GREAT NEW LONDON WOMAN | Erika Gradecki

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“Food is universal – it brings together family, friends, and even complete strangers,” says New London native and personal chef Erika Gradecki. The 35-year-old owner of Food For Your Soul, LLC grew up with an interest in cooking, pursuing that interest at Ella T. Grasso Technical High School, graduating in 2001 with both a high school diploma and certification in the Culinary Arts. 

After high school, Gradecki attended the University of Connecticut to study journalism, but never stopped cooking. “My friends and I always got together on Sundays, where a handful of us would cook our specialties. It got so popular that we would pack in at least 30 people in my friend’s apartment weekly.” Even at home, she was always happy to host friends and and family for get togethers with food as the focus. 

She says she fell in love with writing at a young age as she “was never big on expressing herself verbally, but could do it on paper.” After graduating from Uconn, Gradecki initially interned at the Westerly Times, eventually getting hired on staff for the Mystic Times to cover general news, human interest and — of course — food. 

Deciding to shift her course, Gradecki took a job teaching English in Japan and lived there for a year, giving her the opportunity to finally meet her maternal grandmother, uncles and an aunt there, and see where her family came from. Moving back to the US for a job offer in Chicago, she stayed there for a few months before choosing to come back to her roots in New London. 

Success doesn’t come overnight. Everyone has a story, including me, and those that become successful in life have had to overcome a slew of obstacles to get to where they are.”
— Erika Gradecki

Working in the catering industry, Gradecki worked for local companies where she was once even the only female chef in the kitchen. She worked long, hard 60-70 hour weeks until her daughter was born in 2014, when she resigned to be a full time mom. Gradecki says “I couldn’t sit still even then, and spent long hours researching industries to see what I could do to bring income into the household.” She eventually met a woman who said she didn’t have time to cook, and the spark for Food For Your Soul, LLC was lit. Gradecki did her research, even calling the American Personal & Private Chef Association to ask questions.

Food For Your Soul, LLC offers private in-home meal preparation, party and event services, and a wide range of cooking classes, including children’s classes and camps and adult classes through Ledyard Parks and Recreation, New London Adult and Continuing Education, New London Recreation and Waterford Recreation and Parks

Gradecki admits it has not always been easy.  She says, “Success doesn’t come overnight. Everyone has a story, including me, and those that become successful in life have had to overcome a slew of obstacles to get to where they are.” She says her biggest challenge has been forgetting about her own needs, she says she’s always had the reputation of “running herself to the ground” and not getting enough rest.

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She has turned down business if it didn’t coincide with putting her family first, and has built her business from the ground up with sweat equity. Despite that, Gradecki has always taken the time to give back to her local community, dedicating time to friends, students, acquaintances, and just about anyone that needs a helping hand. She has given free cooking demonstrations to local youth, senior, and mental health organizations, and serve as a guest chef for fundraisers and events put on by non-profit organizations in the area. She also volunteers her time with local youth duathlons and triathlons, which are hosted by the Parks & Recreation Departments of New London, Waterford, and Ledyard, cooking for the kids, their families, and spectators. 


Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.

 

GREAT NEW LONDON WOMAN | Elaine Maynard Adams

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For New London native Elaine Maynard Adams, the call into public service literally came knocking at her door in 1991. She was visited by individuals on the Democratic Town Committee, and they were in need of people to run for New London’s Board of Education. 

Maynard Adams, a single mom with a child in the New London Public School system, was working multiple jobs at the time and was also concerned that she didn’t have the background needed for the job. But hearing naysayers with questions like, “Why would you send your kids to New London Schools?” gave her a personal reason to run. As a product of the New London School system with a child attending those schools, she put her apprehension aside and decided join the ballot.

Maynard Adams served on the Board of Ed from 1991 to 1999, stepping down to spend more time with her daughter, who was in high school and would soon be off to college in 2001. That was not the last the New London Board of Ed would hear from her though - she picked up the baton again, serving on the board from from 2007 to 2008. She has also just recently announced her candidacy for this years Board of Ed elections.

Noting that in a town with demographics like New London, where schools play expanded roles including serving breakfast, offering school based health services, and sometimes even providing students with cold weather apparel, Maynard Adams says that one of the biggest challenges was not having enough money in the school system’s budget. Despite that, during her time on the on the Board, they spearheaded a technology initiative that brought computers into all classrooms, began plans for the construction and renovation of the city’s elementary schools, and then started the transition of city schools to magnet schools.

There is always, always, always something to be thankful for. And, those who have done well have a special responsibility to do good.”
— Elaine Maynard Adams
 
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Maynard Adams, 59, is the granddaughter of Lebanese immigrants, and her parents settled down in New London in the 1950’s to make a life here. She graduated from New London High School in 1977, and has spent her life here in the city. She recently completed the “New London Street Challenge,” which challenges participants to run, walk or bike all 378 streets in the city. Her love for the city is apparent when she describes the city’s neighborhoods as “absolutely beautiful.”

