniors. But in the short term, donations to the winter heating assistance program would help a lot of people.

On the bright side: "The worst economy in years has brought out the most donations," Anderson said. "We do an Adopt-A-Family program at Christmas, and no matter how many families we have, they all get adopted. It's magical."

The Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center, 27 Chase Street,Pawcatuck, CT 06379 ~ ~ 860.599.3285

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