Polly Ely, president of Gary's Widows Inc., wants to get one thing straight.
"People probably think we're all dead," she said. "But we're not."
About 22 widows, most of whom are now in their 80s, make up the charitable group. The oldest is 93, said Mrs. Ely. Only about six women are still very active in the club, she said.
But last year, Gary's Widows adopted seven families, mostly other seniors. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, baskets of food and gifts filled Mrs. Ely's home.
"My apartment looked like a department store," she said.
Membership is open to widows 65 and older. Associate membership is available for people who don't meet the requirements.
Mrs. Ely said the club now has one associate member.
"She was a widow," Mrs. Ely said, "and then she had the nerve to get married again."
Mrs. Ely, 79, started Gary's Widows 10 years ago.
"We started out helping the fire company," she said.
Mrs. Ely's grandson Gary Rains, for whom the club was named, was captain of an ambulance crew in Sykesville. His station needed a defibrillator, or "thumper," which is used to start the heart of someone who has gone into cardiac arrest.
"Four women in our church [St. Paul's United Methodist Church, in Sykesville] decided that we were going to help Gary buy a thumper for his fire engine," Mrs. Ely said. "And we did."
By holding bake sales and craft shows, and buttonholing their friends, the widows raised $7,000 for the defibrillator in a matter of months.
The group has also helped wrap presents for patients at Springfield Hospital Center, and has given money to a shelter for battered women.
Now, the widows concentrate on helping South Carroll's poor.
"About five years ago we just decided that that was more important now," Mrs. Ely said.
"You wouldn't believe how many people right under my nose are hurting."
Gary's Widows gets names of people who need help from Neighbors in Need.
"I always ask for the older people," Mrs. Ely said.
At Christmas, each of the sponsored families received gifts along with their food basket.
"Some of them ask for towels and washrags for a present," said Dorothy Hoover, 66, the youngest widow, ". . . things you don't even think about, but that's what they wanted for a gift."
As the widows have aged, Mrs. Ely said, most have stopped driving. They cannot hold bake sales and craft sales as they used to.
Instead, their work now consists mostly of networking and raising money among their many friends.
"You have to keep in good with the people that are interested," she said.
Also, she said, "We have to keep people aware that we're still living."
The group has several regular supporters. One woman in Elkridge just sent in a $200 check. A local artist sends a check each month. Blaze Starr donated $2,000 worth of jewelry last year.
Gary's Widows also collects toys and clothing to be given away.
"You wouldn't believe all the people who give to Gary's Widows," she said.
Club treasurer Isabella Harding said the group raises $1,000 to $1,200 a year.
"We're usually broke when Christmas is over," she added.
Mr. Rains and other friends help the widows deliver packages and run errands.
And Dr. Robert M. Dobrusin, optometrist to most of the widows, treats the club to an occasional party. He is sponsoring an ice cream bash for the club, planned for June 10.
"Even the diabetic ones are going," Mrs. Ely said.
Mrs. Ely said, "I wouldn't think of giving it up. It gives us a little something to get up in the morning for."