Community's generous spirit made a big difference

A young mother of three boys wanted to ensure that her last Christmas with her young sons would be special and bountiful.

Leonora, 32, had terminal gastric cancer and was featured in the "Make a Difference" series in The Day, an annual holiday initiative in which organizations share stories of people in need so readers can contribute gifts directly through the listed agencies.

Leonora's story ran on Dec. 4. She died two days later, leaving her sons, ages 10, 3 and 2.

Leonora's social worker, Debra Bennett at the Center for Hospice Care Southeastern Connecticut, said the community's response to helping this young family was "overwhelming."

Bennett said on the day the brief story ran, the Charter Oak Federal Credit Union on Long Hill Road in Groton bought the family a pre-lit Christmas tree, food, desserts and stocking stuffers.

"She knew this was happening for the boys, and I think it made her happy," said Bennett.

The organization Bikes for Kids donated bicycles for the boys. An envelope was stuffed to the brim with gift cards to various stores in the area. The family also received toys, clothing, household items, gift baskets and nonperishable foods.

Bennett said she met with Leonora's sister, who told her the family was deeply touched by the community's generosity.

"People were touched by her story, and I know her family appreciated everything they received," Bennett said. "It was a bittersweet Christmas."

Several of the 29 organizations that participated, one per day over the course of a month, said they received a huge response from readers.

Paula Oberg, director of services and operations at the Martin House in Norwich, said Alex, a 25-year-old man with a developmental disability, received several gift cards to Wal-Mart, bus passes so he can travel to see his elderly parents, who are in different nursing homes, and laundry supplies.

"As soon as it ran we started getting responses," Oberg said. "I think his story touched people because it was an adult child who was separated from his parents because they were elderly."

A man named Shawn was selected by Norwich Human Services to be featured in the series. The sole caregiver to his 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, he has been plagued with health problems, including congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lymphedema.

Lee-Ann Gomes, supervisor at the human services department, said the Ladies Auxiliary in Mystic donated a $250 gift card to Wal-Mart. Shawn received other gift cards to grocery stores and an additional $250 in cash. The children received "tons" of presents, she said.

"He was really surprised, and it was a humbling experience for him," said Gomes. "This is what the holiday is about. People should be treating each other with kindness throughout the year."

Reona Dyess, executive director of The Drop-in Community Learning and Resource Center in New London, said single mom Tracey, who is recovering from a mastectomy, and her children, a 4-year-old and 8-year-old twins, received everything they requested - bath items, gifts cards to grocery stores, clothing and toys.

"She just got back to work, so she's trying to catch up on her bills, and Christmas just wasn't a priority," said Dyess. "She was so appreciative, and it was encouraging to her to see that people cared."

Dyess said all of the donors wanted to remain anonymous. "The donations came from all around the community in eastern Connecticut," she said. "It goes to show you our community goes beyond just New London. ... Everyone was concerned about her and her children."


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