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5 Nights A Week, An Angel Delivers

January 8, 2007
By BRITTANY OAT, Courant Staff Writer

A 2-year-old wearing Spiderman pajamas pokes her head out of one of the bedrooms at Vernon's Tri-Town Shelter and brushes a rumpled strand of blond hair out of her face, revealing a shy grin.

The smile is aimed at Noël Shepard, an angel of sorts who delivers bread to the shelter several nights a week.

"This is my favorite movie," the girl says, holding up the DVD of "Ice Age."

"That's my son's favorite movie, too," Shepard says, with tears in her eyes.

The Ellington woman turns away from the girl and the tears flow.

"I can't stand to see this," she says. "It breaks my heart."

Julie Rybacki, the service coordinator and case manager at the shelter, rubs the girl's back. The girl curls her freshly painted big toe under her foot.

"Alice is fine," Rybacki tells Shepard. "She's well taken care of. Her face is just a little dirty. That's all."

Shepard's delivery Thursday night was the first time she had come face to face with the people she started helping after a church member mentioned that Atlanta Bread Co. in South Windsor was throwing out its unsold baked goods. Now, five nights a week for the past year, she has been shuttling the baked goods to as many as seven soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Greater Hartford.

The Tri-Town residents rely on donations to supplement the groceries they buy with their food stamps. Now that the shelter is over capacity with 16 residents, Rybacki said, they need Shepard's daily bread more than ever.

"A local grocer was willing to donate bread if we sent someone to pick it up at night," she said. "But we can't go pick it up. We're single staffed."

Shepard usually works alone, too. When Atlanta Bread Co. closed at 9 p.m. Thursday, she swiftly filled plastic bags with loaves that minutes earlier were on sale for $3.79, sugar-crusted muffin tops and bagels. She also added chocolate-dipped oatmeal cookies to the bag. She wrapped each sticky Danish in the parchment paper it had been resting on and wiped the crumbs off the counter before leaving.

"Nothing goes to waste," Shepard said.

"By about 9:30 p.m., my back is killing me," she said. "But then I tell myself it's going to the right place."

Shepard sometimes takes along her 4-year-old son on bread runs in hopes of nurturing the sense of community service he already exhibits. Even when he is nestled between bags of bread in the back seat of her Honda, Shepard said, her son shows great reserve and never tries to snatch a pastry.

"Although he does smell like Danish when I drop him at pre-school," she said.

Paul Skaff, who attends New River Community Church with Shepard and delivers the bread one night a week for her to South Park Inn in Hartford, said he's come to enjoy the hybrid smell of air freshener and onion bagels in his car. It reminds him of the good feeling he gets when he delivers a full bag of cookies to the children at South Park Inn.

"There are days I feel so good because I'm bringing in some bread," said Skaff, who on Thursday night was giving Shepard a hand bagging the bread. "But then I see the other things going on at the shelter. There's more to be done."

The New River Community Church was the catalyst for Shepard's project. About a year ago, John Muirhead, who owns the Atlanta Bread Co. in South Windsor and Newington, contacted the church about the store's unused bread. Muirhead said it is company policy to donate all the unsold bread to a local charity at the end of each day.

"There's a lot of food wasted out there," Muirhead said Friday. "It's nice to see it to go directly to the people who need the food."

Shepard said helping others comes naturally to her.

"I just feel like this is what I'm supposed to be doing," said Shepard, who was named Webster Bank's 2006 Outstanding Employee Volunteer. Shepard is vice president of enterprise risk management at a branch in Hartford and is one of 3,600 employees who gave more than 70,000 hours of volunteer service to their communities, said Clark Finley, a Webster Bank spokesman. As part of this recognition, Webster is donating $250 to both the Tri-Town Shelter and South Park Inn.

"There are moments I have where I read someone's story and say, `Now what can I do?'" Finley said. "People can take a cue from Noël."

Other Webster employees and New River Community Church members are now offering to help Shepard expand her community service project. Shepard said she is making it her goal for 2007 to pair up every volunteer she gets with a local bakery and a local shelter. Since Webster also has employees in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, Shepard sees potential for this project to expand beyond Connecticut.

But she still questions whether she is doing enough.

"Is this really making an impact?" she asked LaTanya Gallimore, a residential aide at the South Park Inn, on Thursday night. The shelter, one of the largest in Connecticut, is home to 104 residents.

"How much is six bags of bread every day going to help?"

Gallimore simply told Shepard a story about a former resident who brings a loaf of bread, gallon of milk and his leftover change from the purchase to the shelter every day.

"That milk goes a long way, that's pudding," Gallimore said. "A lot of people think bread is bread, but it's a blessing."

Shepard walked out of the shelter convinced that her six bags of baked bread represent God at work.

"When I see these kids I think of my little boy," she said, her eyes still red from crying. "What would he do without his mom?"

Contact Brittany Oat at boat@courant.com.

To volunteer to shuttle unsold bread to homeless shelters, contact Noel Shepard through the New River Community Church at 860-648-2970

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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