TORRINGTON — No one believed the coronavirus pandemic would last as long as it has — least of all Deirdre Houlihan DiCara, executive director of FISH in Torrington.

And thanks to so many individuals, clubs and communities in and around the city, FISH has kept its shelter residents fed and its food pantry open.

“We have so many heroes and angels who have kept us running every day,” DiCara said. “During the pandemic, we feed people at the shelter three times a day, and the pantry helps families in the community and feeds people in the shelter. The problem was, when the pandemic quarantine started and people started (buying) more food, our donations dropped.

“We spent the last seven months going from anxiety to resilience,” she said. “So many people have come forward to help us. I am so truly grateful.”

One of the shelter’s biggest supporters is the community of Lakeridge, a 475-home development that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019. FISH — Friends in Service to Humanity — has been Lakeridge’s adopted charity for years. Susan Warsof, a resident of Lakeridge since 1989, leads a group of residents there to make sure FISH gets the food it needs. Lakeridge holds regular food drives and, during the summer months, an area of the community’s garden is dedicated to FISH. Residents also donate any surplus vegetables from their own gardens there. Once a week, Warsof brings the fresh food to FISH for distribution and for use in the kitchen, including fresh herbs. “When she brings the herbs, she tells us how to use them,” DiCara said.

Lakeridge also holds an annual silent auction to raise money for FISH — that didn’t happen this year because of the pandemic, but that didn’t deter Warsof and her friends from their annual project.

“We raise a minimum of $4,000 every year, and we have an anonymous donor that will match any donations up to $4,000,” Warsof said. “We go around to local businesses and get donations for the auction, and hold a bake sale. Because we couldn’t do that this year, we sent letters to everyone in Lakeridge and asked for donations. The response was unbelievable. ... Donations ranged from $10 to thousands, from 80 families. It was amazing.”

Lakeridge raised $15,500 from the donation appeal, plus a $7,200 matching donation from a grant from the Northwest Connecticut Corner Gives Campaign, from the Northwest CT Community Foundation, making Lakeridge’s donation total $22,700.

“It was a life-saver, receiving those funds,” DiCara said. “We’re so fortunate that Lakeridge has made us their annual charity project.”

In April, shelters around Connecticut realized they needed to find a way to keep their more health-compromised and older residents safe during the -19 pandemic, and many were moved to supporting hotels in larger cities. The move allowed the shelters themselves to provide more social distancing space for those who stayed behind, DiCara said.

“I knew we were facing a world crisis,” she said. “Immediately I thought, how will we stay healthy on the front line, and keep our doors open at FISH to serve people who depend on us? How will we fund ourselves?”

“We rearranged dorm rooms, created isolation areas and developed protocols and called it ‘Team Stay Healthy,’” she said. “We started getting (personal protective equipment) for everyone. We worked to keep everyone safe. But we also had to cancel fundraisers, events that brought in money. It was a scary time.”

FISH has not had a single case of COVID-19 since March, DiCara said. “We worked very hard to make sure that didn’t happen,” she said. “What we did worked for our residents.”

FISH’s ultimate goal for its residents is to find permanent housing for them, and this week DiCara was happy to report that three of those residents were going to their own apartments. “That’s always our goal,” she said, adding that some residents have jobs and are able to pay a portion of their rent in subsidized housing, while others receive HUD support because of mental or physical disabilities. FISH caseworker Adam Pitts finds the right kind of support for each individual, based on their needs.

“There’s Rapid Rehousing, which requires a person to have a job within six months after they come to the shelter,” Pitts said. “There’s also permanent supportive housing, for people with disabilities. They pay 30 percent of their income for housing, and HUD pays the rest.”

The shelter also houses veterans, and recently was notified that FISH was approved to receive a federal grant to provide in-house services for veterans, including housing.

“They run a good ship here,” said Mike, a Vietnam veteran and shelter resident. “It was very hard for me out there, and when I came here, I was treated like a person. ... I hope the people of Torrington realize what they have in FISH.”

Some of those residents who moved out lost their jobs during the pandemic, and found themselves visiting the food pantry for support.

“Meanwhile, food donations nearly stopped at one point,” DiCara said. “So we were shopping more. ... We needed more donations.

Because FISH was feeding people from its own pantry as well as supporting needy families, supplies ran out quickly. DiCara put the word out on Facebook, and organizations in and around Torrington began delivering food daily.

“The city had food drives. The churches did, too,” she said. “St. John Paul the Great Church, St. Anthony of Padua, Trinity Milton, First Congregational of Torrington, Salisbury Congregational ... they all donated food regularly. The Torrington Fire Department brought food and donations.

“Bantam Market was also very good to us,” DiCara said. “They deserve a gold star.”

“Twin Pines Farm in Thomaston has been wonderful,” said pantry manager Margaret Franzi. “They’ve brought us fresh food all summer.”

Because people were buying and storing extra food supplies, items such as meat were hard to come by in the early months of the pandemic. “Stop & Shop is our food supplier, and we couldn’t get any meat. I’d go to the store, and the shelves were completely empty,” DiCara said. “I reached out to George Noujaim (owner of Noujaim’s Bistro, Winsted) and asked if we could get meat from his distributor. That made a tremendous difference for us.”

Noujaim also provided prepared meals for shelter residents, and the Litchfield County Bar Association members adopted FISH for the month of May. Every night, a hot meal was delivered or picked up from a local restaurant, paid for by a member law firm of the bar association. Meal donations also came from the Litchfield-Morris and Torrington-Winsted Rotary Clubs.

“It was wonderful, and it helped the restaurants stay in business,” DiCara said. “Chatterley’s would send dinner for us, and then they’d send another dinner that could be frozen and eaten another night.”

Local banks also helped, by providing mini-grants for food and supplies, DiCara said.

A host of mask-makers also helped out. “We had no PPE,” DiCara said. “There were groups of people making masks, and they brought us supplies of them. I wanted each person at the shelter to have between two and four of them, so they could be washed and reused. That was such a great help.”

Litchfield Distillery, which began making hand sanitizer to help during the pandemic, also reached out to FISH. “They put out a box on their counter for FISH, and collected donations,” DiCara said. “At our very hardest time, when money was very tight, they donated $30,000 to FISH, just from that little collection box. They’re just fabulous.”

The pandemic continues, but DiCara said she’s not as worried as she was in March. She reports “good deeds” almost daily on the shelter’s Facebook page, and thanks people for keeping FISH alive and viable.

“We are forever grateful,” DiCara said. “I feel that way, every day.”

To learn more about FISH and its programs and services, visit www.fishnwct.org or facebook.com/fishnwct.

Connecticut Media Group