Dracut woman honored for work fighting youth hunger

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DRACUT — When she’s not working on medical bills for Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, Andrea Connelly is packing food into backpacks to gift to kids who need them.

As coordinator of Dracut’s End 68 Hours of Hunger chapter, Connelly is concerned about the time between Friday lunch and Monday breakfast, when students can’t rely on meals provided through their schools. In collaboration with school administrators, Connelly finds the kids at risk, and she now supports more than 40 families in every Dracut public school and at Innovation Academy Charter School in Tyngsboro every week.

For Connelly’s dedication to eradicating local food insecurity, she was surprised after the chapter’s annual charity motorcycle ride at The Boat in Dracut with two recognitions from the state and Dracut’s Board of Selectmen.

State Rep. Colleen Garry presented the commendation from the Massachusetts House of Representatives congratulating Connelly for her “extraordinary commitment.”

“Andrea is one of those kids who grew up in Dracut and cares about Dracut kids,” Garry said, “and that’s what she has been doing for the last 10 years is caring about Dracut kids and making sure they have food on the weekends. It’s my pleasure to know her, to call her a friend.”

When Connelly’s grandson moved away, she said she was inspired to pursue a new passion that made a local impact. And families often express their gratitude for her assistance by donating themselves, Connelly said.

Claire Bloom, founder and executive director of End 68 Hours of Hunger, thanked Connelly for her “tireless efforts” in ensuring no child goes hungry.

“Andrea has been a godsend to End 68 Hours of Hunger,” Bloom said, “and fortunately we have a good number of Andrea’s because right now, we’re feeding 8,000 children every single weekend.”

Money raised from the motorcycle ride and subsequent raffles and fundraising activities will go toward the pantry. The event featured a number of local bands and a boisterous crowd of supporters, including the Widows Sons riding association, who are longtime partners and supporters of the End 68 mission.

Connelly “spends an inordinate amount of time fundraising” for the kids, her sister-in-law Donna Breault said, and has rallied town businesses around the cause. Her good deeds also extend beyond food donations — when a family is recovering from a house fire or personal tragedy, Connelly “rounds the troops” to gather clothing and supplies, Breault said.

“You won’t find anyone with a bigger heart,” Breault said of Connelly. “If there’s a need, she will do her best to fill it.”

About 10 years ago, Connelly started the chapter out of her husband’s best friend’s basement and has since grown into a space at Saint Mary Magdalen Church and boasts a team of volunteers.

During the pandemic, when kids were stuck at home, the district continued to provide lunches that families would need to pick up, but not everyone could drive there, Connelly said. She filled a flatbed and shopping cart full of additional food items from BJ’s and traveled door to door, delivering boxes and bags of groceries.

Her volunteer efforts captured the attention of state officials, who alerted her to multiple families who needed help. Connelly’s response: “What’s the address?”

“I wanted to make sure that they knew somebody was there,” Connelly said, “that we could help take care of them.”

Connelly’s husband, Richard, compared her to the Energizer bunny, only she would “run his batteries out.”

“Years ago, Andrea went in the hospital for back surgery. Every single one of the women that worked with her told her that if she did anything with End 68 while she was recuperating, they’d quit,” Richard Connelly said. “They thought that would keep her quiet. From her hospital bed, she was doing fundraising.”

The current school year found more families without the financial means to reliably feed their children, Andrea Connelly said, making her volunteerism all the more important.

“This year, we saw a drastic increase in the number of children that we feed,” Connelly said. “Generally in September, October, the numbers start trickling in from the school, we might start off with six to 10 kids. This year, we started off with 41 right off the bat. It seems a lot but in comparison to some of the other programs, it’s a drop.”

A decade into her community service, Connelly said she is still baffled by the need in the community and dreads the day she can no longer provide for them.

“It just blows my mind that kids need this,” Connelly said. “It’s a scary thought to think that you’re one food stamp away from not being able to feed your kids.”

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