BILLERICA —Five thousand miles. That is the number of miles Josephine “Jo” Leary put on her car delivering and organizing meals for residents in Billerica.
Leary is the founder and president of Sunshine Gals, a volunteer nonprofit that provides meals for seniors, children, veterans, the disabled and anyone else in the Billerica community.
The group formed 10 years ago when Leary and some friends noticed how the struggling economy was affecting folks in town.
“We thought we could do something in the form of food,” Leary said.
No one in the group had much experience gathering donations or organizing free meals and many prospective donors were skeptical, Leary said. They were unsure if there was a need in Billerica.
The Sunshine Gals discovered the need was indeed there when they held their first ever event- a Christmas dinner for seniors. It was a hit.
Since then the organization has grown. Sunshine Gals still serves its annual Christmas dinner, which now attracts over 100 people, but also does monthly meals for seniors and twice a week serves meals for kids at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Billerica. Recently the organization has also begun delivering meals to those who can’t come to them.
Those donors who were skeptical at first, have since come back looking to volunteer or donate.
It’s become a full time job for Leary.
She retired from banking in 1999 and got involved in volunteerism.
The Sunshine Gals does everything itself from ordering the food and cooking, to setting up space for meals and gathering donations and volunteers. Leary estimated that she spends nearly 40 hours a week on Sunshine Gals.
Over 70 years of age, Leary has no plans to stop. She has a quick wit and radiates energy.
“I don’t think of stopping because I don’t think it’s in me to stop,” Leary said. “I could stay home and clean the house but I like to say that’s against my religion; if I had one.”
The meals are as much a social event as anything else.
According to Leary, they are an opportunity for people to get out and connect.
When Sunshine Gals serves meals twice a week at the boys and girls club, Leary can be found walking among the tables chatting with the kids.
“She knows all the kids, they all know her,” said Dickie Ackroyd, who runs the club’s Drop-In Program.
Ackroyd compared the weekly meals to a sit-down dinner, which is important but rare in this day and age.
“It seems like a lot of the kids are eating on the go and not taking the time to sit down,” Ackroyd said.
While the menu changes for the monthly meals for seniors, at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Billerica, the meal is always the same – pasta.
“The kids love pasta,” said Leary.
She estimated that Sunshine Gals serves about 30 lbs of pasta a week to the kids. When meal-time comes around, the line of eager, hungry kids runs from the kitchen, down the hall. Often kids ask for seconds and Sunshine Gals volunteers are happy to oblige.
“They’re hungry, we’ve got it, they can have it,” Leary said.
The same goes for all the other meals the group serves.
Going on its 10th year now, Sunshine Gals is always looking for new volunteers. Most of the group’s original board members remain but are over 70 years of age and the group hopes to attract younger volunteers.
This Christmas season will mark the Sunshine Gals’ 10th annual holiday dinner.
“It’s flown by, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years,” Leary said.
Editor’s note: This article is the latest in The Sun’s “Be a Volunteer” series, focusing on people who join community nonprofits. Got a suggestion for a profile, email it to email@example.com.
Follow Emma R. Murphy on Twitter @MurphReports.