'Person of commitment' to be honored for her dedication to feeding needy

Sara Chaney, food bank product manager at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/ Labor Food Center in New London, works with volunteer warehouse coordinator Maureen LeBlanc, left, during the weekly distribution session last Friday.
Sara Chaney, food bank product manager at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/ Labor Food Center in New London, works with volunteer warehouse coordinator Maureen LeBlanc, left, during the weekly distribution session last Friday.

New London — November is a busy month at the Gemma E. Moran United Way/Labor Food Center, and the days leading up to Thanksgiving can get outright hectic.

Behind all the organized chaos is Sara Chaney, product manager at the food center, who with the help of others makes sure the center has enough food to provide to agencies, who in turn will make sure that those in need will be able to have a traditional holiday meal today.

Chaney has been with the food center since Gemma Moran started it in 1988 to help workers at Electric Boat who were on strike.

"Some people are so quick to pass judgment, but you never know when you will fall on hard times," Chaney said. "There are a lot of working poor in this region who need help, and we try to get them that help as best as we can."

The pantry first operated from an empty building at Uncas on Thames Hospital in Norwich and then at the Norwich Hospital property before moving to its current location on Broad Street.

Through all the changes, Chaney has been there. She started working at the food center as a volunteer during the EB strike and later became its first employee. She held two jobs, as a clerk at EB and manager at the food center, until she retired from the shipyard in 1999.

Her dedication to helping the community and feeding those in need will be recognized Dec. 4 when she receives the 2014 Willard M. McRae Community Diversity Award from the Liberty Bank Foundation. The event will be held at Connecticut College's Crozier-Williams Center.

Sue Murphy, the foundation's executive director, said each year it reaches out to community leaders for candidates for the award. Chaney was nominated by Virginia L. Mason, president of the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut.

Murphy said Chaney had to fill out an application, she was interviewed and letters of recommendation were submitted in support of her nomination.

"This is a person of commitment," said Murphy. "You can tell from the letters of recommendation that the people who wrote them knew her and thought highly of her. She truly believes that all people have a right to have their basic human needs met, no matter who they are."

Murphy said the award includes a $5,000 grant that Chaney can donate to her organization of choice. Not surprisingly, Murphy said, Chaney is donating the funds to the food center.

Ulysses Hammond, vice president for administration and legal affairs at Connecticut College and himself a 2010 recipient of the McRae award, said he has known Chaney for at least 15 years and no one is more deserving of the award.

"Without question, there would be a legion of people who would not have eaten a decent meal if it were not for the tenacity and dedication of Sara Chaney," Hammond said. "Every fiber of her body wants to provide a better life for someone else."

Hammond said Chaney is respected in the community and not afraid to voice her opinion and "tell it like it is, but in a respectful manner."

Hammond says people listen to Chaney because she is so in tune with the community she serves.

At 79 years old, Chaney doesn't look her age. Her forehead is smooth, void of any lines. For a recent visit with a reporter, she donned a red leather jacket and wore her finely manicured nails at least an inch and a half long.

Her office is on the floor of the food center warehouse and has windows all around, enabling her to see what's going on.

She reminds one person that eating inside the warehouse is prohibited. She tells another not to lean against a box of produce.

Her office buzzes with activity. This year the food center gave away more than 3,000 frozen turkeys or chickens.

Agencies' representatives check in with her and she in turn gives them a list of items they have been approved to receive.

Chaney grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., but moved to New London when she started high school. She lived with her grandparents. Her grandmother, Sarah Dobbins, was one of the founding members of New London's chapter of the NAACP. Chaney has remained active with the organization throughout the years and is its outgoing treasurer.

After high school she went to college, but came back to marry. She and her husband moved out of the area, and she returned to New London in 1966 with her three sons.

Chaney is proud of her children, two of whom graduated from Ivy League universities, and the third, also a college graduate, a career firefighter in Philadelphia. She also helped raised two grandsons.

Chaney said as a young single mother she struggled to put food on the table. What struck her most during those trying times was the generosity and kindness of people she encountered - from her grandmother's friend, who would send along food, to an Electric Boat worker who would pick up her son in the morning and take him to St. Patrick School in Norwich when the morning bus service was suspended.

"I will never forget the kindness of strangers," Chaney said. "In life, you never know when you might need someone. Being kind has a ripple effect. Helping others is a powerful thing to do, and that's what motivates me."

Sharon Peccini, United Way senior vice president of labor participation, has known Chaney for 35 years. She said Chaney knows how to link people to the services they need, and if she doesn't, she will find a way to get people the help they need.

"She has so many connections," Peccini said. "She believes in working families. She has never forgotten where she came from. She loves to talk to young people and teach them that they need to be there for each other."

Chaney said she was nominated two years ago for the award and didn't get it. This time around she held no expectations but was pleasantly surprised when she was informed she had won.

"It's an honor to be recognized by your community," she said.

i.larraneta@theday.com

Twitter: @larraneta

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