Anna Shuler set her walker in a corner of Sandra Simmons' office and pulled up a chair to hear her options for getting affordable Medicare supplemental health insurance. It was dry subject matter and Shuler, 78, of Hampden, was having trouble keeping up with it.
"All this in my brain," she said, tapping her temple.
Shuler said her husband, William, a former security guard for the Baltimore Museum of Art, died in August. Now, needing financial assistance, she has turned to two saviors.
"The Lord will take care of me — and [so will] Sandy," Shuler said. "She's a good lady. Thank God she's with us."
Simmons, 67, is executive director of the 10-year-old St. Mary's Outreach Center, 3900 Roland Ave., a Hampden nonprofit with a 2014 budget of $168,000 that serves hundreds of needy seniors — nearly 700 clients this year. The outreach center helps with everything from signing up for Medicare to getting dental referrals, legal assistance, transportation, prescription drug coverage, food stamps and discounts on water and electric bills.
"So if people have turnoff notices, they can come to us," Simmons said. "Our goal is to serve low-income seniors and get them benefits so they can live with some self-respect and dignity. No one calls our office without getting help in some form."
Simmons also volunteers every Wednesday for two hours down the street at the Hampden Food Pantry, located at Hampden United Methodist Church, 3449 Falls Road, where she takes the opportunity to cross-market St. Mary's to the seniors at the pantry who don't know about it.
St. Mary's Outreach Center accepts online donations at smocbaltimore.org, and will host its fifth annual holiday fundraiser Tuesday, Dec. 2, 5:30-7:30 p.m., at Historic Clover Hill, 15 E. Bishops Road, in Guilford. The event includes a raffle with all items valued at more than $100, Simmons said.
"It's not a stuffed-shirt event," she promised. "You might listen to me talk for four minutes."
The outreach center also partners with Meals on Wheels of Central Maryland to visit seniors who can't leave their homes.
"That's one of our biggest problems, reaching the seniors who are homebound," Simmons said.
Located in the old St. Mary's Episcopal Church, across the parking lot from a senior citizen high-rise apartment building, the agency helps only seniors who live in the 21211 ZIP code area, which includes Remington, Wyman Park, Hampden, Hoes Heights, Medfield and Woodberry.
Qualifications depend on the service needed and include being 65 and earning $993 or less a month for medical assistance, and having a household income of $25,000 or less for discounts on water bills, Simmons said.
Simmons said St. Mary's has so many clients and is plugged into so many different resources that "I have a Rolodex that I need another Rolodex for."
She also said the outreach center's in-person services distinguish it from other agencies in the city for seniors, including Baltimore City's Commission on Aging.
"There are no other organizations like me in the city," she said.
Simmons was formerly director of a preschool in Lutherville and information and assistance specialist for the Senior Network of North Baltimore, based in Govans. In 2006, she came to work for Pat Chalfant, then the executive director of the Hampden-based Action in Maturity transportation service for seniors. In her first week, Chalfant asked Simmons, "Do you want to be director of St. Mary's?"
"I'm still here," said Simmons.
She was a staff of one until 2010, when she hired Carol Wolbert as her part-time assistant. This year, she hired Fred Gorman as a part-time receptionist and office manager. Simmons also has an active board, whose members include former Greater Homewood Community Corp. executive director Bill Miller; Fairhaven retirement community chaplain Rev. Wayne Larson; and Terry Snyder, president of the Roland Park Place retirement community.
'Wanted to get involved'
While Simmons is a familiar face to seniors at St. Mary's, she is also well-known at the Hampden Food Pantry, where she volunteers once a week. The pantry is run by Christian Fellowship, a consortium of Hampden-area churches, and is unaffiliated with St. Mary's Outreach Center. Nonetheless, Simmons comes on her own time with the blessing of her board.
The table and cabinets in the pantry, a former church community room, are filled with bags containing food and toiletries donated by the public. Next week, the bags will be filled with fixings for Thanksgiving side dishes. Single people will also receive a canned ham and families a $5 gift card to Giant, "so they can at least buy a chicken," Simmons said.
Though she now lives in Perry Hall, she grew up in north Baltimore and has been helping out at the pantry since she started at St. Mary's.
"I wanted to get involved," she said.
Sitting in a small, spartan pantry office with boxes of free stuffing for Thanksgiving piled in a corner, Simmons on Nov. 19 used her administrative skills to patiently register those in need of food, household supplies and cash for other necessities, like a Maryland Transit Administration bus card, which costs $16.50 a month.
That's what brought Frederick "Freddy" Mack Sr., 65, of Charles Village, to see Simmons at the pantry. They greeted each other like old friends and Mack said he's been on disability ever since a lawn mower ran over his heel, while he was working for a landscaping company.
"They've been really helping me out for years and years," he said.
Mack was in good spirits and said he is finishing his grant-funded studies for an Associate of Arts degree in mechanics at the Community College of Baltimore County in Catonsville.
"So I'm good," he said, smiling.
"She does a great job. She's a big help," said Zachary Brown, 30, of Hampden, volunteer pantry director, who works at Fleishmann's Vinegar, near Coldspring Newtown, and whose godfather, the church's former pastor, the Rev. David Rimbach, founded the pantry in the 1970s.
Simmons also registered a woman at the pantry who gave only her first name, Catherine.
"I've been downhill since I lost my husband," said Catherine, 65.
She said she gets a monthly Social Security check and works two days a week at a Red Roof Inn to help make ends meet. Although she was new to the pantry, she is no stranger to St. Mary's, where she comes to get help with things like her water and energy bills. She said she budgets about $100 a month for groceries.
Catherine said she still has her car, "as long as I can hold onto my car insurance."
Simmons helped her carry bags of food to her car and gave her a big hug.
"There's a lot of people we know on a first-name basis," Simmons said.
Simmons said 90 percent of seniors walk to the pantry, including an 86-year-old woman who recently walked from Remington.
"I took her home," Simmons said.