BRIDGEPORT—Lorraine Gibbons grew up in a poor family with six kids who slept in one bedroom. Her mother Beulah didn’t have a high school diploma, and her father Owen was a tailor, who learned the trade from his uncle. Many nights, long after the children had gone to bed, he was still sewing at his shop in Jamaica to provide for his family.
“We were poor, really poor, and although we were poor, my mom always told us that education is the gateway out of poverty,” she said.
Her parents gave them encouragement and hope, and five of the children went to college and four of them earned master’s degrees. Today, Lorraine, who was recently named executive director for the Cardinal Shehan Center and the McGivney Community Center, has the same hopes for the young people she serves.
It’s a position for which she is personally and professionally qualified because, as she says, “I walked the walk and I can talk the talk because I have been there.”
For 13 years, she was director of development at the Shehan Center and in her new position, she plans to focus on creating more training programs for youth, corporate partnerships, tutoring opportunities and GED programs.
“I want our children at Shehan and McGivney to know that we care about them and that regardless of their situation, they can improve their lives,” she said. “These centers have served thousands of young people who might never otherwise have had an opportunity to succeed. As a woman who will lead both organizations, I want young girls to know they, too, can get to the top.”
That’s a lesson she has shared with her two daughters. Following her mother’s inspiration, Lorraine has always emphasized the importance of education in her home. Her daughter Ashley, who has a degree in economics from Smith College, works in accounting for Global Partners of Massachusetts. And Kelsey, who has an undergraduate degree in accounting and an MBA from Providence College, works in accounting for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Lorraine succeeds Terry O’Connor, who is retiring December 31 after serving as executive director for 26 years at Shehan and six at McGivney.
“I love our mission of enriching lives through learning,” Lorraine says. “As a mom, I see the impact we have. We groom, teach and educate our children, and sometimes they just need to know there is a person who cares for them. I believe this work is my true calling.”
For 55 years, the Cardinal Shehan Center has served the recreational, educational and social needs of moderate and low-income families and young people of lower Fairfield County, particularly inner-city Bridgeport.
The Center’s mission of enriching lives through learning is accomplished by the after school and Saturday youth development program, summer day camp, various basketball leagues, sign-up programs, physical education classes for elementary schools, and alternative programs. The Center commits itself to offering a clean, safe environment where positive, growth-enhancing opportunities are offered regardless of race or religious affiliation, Lorraine says.
Over the years, she has been involved in program development at the Center, which serves more than 4,000 young people throughout the region. Her favorites include a two-year-old culinary program that teaches students how to cook. This year 27 young people participated in it. As part of their training, the students prepared meals for the homeless and a Bridgeport veterans’ organization. The Center also has its own herb and vegetable garden that they use.
She and O’Connor also created a leadership program for sixth- to eighth-grade students that teaches them resume writing, application preparation, workplace etiquette and skills that are necessary to get a job.
The McGivney Community Center, which began as a summer camp program in 1992 for 50 kids, now serves more than 400 youth annually; 100 are enrolled in the after-school program, which draws students from 20 elementary schools and offers homework assistance, enrichment and recreation.
The summer program serves 90 students, from K-to-8, providing athletic, academic and enrichment activities to stem the “summer learning loss” so that students can return to school well prepared in September. The McGivney Community Center’s mission is to provide programs that foster academic success and self-esteem in an environment that nurtures children’s intellectual, creative and physical growth.
Gibbons, a native of Jamaica, received a bachelor’s degree in biology from Rhode Island College and an MBA from the University of New Haven. She has held a variety of positions in the non-profit, public and private sectors. Before becoming Director of Development at the Shehan Center, she was Manager of Corporate Relations and Assistant Corporate Secretary for the Aquarian Water Company.
She previously was manager of shareholder relations for the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company and Senior Accountant. She has held positions as a financial analyst for Great Country Bank and First Constitution Bank and was assistant branch manager for Westinghouse Electric Supply Company. She has served on community boards for such organizations as Amistad Academy, Barnum Festival, Burroughs Community Fund, National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Mercy Learning Center, Bridgeport Public Education Fund and St. Vincent’s College.
Lorraine has seen countless success stories during her years at Shehan, and she tells the story of a girl named Myntoy, who first came to the Center when she was 7-years-old. Her mother, who was from Jamaica, would tell Lorraine about the challenges they were facing, and the little girl would often go to Lorraine’s office to do her homework. Eventually, they developed a close bond, and Lorraine mentored her through troubled times.
After Myntoy graduated from Bullard Havens Tech School, she got a job at Frontier Communications. She later signed up for the Air Force and has been decorated several times for her service.
“If we weren’t there to encourage her and support her,” Lorraine says, “her life could have taken an entirely different path.”
Today, there is a photo of Myntoy in her uniform on Lorraine’s desk with an inscription from her mother: “Thank you for believing in Myntoy. She has gained her wings. From a proud Air Force mom, Kamara.”