Education is not the only area in which Maynard Adams has served, either. From 1999 to 2007, she served on the New London Housing Authority’s Board of Commissioners, which she says challenged her with financial struggles similar to those faced on the Board of Ed. During her time on the Board of Commissioners, an initiative was launched to transform Bates Woods and Briar Cliff Apartments, turning them into new and improved middle income housing. They became more updated, giving residents pride in where they live, and providing clean, safe and sanitary living conditions. Maynard Adams says that “Providing moderate income families with this housing was a victory for everyone.”

After decades of service to the city, Maynard Adams is still always willing to lend a hand when called upon, saying “There is always, always, always something to be thankful for. And, those who have done well have a special responsibility to do good.” With that approach to service, she has also spent time on the City’s Charter Review Board in addition to doing volunteer work with organizations like the Homeless Hospitality Center. In her free time, she loves to cook and entertain, and tend to her vegetable and flower gardens. 

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Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.

 

GREAT NEW LONDON WOMAN | La Chale Gillis

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A New London native, La Chale Gillis journeyed from the east to west coast and back before finding her passion for photographing New London’s youth.

Gillis, 52, grew up here in New London, but joined a group of friends in a cross country move to California in 1991. Looking for something different than the New England town she grew up in, the west coast offered new career prospects and a culture shift. 

Gillis says she had the best of both worlds, experiencing growing up in a small town like New London, and then living in a large city like Los Angeles. In LA, she worked in QA control with Broadcom, a computer company, where she enjoyed a long and successful career. However, she found that her true love was doing makeup and hair, and honed her skill to eventually work events like the MTV VMA’s, the BET Awards, and NAACP Image awards. Gillis picked up a point and shoot camera to learn about light, document her work and build her portfolio.

Gillis say she was “living the life in LA,” but it didn’t last. She was faced with a life changing medical diagnosis: a relatively little known auto-immune disorder, Sjogren’s Syndrome, which can cause a myriad of health problems. When she and her doctors realized that her symptoms improved during visits home to CT where the air is cleaner, she made a tough decision: to give up her life in LA, and move back home to New London for the sake of her health.

Work on being in love with the person in the mirror who has been through so much but is still standing.
— La Chale Gillis

After decades on the west coast, Gillis returned to New London in 2014, a major life change that she says humbled her. Spirits low, she said she didn’t expect to be around much longer, due to how badly her health had deteriorated, but she found a saving grace: Photography. 

She was out taking a walk when she saw student athletes practicing outside at New London High School, and decided to take some photos of them. Gillis says “photography got me out of my depression.” She eventually moved up to shooting on a Canon Rebel T3, and started shooting football games at the local high school. Gillis was shooting a game and describes being “clobbered” by the team after they scored, not realizing how close the the action she really was, her glasses breaking in the scuffle. She found it exhilarating.

Gillis continued to hone her photography skill, shooting local sports and eventually being asked to volunteer her talents with the New London Talent Show, becoming a fixture behind the scenes for the non-profit that highlights the rich talents of our local kids and teens. She has earned a reputation for always being there for New London’s youth, and is called on to photograph them regularly.

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Gillis, who has had dreams of going to film school and adopting a child, says her “biggest challenge is my health, my mind wants to do everything but body gets in the way.” For her, La Chale Renee Photography, has been a way to let those dreams play out.

With mentors who told her that “you’re either getting paid or you’re learning,” Gillis continued to expand her photography skills, and started taking on paid clients. She moved up to shooting on a Canon 6D and 70D and a Sony A7II. She has started to incorporate videography into her work, and says she does “everything for the kids because I don’t have any.” Along with the time she volunteers photographing New London youth, she also takes on photography jobs like weddings, proms, quinceañeras, church retreats and more.

Also serving as caretaker for her elderly parents who are in their 70’s and 80’s, Gillis manages her own health issues while giving back to the people around her in so many ways. And when asked about what words of wisdom she has for others? She says, “Work on being in love with the person in the mirror who has been through so much but is still standing.”

 
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Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.

 

GREAT NEW LONDON WOMAN | Mariana Reyes

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For Mariana Reyes, giving back to the children of New London is a way to share her love of the city that she grew up in. A 30-year-old mother of two, Reyes just finished her second academic year as Assistant Principal at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School here in New London. RMMS, a magnet elementary school which is part of LEARN, accepts students from all Connecticut towns, but a large portion - about 40% - of students are from New London. She says that she is “honored to work in New London and get to work with so many New London youth each day.”

Reyes moved to New London from Costa Rica with her family when she was three-years-old in 1991. She attended Harbor School, Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, and graduated from New London High School in 2006. She says that she felt like she had “an amazing school experience and had amazing teachers that really made sure to push me to reach my potential.” 

She credits the diversity of New London schools for making her think globally about many things, and that perspective propelled her to pursue International Studies at American University in Washington D.C. when it came time for college. With a goal of working for an international organization or for a government agency committed to making the world a better place, Reyes enrolled in a course on international education, which is what initially sparked her interest in teaching.

