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 now in their 80s, make up the charitable group. The oldest is 93, said Mrs. Ely.
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 those 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.
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 restart the heart of someone in 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.
By holding bake sales and craft shows, and buttonholing friends, the widows raised $7,000 for the defibrillator in a matter of months.
The group has 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.
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 conduct bake sales and sell crafts as they used to. Their work now consists mostly of networking and raising money among their many friends.
The group has regular supporters, who contribute to the $1,000 to $1,200 raised each year, said club treasurer Isabella Harding.
One woman in Elkridge just gave $200. An artist sends a monthly check. Former burlesque queen Blaze Starr donated $2,000 in jewelry last year.
Gary's Widows also collects toys and clothing to be given away.
"I wouldn't think of giving it up," Mrs. Ely said. "It gives us a little something to get up in the morning for."