Shelter's 'Bingo Lady' is there for the rewards, not the jackpot

New London

Susie Hermanson spins a small gray basket sending dozens of little white balls spinning in a clockwise direction.

Twelve sets of eyes watch her closely.

She stops after one of the balls rolls from its metallic enclosure. Across the table, 10 feet away, Sherry Gieger has her fingers crossed, both hands raised above her head.

"O. 70," Hermanson calls out.

"Bingo!" Gieger exclaims, shooting out of her seat.

Gieger brings her sheet to Hermanson, who examines the numbers, her black eyeglasses perched on the end of her nose.

"We have a lot of false alarms," Hermanson says, but tonight Gieger's sheet is really a winner.

It's a cool, rainy autumn night, but inside it's warm and dry at 76 Federal St. The 50 or so people here know they'll have to be back on the street by 7 a.m. the next morning, but for now, it's bingo night at the homeless shelter in the St. James Episcopal Church.

For Hermanson, 67, the shelter's unofficial "Bingo Lady," it's all about providing that short reprieve from life's daily hardships.

"When we play bingo, we get away from the world for a while," Gieger said. "You get to be yourself and have fun, especially with her. We always have fun with her."

For a four-hour chunk every Wednesday and Thursday during the past year and a half, Hermanson has committed her time and energy to the shelter.

"I thought I wanted to go into the parish ministry, but I'm too old," said Hermanson, who graduated from a New York seminary in 2007. "Volunteering here felt a little more real to me than writing sermons about the holy spirit or something."

She's the unofficial medical director, but she's better known for the bingo games. Really, she says, "I don't know what I do, but I just come and see what happens."

To start her shift, Hermanson is at the front door, sitting behind a table as guests walk in. There are video monitors showing the scene outside the door, and inside Hermanson makes small talk with the homeless people she's come to know.

Whatever issues may afflict the guests that use the shelter melt away when Hermanson greets them at the door.

"It's not about duty or martyrdom," Hermanson begins, finally revealing why she volunteers, "but people want to feel purposeful and not like -"

"- they're taking up space," finishes Howard Auten, a regular guest who flutters by Hermanson's table as people arrive.

If not for his flat stomach and small stature, Auten - with his long white hair and beard and wearing a red thermal shirt - might be confused for St. Nick himself.

"She's a sweetheart, she really is," Auten says, stealing smiles Hermanson's way. "I love her to death."

The people are what keeps Hermanson, who splits her weeks between East Lyme and New York City, coming back.

She looks up to Frederick Buechner, the author and theologian, whom Hermanson likes to quote.

"When the world's great need and your great gift intersect, that's when you know that you're doing what you need to do," Hermanson said, her twist on a famous Buechner quotation.

Nursing school

and seminary

She grew up in Houston, Texas, where her father volunteered with the Red Cross and Planned Parenthood. College brought her to the Northeast, where she attended Vassar College before moving to New York City.

Her Texas twang still bubbles up, despite the years away from home, and she's articulate and well-spoken, not surprisingly given her background.

"I was part of the generation of the women in-between: in between the stay-at-home mom, the housekeeper and the career oriented, empowered woman, the whole feminist era," Hermanson said. "When I got married and had my first child, I realized I just was sort of worried about what I'd do with myself when they were gone."

She went to nursing school before working at the laboratory for addictive diseases at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research.

She stopped working in 1983 after the birth of her third daughter. Eleven years later, Hermanson stopped drinking.

Her drinking led her to Alcoholics Anonymous and Hermanson said she's been sober for 17 years. Being a recipient of the support of that group inspired Hermanson to give back.

"You need to have support and people who will help you," Hermanson said. "I'm hoping that's one of the things I can do for people at the shelter. God knows there's a lot of addiction and mental health problems there."

Hermanson graduated from seminary in 2007, the same year she divorced her husband of 38 years, "which was a blow, to put it mildly," she said.

"In retrospect, all these terrible blows are the opportunity to do things differently, so I ended up preaching at a small chapel, the South Lyme Union Chapel, part-time, and that chapel was very sort of loving and forgiving," she said.

She also attended the First Congressional Church of Old Lyme, where she met Cathy Zall, then an associate minister at the church and the executive director at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center.

"She'd say, 'what do you want to do?' and I'd say, anything," Hermanson said. "Woman our age, we do a lot of things but have no resume or true focus, we're multitaskers, masters of none. I ended up sort of volunteering at the shelter and dropping in, and suddenly it felt like the right thing to do, so I stopped preaching and started acting."

Attending seminary and Alcoholics Anonymous shaped her outlook. Through those organizations, Hermanson learned "we're called to see what joins us as human beings rather than what separates us."

Now, Hermanson volunteers and is a member of the center's Board of Directors.

"She's no volunteer, she's this, this is her," said Sam Moore, a guest at the shelter, during a recent game of bingo. "She's not here for personal gain, she's here to help people with their problems."

Hermanson spends the first half of each week in New York, where she helps care for her two grandchildren, 6 and 8 years old. The kids know about her hard work and sometimes offer to donate their toys or other valued possessions to the shelter, Hermanson said.

She's busy but happy. And others, she says, can easily do the same things.

"There's so many people I know that are older and sort of past working. A lot have time on their hands and realize the needs but don't know where to start or how to just jump in," Hermanson said, "but the truth is, you just jump."

s.goldstein@theday.com

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