Related topics

Why Has Sandy Donovan Led Chelmsford’s Food Pantry for so Long? She Knows the Hunger

December 24, 2018 GMT

CHELMSFORD -- Donation deliveries and sorting hummed along last week at the Chelmsford Community Exchange food pantry, a testament to the dedication of Founder/Director Sandy Donovan and her army of volunteers.

“She does a heck of a job,” said John Williams, while making a produce delivery from Donelan’s Supermarket Wednesday afternoon.

Donovan, 80, has been tirelessly running the operation colloquially known as the Chelmsford Food Pantry for more than 25 years -- 26 years in March, she said.

When asked what has kept her going all of these years, her answer is simple.

“You have to walk the road to understand it,” she said.

A devout Catholic, Donovan said her faith guides her to help others.

“It’s God’s pantry, not mine,” she said.

Donovan, who grew up in Massachusetts, found her way to Michigan for a few years in the late 1970s when her former husband’s job transferred him there. When he was later laid off, Donovan had to stretch $25 per week to feed her family of 10. Food pantries were rare in that time, and there weren’t any where they lived.

“I know what it is to be hungry, and to have to tell your kids, ‘You can’t have seconds, we have to save that for another meal,’” Donovan said.

They returned to Chelmsford after her husband was able to land another job in Massachusetts. Donovan later took a class on hunger and homelessness at Middlesex Community College and began raising money to try to help people. She learned from her fellow parishioners at St. Mary’s Church that the community sorely needed a food pantry. Others had tried, but failed to keep the effort going consistently.

“I’m a persistent person,” Donovan said. “I don’t give up easily.”

In 1993, she began the food pantry in a tiny room at the old Town Hall, now known as the Chelmsford Center for the Arts. It was so small, only one or two people could come in for help at a time, she said.

When the town vacated the building for renovation, the pantry moved to the large trailer behind the town offices at 50 Billerica Road, where it remains today. Donovan said she’s grateful to Town Manager Paul Cohen, local businesses and organizations and the community at-large for strong continued support of the pantry.

“Her steadfast dedication to the food pantry is inspiring,” Cohen said. “Sandy has been a blessing to those in need.”

Donovan said the pantry has helped anywhere from 70 to more than 100 families each week over the years. She said she’s proud to be able to welcome people back weekly for food, toiletries and other items, when many places can only accommodate monthly visits. She’s also helped people pay for rent, car repairs and other needs.

Use of the pantry is strictly confidential, which helps to make recipients feel welcome and more at ease, Donovan said. She often becomes close with the families she helps -- she has more than 20 godchildren through the pantry alone, soon to be three more.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m godmother to the world,” she said.

As she’s gotten older, Donovan said she’s happy to be “blessed with the world’s best volunteers.”

Frank Miethe, of Tyngsboro, is one of her longest-serving volunteers at about 12 years. He first came to the pantry as a recipient when he found himself unemployed.

Miethe found another job about six months later, but kept going back to the food pantry. He’d help Donovan unload large donations from regional food banks, and she invited him to stay as a volunteer.

“I’m nowhere near rich, so I’m really not in a position to give away any money, but I can give my time,” Miethe said.

He said he feels a responsibility to give back, and Donovan makes that simple.

“To me, Sandy is like a saint,” Miethe said. “She facilitates the whole group of volunteers that we have, and we all get to give back to the community.”

For more information, visit www.chelmsfordfoodpantry.org , email vze2gt3p@verizon.net , or call Donovan at 978-250-3818.

Follow Alana Melanson at facebook.com/alana.lowellsun or on Twitter @alanamelanson.