Gifts of Love: 30+ years of being there
By Bruce Deckert
Today Magazine Editor-in-Chief
Gifts of Love has been a presence in the Farmington Valley community for more than three decades, offering practical presents to residents of Greater Hartford.
Gifts of Love was initiated in September 1989 by some Simsbury citizens who sought to help families undergoing financial stress caused by corporate downsizing. The expression of kindness was simple — giving groceries to these stressed families. This generosity grew into Gifts of Love.
Today, the social service agency is based in Avon and continues to assist individuals and families hit hard by a financial crisis — providing food, clothing, household essentials and furniture, along with financial planning consultation. In recent years, this nonprofit has distributed more than $300,000 worth of goods and services annually to neighbors in need in more than 30 Connecticut towns.
The financial crises of Gifts of Love clients result from a variety of challenging life circumstances, such as illness, death of a spouse/mate, divorce, reduced work hours, exiting an abusive relationship, or an unexpected increase in basic expenses. The goal is to help clients weather these storms and ultimately regain their financial moorings.
“When times are toughest, the working poor who don’t qualify for government assistance are often hit the hardest,” says the Gifts of Love website, adding that “nearly one in four Connecticut children live in families where parents work yet struggle to afford the basics, including food, rent, utilities and medicine.”
In December 2013, Gifts of Love and the Community Farm of Simsbury joined forces. The merger has facilitated the provision of fresh produce for Gifts of Love clients. A certified-organic educational farm, the Community Farm traces its origins to 1883, when Amos Eno donated the 140-acre property to Simsbury for the “benefit of the town poor.”
Over the years, the farm has donated thousands of pounds of produce to local food pantries and social service organizations, including Granby Community Kitchen, Arc of the Farmington Valley (aka Favarh), Hartford Food System and the Hartford Public Schools.
Gifts of Love depends significantly on donations of time, goods and services from many people in the community. Each year, thousands of hours of service have been donated by hundreds of volunteers.
To learn more about volunteer opportunities or about how to receive help, call Gifts of Love at 860-676-2323.
When times are toughest, the working poor who don’t qualify for government assistance are often hit the hardest
Read on for a wide-ranging interview with longtime Gifts of Love executive director Susan Pribyson:
NOTE + UPDATE — This article first appeared as a cover story in the November 2019 issue of Today Magazine, yet this Q&A contains timeless and relevant info. Pribyson is no longer with Gifts of Love — the executive director is now Ryan Pettengill.
What is your mission?
Gifts of Love reduces financial crises for working individuals and families in Greater Hartford by offering short-term programs and education that support and improve sustainability.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work?
Being able to actually get to know individuals and families who participate in the program, hearing their stories and how sincerely grateful they are for the assistance they receive.
What is the biggest obstacle you face, and how can you overcome it?
The number of clients who are ALICE is growing — ALICE is an acronym that stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. These are households with income above the federal poverty level but below the basic cost of living. While these clients are increasing in numbers, funding is shrinking, and we are not able to offer the range of services that we would like to. This can be very frustrating.
What is your most satisfying accomplishment so far?
The creation of our weekend backpack program 13 years ago. This program provides food for children identified as not having food on the weekends. We began with two children and now pack bags every week during the school year for 385 students.
Your goals for the next 1-5 years?
The most important goal is to continue providing quality services to underemployed families in the Farmington Valley and Greater Hartford.
This population used to represent one in eight families, and now it is one in six families. Another goal is to continue to earn the respect and admiration of the community, and to maintain and expand our donor base. As the population increases, so does our need for funding to assist our families. Our weekend food backpack program continues to increase.
Our goal for this program is to find additional volunteers to assist with transporting the backpacks to schools.
What volunteer opportunities are available with Gifts of Love?
Gifts of Love volunteers are the lifeblood of the agency and perform essential functions on a day-to-day basis.
They serve on the board of directors, stock the food pantry, sort and stock clothes and linens, assist in the holiday room, maintain donor records, organize fundraisers and food drives, provide grant writing and public relations support, and help prepare and distribute the weekend food backpacks. Volunteers also assist in maintaining and harvesting our one-acre garden at the Gifts of Love Farm in Simsbury. Whether you’re an adult, in high school or middle school or college, or retired, there is an opportunity for all who would like to participate.
Gifts of Love operates with a lean paid staff, supplemented by more than 1200 volunteer hours per month from more than 135 volunteers. This significant volunteer commitment, along with the amount of goods donated, speaks volumes about the support this agency has from the community.
An anecdote that provides a window into your ethos:
A year ago, a Simsbury mom came to us after the sudden death of her 42-year-old husband. She was left to support herself and her three teenagers. … Through Gifts of Love and Simsbury Social Services, she obtained part-time employment during the school year.
Over the course of her year with us, she received utility assistance, food, clothing and weekend backpacks — along with a Thanksgiving basket and brand-new holiday gifts.
Today, she and her family are thriving and her oldest child will be attending college in the fall. She was so grateful for the support and assistance she received through Gifts of Love.
Besides donations, how is Gifts of Love funded?
We are funded through individual and corporate donations, along with a few small grants.
What are the most interesting stats and numbers associated with Gifts of Love?
Small but mighty! With only seven staff members and the help of close to 600 volunteers annually, we operate two offices that provide services, along with an organic farm. Through all of this, we are able to make a difference in the lives of almost 20,000 people a year.
What do you appreciate most about this area?
We appreciate the generosity of local residents, shown through their general support and donations. We would love for more people to realize that 20% of the [local] population ... is underemployed and needs assistance.
Does Gifts of Love work closely with town organizations and/or other local nonprofits?
We are a member of the Avon Chamber of Commerce and have received support from many of their members. In addition, we receive support from Avon Rotary and local town Social Services. Many other organizations have held food and/or clothing drives for us. They have also assisted us with finding valuable volunteers.
Number of employees — 6 full-time, 1 part-time
Today Magazine editor-in-chief Bruce Deckert is a five-time SPJ award-winning journalist • SPJ = Society of Professional Journalists