When you realize she’s been active with her church for over 40 years, including leading the choir and running the Missions Committee, it makes perfect sense to Cynthia Damer to rise at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 19, fire up the family oven, and spend the next five hours baking all of the pies to be sold later that day at the North Guilford Congregational Church (NGCC) North Guilford Country Fair and Auction.
For Cynthia, the work is worth the effort—especially as each blackberry, blueberry, and peach delight sold this year will help ring up a donation of 10 percent of all fair proceeds to support Columbus House Middlesex Family Shelter.
“We felt the church fair proceeds do support all the work of the church, but this is the first year that we have a dedicated mission project that we’re donating 10 percent of fair profits to,” says Cynthia. “The shelter is the only one like it, in this general area, that serves families in crisis who, for some reason or another, find themselves homeless. These are parents who want to keep their children with them.”
Cynthia was instrumental in expanding NGCC’s Columbus House work to the Middletown-based program, which gives shelter and case management to up to 50 families per year, including as many as 150 or more dependent children. It’s one of several spin-off programs undertaken by non-profit, New Haven-based Columbus House. Through NGCC, Cynthia, together with her husband of 47 years, David, and their sons Ken and John first began supporting Columbus House many years ago.
“Our church has been providing a meal once a month to the homeless shelter in New Haven for over 30 years. I remember taking my little boys to serve meals at Columbus House, and Ken’s 40 now!” says Cynthia, who also devoted more than 20 years to leading the church’s mission to cook and serve 100 monthly meals, 10 months per year, to Columbus House recipients.
One of the reasons supporting Columbus House has become a passion for Cynthia is the program’s focus on addressing more than providing temporary shelter or food.
“Organizations like Columbus House realize you just can’t give people a meal and send them back out. You have to live there, you have to agree to undergo counseling, get off substance abuse, and receive job counseling and training to get jobs,” she says. “Columbus House has expanded so much, and our big concern now is with the state budget crisis; they’re cutting back on funding to non-profits. It could put a lot of these wonderful programs in crisis.”
Just as church members have supported Columbus House, the congregation comes together to provide for its wider mission of helping locally and globally. Cynthia has been instrumental in programs including one that gives Guilford Food Bank proceeds of the church’s annual Bell Choir at the town Tree Lighting as well as her support of the Crosby Fund for Haitian Education. She’s also helped lead the church into many local projects including a new school back-pack program and support for the Albert J. Solnit Center in Middletown.
This year’s NGCC North Guilford Country Fair and Auction takes place Aug. 19 from 10 a.m. at 4 p.m. at the 204 year-old church, located at the top of historic Meeting House Hill (159 Ledge Hill Road). It takes the entire congregation to run the day’s booths and activities. The fair draws a huge crowd to enjoy live music, great food (including renowned NGCC Peach Shortcake) a quilt show, handcrafts, books, tools, jewelry, a silent auction, toys, farm animals, kids’ Little Toot train ride, and popular live auction.
“The church fair is a community event,” says Cynthia. “People come, and it’s so nice. You greet people you’ve haven’t seen all year, there are neighbors meeting neighbors, and people who are not associated with our church at all. Everybody comes and has a nice day.”
Area residents might also want to consider coming back to NGCC to join its “church family,” which has many benefits. Cynthia says she and David made the decision to join shortly after moving to North Guilford in the fall of 1976.
“We moved in just before Halloween and started coming to church, and at the time, I was a music teacher working in North Branford public schools,” says Cynthia. “That Christmas, a group of carolers from the church came to our door and caroled for us. It was first time in my life that people were actually singing for me! I think the moment struck them, too—here I was, great with child. Ken was due in January. I’ve never forgotten it.”
The Damers joined NGCC shortly after Ken was born.
“I almost immediately joined the choir and dragged my husband along. He still sings bass in the choir,” says Cynthia, who continues to sing with the choir, and serves as chair of the church Music Committee.
Cynthia also led the NGCC choir, serving as its director for more than 25 years before retiring in 2010. From simply participating in services to joining programs (she chaired the church’s annual chicken pie suppers for many years) to getting involved in mission work, NGCC offers many life-enriching opportunities and a wonderful support system for church members, she says.
“I think church life is greatly unappreciated by a lot of people,” she says. “But I feel there are many people who are busy with their lives and their kids, and particularly because they live at a distance from many family members, who can find that your church family can really be your emotional support system. People here care about you, they pray with you, they visit you. I think that’s what people don’t understand about belonging.”
For some who may be seeking a church family, stopping by the NGCC Country Fair and Auction on Aug. 19 could be the first step.
“The appeal is it’s the same country fair it’s always been—no rides or Ferris wheels, just a great community event,” says Cynthia. “People always come and say, ‘What a pretty church; how lovely, what a great music program.’ For a little church, we do a lot! We’d love to have some new faces up here, and we can always use new members.”