BRANFORD — On a recent morning at the Patricia C. Andriole Volunteer Services Center on Harrison Avenue, Tabitha “Tabby” Brown was hanging up the phone and jotting down some notes at her desk in one of the no-frills offices just off the dining room.
“This man and his family just moved into the area, so I put him in touch with the food pantry, gave him the number for the Clothing Bank, and got them signed up for Wednesday night takeout,” Brown said.
The lively, upbeat 52-year-old will be leaving her post as the volunteer and program coordinator at the Community Dining Room for a position at the Beth-El Center in Milford at the end of the month.
Directing the caller to the services he needed is the kind of work that has made “her heart sing,” as Brown put it, since she was newly graduated from high school in Bennington, VT.
“My parents were blue-collar workers, and I was the oldest of four, with three behind me, and there was no way they could afford college,” she said.
So she did what she’d been doing since the age of 12, when she had a paper route, and when she was old enough to get a job, as a cashier in a grocery store: she worked, and gradually, more and more, with people who needed help.
Her first job out of high school was at a nursing home.
“I did everything there, I worked in the laundry, I worked in housekeeping, I was a CNA, I just wanted to learn everything,” she said.
“From then on, I always worked in the community, I always had a job where I was with people, people who were challenged one way or another.”
As rewarding as that work was, it seemed, it wasn’t enough. At one point, she recalled, she was working three jobs — as a roommate for an individual with disabilities for one company, as a member of the support staff in a residential home for a second employer, and as part of the staff of the day program for a third.
“I was a single mother of two, and I woke up one day and said to myself ‘am I going to be doing this for the rest of my life or am I going to have a career,’ so I went back to school.”
It was a journey that took her to the CDR during the summer of 2017, where she satisfied an internship requirement for her Bachelors of human services degree, with a minor in counseling, from Post University in Waterbury.
As an intern, she distinguished herself by landing grants and donations for the organization, reviving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and developing tools, like a résumé template, to help CDR clients move forward in their lives.
“Tabby was helping further the CDR mission as a place that provides ‘more than just a meal,’” executive director Judy Barron said. “From the start, she was a natural.”
By then, Brown had married Branford native Mike Lang. His mother, Roberta “Bert” Lang, and aunt Marcia Donnelly, both of whom volunteered at the CDR for years, “made me see that this place is a living thing that’s only as good as how well the volunteers serve the clients, and that it’s the job of the staff to make that happen.”
Brown was working as a program coordinator at Sarah Tuxis in Guilford in the spring of 2019 when she learned that the volunteer and program coordinator position was available. She leapt at the chance.
Since then, she’s been ensuring clients get the services they need by overseeing the Wednesday and Friday night meal programs, the Tuesday night family night, and the North Branford home delivery program, while lining up volunteers for each program.
“Tabby represented the CDR in the best way possible — with consideration, attentiveness, and kindness,” Barron said. “Her care and compassion for clients and volunteers alike never faltered even on the most chaotic days.”
No more so, it seems, than since the pandemic hit in mid-March.
“It’s been about making sure that people were getting meals and safely getting meals and still able to have some sort of contact with others,” she said. “I would have people call me about the Wednesday and Friday [take-out] meals and maybe I was the only person they talked to all week long.”
No matter the hectic nature of the last five months, there was one constant: “Giving people the respect and dignity they so desperately need and deserve,” she said. “That never changes.”
Her new position, as shoreline diversionary specialist at Milford’s Beth-El Center, a nonprofit organization that provides support services and advocacy to those experiencing homelessness and hunger, will enable her to use many of the connections she’s formed during her time at CDR.
“I’ll be the first point of contact for families, and I’ll hook them up with the services they need, support them through the process, and follow up to ensure they’re in a good place,” she said, adding that she’ll be based at the Women & Family Life Center in Guilford.
With that, her phone started to ring again.
“I hope I’ve helped people in my time here, and I hope they know that they’ve touched my life too,” she said, before she picked up the receiver and greeted another caller.