A Life: Sara Garran, 1930 — 2013; ‘Is This Sara’s Day to Volunteer?’
Sara Garran helped start the Upper Valley Haven and the forerunner to Listen's Community Dinners. She died on March 26 at age 82. (Family photograph)
Sara Garran on graduation day in 1952 from Simmons College in Boston. (Courtesy photograph)
White River Junction — Thirty years ago, Sara Garran was among a small group of women who recognized that folks in and around Hartford were struggling so much to make ends meet that they sometimes had difficulty feeding themselves and their families.
But it’s one thing to identify a need in the community and quite another to do something about it.
Operating out of a warehouse on Railroad Row in downtown White River Junction, the women started serving free hot meals one evening a week to anyone who showed up.
A grocery store chain donated bread. Peter Christian’s Tavern, a popular Hanover restaurant at the time, gave unused portions of its hearty beef stew to the women. Before driving to the warehouse, Garran heated pots of the stew in her kitchen.
Jon Chaffee, an outreach worker for a nonprofit organization that worked with the needy, somewhat reluctantly joined the effort.
“I was afraid it would be demeaning to people,” he said. “But it proved not to be.”
Garran, who died on March 26, at age 82, was given much of the credit for the gatherings taking on the feel of a church supper.
“She genuinely cared about people, and people recognized that,” said Chaffee, who retired a couple of years ago as executive director of the Lebanon Housing Authority.
Part of Chaffee’s job was to open the locked warehouse on what was known as “Soup’s On” nights, but one time it slipped his mind. He didn’t remember until later that evening. Figuring the dinner had been canceled due to his forgetfulness, he called Garran to apologize.
Not a problem, she replied. She had served the meals out of her station wagon. People sat on the sidewalk and the warehouse’s steps. “Everybody had a great time,” Garron told Chaffee. “We made it a picnic.”
Soup’s On started out small, but didn’t end up that way. The weekly meal was the forerunner of Listen’s community dinner program that now serves more than 20,000 meals a year at four locations, five nights a week. The dinners have carried on in the way in which Garran intended. The guests include not only people who may be down on their luck, but elderly residents who are looking to share a meal rather than eating alone at home and others who want to expand their horizons a bit in the community.
“Not only did Sara have the energy to do these things, she cast a light of acceptance over them,” said Chaffee.
As a young woman from the Boston area, Garran moved to Upper Valley where she worked as a physical therapist. In 1950, she married Raleigh Mann. He died in 1961, leaving her a single mother. Years later, Garran agreed to go on a blind date with a former FBI agent who was a single dad following his wife’s death. In 1967, Sara and Philip Garran were married. They had two children, bringing the blended family’s total to five.
“We were the Brady Bunch,” said their son Chris, who lives in Maryland, where he is a regional school superintendent.
The Garrans joined St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in White River Junction. In the early 1980s, at about the same time the community dinners were getting started, the Rev. Roy “Bud” Cederholm at St. Paul’s was helping lead an effort to build a homeless shelter in the Upper Valley.
On Dec. 14, 1981, a former farmhouse adjacent to St. Paul’s became the Upper Valley Haven.
“Sara was a key player in getting the Haven started, in her own quiet way,” said Cederholm, who stayed at St. Paul’s until 1989 and later was named an Episcopal bishop in Massachusetts. “She threw her heart and soul into it. Sara didn’t do things halfway.”
Garran served as one of the Haven’s ambassadors, speaking at churches and civic gatherings around the Upper Valley.
“She helped the Haven gain acceptance,” said Mary Feeney, who, along with her husband, Paul, was hired early on to run the shelter. “She was able to convey to people that the Haven was going to be around for the long run.”
For 25 years, Garran volunteered at the Haven’s food shelf and clothing shop.
“I would get phone calls from people asking, ‘Is this Sara’s day to volunteer?’ ” said Feeney. “They would only come in if they knew Sara was going to be there.”
And why was that?
“She was a listener by nature,” said Cederholm. “People realized they could talk to her. She’d give advice, but she conveyed compassion. She was someone who people were at ease with.”
A granddaughter, Gabii Wozniak, a high school senior, spoke at Garran’s memorial service earlier this month. Along with “making the best grilled cheese sandwich,” Wozniak said her grandmother taught her to be “kind to everyone.”
Volunteering at the Haven was so important to Garran that after her husband, Phil, died in 2005 at age 80, she told her family that she would need their help with something. For years, she had left the driving up to her husband. With him gone, she wanted to resume driving. After getting driving lessons from her stepson Phil, she was back on the road.
“I’d come home at Christmas,” recalled Chris Garran, “and there were evenings that mom would say that she had to go for a while.”
Even when her family was visiting from out of town, she still made time to deliver supper to the doctors and nurses volunteering at the Good Neighbor health clinic in downtown White River Junction.
On the evening of Garran’s memorial service, a Listen community dinner that was scheduled for St. Paul’s had to be moved to another location.
“I’m not sure what she would have thought about that,” said Chris Garran. “She didn’t want a lot of attention.”
The attention may have been unwanted, but for someone who did as much for people in need as Sara Garran, it was certainly warranted.
Jim Kenyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.