Near & Far Aid makes charity fulsome and fabulous
Once a year, Mitchells of Westport adjusts the lighting, turns up the music, and plays gracious host to five or six hundred partygoers. There’s food, cocktails, entertainment, and enough good will to energize the whole store—from men’s suits and watches to women’s designer apparel.
The gala is a major fundraiser for Near & Far Aid, an all-volunteer fundraising and fund-granting organization dedicated to eliminating the causes and effects of poverty in Fairfield County.
It’s serious fun: The organization raised over $1 million last year.
It’s a far cry from Near & Far’s humble beginnings as a Southport “kitchen table charity” started by the wives of active servicemen during World War II. Locally, they worked with the disabled and elderly naval personnel back from the war. Overseas, they responded to the deprivations all over Europe by shipping clothing, medicine, and other essentials where they were needed most. The wives just called what they were doing their “project” until 1954, when they officially named their efforts Near & Far Aid.
Soon thereafter, the situation in Europe improved, and the volunteers turned their focus to the needs of nearby communities.
Anne Finnie Patterson, who lives in Southport still, volunteered for the organization in the early ’60s. “We didn’t raise a lot of money back then,” she says. “We had crafts sales and sold ethnic dishes. We’d go collect wonderful food from families who lived in Bridgeport—Hungarian food, Russian food, special recipes from Romanians, Swedes, and Germans. Chinese. That was the first time I had ever eaten a chicken cooked inside a duck!”
But profits were slim. “After one fundraiser, we ended up with about $100,” says Patterson. “One of the other women said we had better put the money somewhere safe. She goes, ‘Let’s put it in your freezer!'”
Last year, Near & Far raised $1.2 million dollars…not a sum you’d want to stash in your refrigerator.
“But raising the money is only half of what we do,” says current president Joan Panagos. “We also have to determine what organizations to give the money to, and where it will have the most impact.”
There’s an application process, and Near & Far usually receives more than 100 requests every year. “We send members of our Board to visit the agencies that ask for grants,” Panagos says. “This is important. Some people are uncomfortable giving to charities because they don’t know where their money is really going. They can feel comfortable donating to Near & Far. We do the vetting.”
Since 2000, Near & Far Aid has granted more than $15 million to local agencies, especially those dealing with education, homelessness, and children in crisis. It’s an astonishing story of charity and love.
The Mitchells Gala in March is only one of the three extraordinary fundraisers for Near & Far Aid. There’s also the Fall Golf Classic tournament and the Designer House Tour in the spring, with its popular pre-tour breakfast and designer presentation at the Patterson Club in Fairfield.
From a handful of well-meaning women canvassing local churches and neighborhoods, Near & Far Aid has grown exponentially. There are now 28 members of the board—some who make it a (nearly) full time job—and there are over 200 volunteers who give whatever time they can. In an area where there are extreme differences in income and educational opportunity, these volunteers and corporate sponsors are actively changing lives for the better.