United Way gala helps feed the needy

More than 7,700 residents in the Valley live at or below the poverty level. Locally, one-in-five children are at risk of going hungry. Some 73% of households visiting food pantries report making significant spending trade-offs between food and other necessities.

Officials with Shelton-based Valley United Way see these numbers worsening every day, and, according to organization President and COO Sharon Gibson Ellis, it cannot be more unacceptable.

That is why the Valley United Way in recent years has started Grow Your Own — a community gardens campaign in which the organization places gardens on preferably public land located in low-income areas of Valley communities.

“The Valley has a significant food security issue,” said Ellis. “Those are people whose households either do not have enough food or do not have enough of the appropriate food in the home. Of course, we continue to battle hunger, but this issue of food security is even bigger than hunger. Cheap food is bad for you. We are trying to use these gardens to provide healthier food for these families.”

Ellis said that in Ansonia alone, 80% of households qualify for free or reduced lunch. In Derby, 55 to 60%, and the other three cities hover between 20 to 25%, not as high, said Ellis, but unacceptable.

“Not a lot of people know about it … not a lot of people talk about it,” added Ellis

At present, there are 10 gardens — four in Ansonia, four in Derby, one each in Seymour and Oxford. There are 74 garden beds located in low-income neighborhoods, with 4,000 square feet of garden beds and 2,000 pounds of food grown annually. In the Valley United Way’s Harvest House there is more than 50,000 non-perishable food items collected and distributed to the five Valley food banks.

“The cities give us the land, and we provide all the infrastructure, in addition to staffing and volunteers,” said Ellis. “Then we engage the neighborhoods to work with us, with planting, building out, watering, and then in the harvest.”

In 2019, Ellis said the Valley United Way hopes to create one more garden in Ansonia and another in Seymour while working to secure land in Shelton.

To cover the costs, the Valley United Way holds two fund-raising events annually — with the next planned for Saturday, Jan. 19, at 5:30 p.m. at Race Brook Country Club, 246 Derby Avenue, Orange.

The fifth annual gala, A Night in Havana, will give people the chance to dance the night away to a live Latin band, Orquesta Afinke, and DJ Rick Condit, while enjoying dinner and some freshly rolled cigars by a torcedor (cigar roller). There will also be a live and silent auction, which Ellis said provides significant funds.

The event will be emceed by Jocelyn Maminta from WTNH TV. Maminta is co-founder of Caroline’s Room, a safe haven for families living with the many challenges of the birth of a premature baby.

“The idea is to have fun while doing good,” said Ellis. “People get invited to special events all the time. We want to change it up, give people a great opportunity to go out and have some fun but not experience the same old boring event from the year before.”

The celebration will include live and silent auctions which will be managed by Eric Hummel, who has been an auctioneer for more than 20 years and has raised more than $2 million for local charities. In 2017, he received the Marna Borgstrom Lifetime Friend Award from the Friends of Yale/New Haven Children’s Hospital.

All proceeds from the event stays in the Valley towns of Ansonia, Derby, Oxford, Seymour and Shelton. Along with the community gardens projects, Ellis said other programs supported by the event include Youth Leadership, Back to School (school supplies and clothing for students) and Harvest House (50,000 non-perishable food items are collected annually).

Tickets are $100 per person or a VIP table for 10 people for $1,000. VIP benefits include preferred table location, five rolled cigars, personal cocktail service, entry into a drawing for special prizes, and the opportunity to pre-order your wine selection.

Tickets can be purchased online at valleyunitedway.org or by phone at 203-926-9478.

The garden at 5th and Olivia Street in Derby was put in last year and hosts 10 beds.