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Montville trying to help the vulnerable during pandemic

Montville — Ellen Hillman has long fought against hunger in Connecticut. Nowadays, she's having to fight harder.

Hillman, co-founder of Free Store Connecticut, a grassroots charity that gets food to people who need it, oversees one of many services Montville offers to help its residents through the COVID-19 pandemic. While she is not officially connected to the town, she works with some of its services, and leaders like Town Councilor Colleen Rix recognize her when asked how Montville is protecting its vulnerable families.

The roadside stand with free food and other items, outside Hillman's home at 229 Route 163 in Uncasville, is busier than usual.

"The need has been greater than ever; I can't keep the free stand stocked," Hillman said. "People don't want to go into the grocery store, so they come to the free store and get what they can get. It's unbelievable. I normally see six to 10 cars an hour. I'm probably seeing 20 cars an hour."

Hillman specializes in finding creative ways to extend the lives of different foods, a skill well-suited for the current situation. She said Free Store has received more donations from truck drivers because grocery stores aren't selling certain items at their usual rate.

"This week I got strawberries, pears and lettuce. Since items like strawberries have to move fast, and they haven't been moving in the grocery store, they've been refusing truckloads of them," Hillman said. "I have been busy every day for the last five days canning strawberry jam and pear jam and all kinds of canned goods to go out for the Free Store."

Hillman goes through her bounty and picks out the good pieces of fruit to sell whole. She then takes the bruised ones, cuts off the blemishes and makes jam from them.

"Every time you go over there, it has eggs and bread and produce, and that's something where you can be anonymous, pull up, and take whatever food you need," Rix said of Free Store. "I think it's important to get the word out about these positive things right now — all we can do is try to make sure people are eating."

Rix also mentioned Montville Senior and Social Services, which makes food available throughout the week, and the food pantry at Montville Union Baptist Church. Rix and Mayor Ron McDaniel pointed to food basket giveaways and food banks, which have been taking place from 1 to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Senior Center.

"We are asking our clients to call on the day that they are coming (they are allowed to come once a week) and any of our residents that are in need at this time can pick up food and hygiene supplies as well," Kathleen Doherty-Peck, Montville Senior and Social Services director, wrote in an email.

Doherty-Peck noted her agency is distributing food baskets and hygiene supplies to elderly residents and those with compromised immune systems. Donations of food and money are being collected at the Senior Center. She also is asking for grocery store gift cards.

Mary Mowan is the chairperson of the food pantry at Montville Union Baptist. Like Hillman, she said the pandemic has brought an influx of people to the pantry.

"We normally serve around 80 families the second and fourth Saturday of the month, and this past Saturday we served over 120 families," Mowan said. "It kind of blew up. We are going to be open this Saturday, we had changed our schedule for April because of where Easter fell, so the month of April we're going to be open the first and the fourth Saturdays of the month. We changed it to a drive-up food pantry so we can still serve people while having little contact with them."

On those Saturdays, the pantry is open from 9 to 11 a.m.

McDaniel thanked the Mohegan Tribe for donating "a ridiculous number of eggs" to social services. He also praised Montville Public Schools for their work in implementing distance learning. The town moved to having most of its employees work from home this week.

McDaniel made an appeal to the public for more contributions. "I know everybody's doing an awful lot. But you know, there's never enough donations," he said.

With everyone home, he also urged people to participate in the census count.

"This is the perfect opportunity to understand that these are the federal resources that come back to the community when we have issues like this, so every number does count," he said.

s.spinella@theday.com

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