Surround yourself with positive people with a good sense of humor. Even if you are facing difficult circumstances, if you approach it with the support of a team of people, you are more likely to succeed.
— Mariana Reyes

After graduating from college in 2009, she returned to New London and decided to apply to be a substitute teacher at RMMS to earn money before returning to D.C. to find permanent work. However, after working as a sub at RMMS, Reyes quickly realized that what she really wanted to do was to work in a school. A colleague at the elementary school shared that he was able to become a special education teacher by completing the New York City Teaching Fellows program, one of the country’s largest and most selective alternative routes to teacher certification. Reyes decided to apply for the program, and was accepted. 

She began the program in the summer of 2012, and though the coursework was very intense, Reyes says that what really shaped her as a future teacher was the experience she had working with NYC youth. Working as a bilingual special education teacher at P.S. 72 in Spanish Harlem, Reyes says “Taught me about life, perseverance, and the impact a positive school experience can have on a child's life.” 

When she completed the program two years later, she was recently married and expecting her first child. Reyes saw an open special education position listed at RMMS, where her love for educating was born, and interviewed for the position at nine months pregnant. For her, working at RMMS was the easiest decision to make - she knew that the school, which focuses on teaching kids to be global citizens, was where she was meant to be - she didn’t even apply anywhere else. 

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Ecstatic to re-join the RMMS family, she was able to grow as a teacher, was encouraged to keep fulfilling her potential by her mentors at RMMS and LEARN, and decided to go back to school to earn her Sixth Year degree in School Administration after her second child was born two years later. When she saw the opportunity to be Assistant Principal at RMMS open up, she applied, and was offered the position.

Reyes, whose parents instilled the value of hard work in her, says that the hardest part of it all has been balancing being a working mom with the demands of her job. She says that, “Mom guilt is real but I am fortunate to have a big village of people to support me with this challenge each day.” For her, the time between dinner and bedtime is sacred time with her kids, even if that means coming back to her computer to continue working once the kids are asleep. She also hopes that by being a working young mom, she is able to advocate for other women trying to balance their passion for their careers and their passion for their family.

Reyes, who feels lucky to have support from LEARN and RMMS, as well as her family, who help her to balance her busy work schedule while still being there for her husband and 3 & 5 year old children, knows that relationships are everything. She advises, “Surround yourself with positive people with a good sense of humor. Even if you are facing difficult circumstances, if you approach it with the support of a team of people, you are more likely to succeed.”


Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.

GREAT NEW LONDON WOMAN | Rebecca Atkins

Rebecca Atkins poses in her New London home while her foster son looks over schoolwork on his computer in the background.

Rebecca Atkins poses in her New London home while her foster son looks over schoolwork on his computer in the background.


For educator Rebecca Atkins, the children she teaches are not always just her students; sometimes, they become her family.

Atkins, who lives here in New London, made the decision to become a foster parent in 2017 after seeing many students of hers who were in and out of the foster system. At the time, Atkins and her husband were still engaged and deep in the process of planning their wedding, but that didn’t stop them from doing what their hearts told them was right. “My husband and I both met so many children that were in and out of foster care, or even homeless, and knowing that we had an extra room in our house and space in our hearts we decided to take the plunge and start the licensing process,” said Atkins.

Growing up in Groton, Atkins, 30, had friends from many different family backgrounds. The Fitch High School graduate says that the diverse environment she grew up in left a lasting impact on her, and that “you don’t forget where you came from.” She saw friends impacted by the foster care system and though her family had their own unique challenges, she always felt lucky that she didn’t have to endure what she saw some of her peers going through. With that in mind, she says you have to “just go for it… There is never a perfect time to help others or make a lifestyle change. If you can help and if you have a little extra room in your heart, just do it.”

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If you can help and if you have a little extra room in your heart, just do it.”
— Rebecca Atkins

In August of 2017, they started taking the required classes to become licensed, which are four hours every week for 12 weeks, and became licensed in January of 2018. They took on their first foster children, a group of three siblings, aged 7, 9 and 11, just two weeks after their spring 2018 wedding. 

Though the classes they took prepared them in some ways, it was still a major change. “Going from a household of two to five was very different for us, but so rewarding,” said Atkins.  Other aspects of being a foster parent, like transitioning children out of their home, were harder to prepare for. Atkins and her husband are huge proponents of the reunification of families, “We really wanted to be a support system and caregivers to help not just the kids, but their families, until they can be together again.”

Their commitment to helping families come back together leads to one of the hardest emotional aspects of being a foster parent - the heartache that comes from saying goodbye to the children they have opened their home and hearts to.  “Transitioning children out of the home is probably the hardest and most heartbreaking part because you bond with the children and you take care of them like they're your own, but we have to remember it is only temporary,” said Atkins, “I will also never forget an interaction my foster daughter had with her father at one of our group meetings. He held her face in front of his and they both just wept. It was in that moment that I knew being a fill-in parent was what I was meant to be, and that I wanted so badly to help this family get back together.”

Currently, Atkins and her husband have a teenage foster son in their home. He is a student at New London High School, and has been a part of their family since October of 2018. Originally a student in the Ledyard Public School system, they knew him before he became their foster son, and were able to make a request for a special study to allow him to be placed with them. Upon seeing him interact with Atkins, their bond is clear. 

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Despite the good that she is doing, she has still been met with judgement by some who question her choice to be a foster parent, and think it is “weird” that she is fostering children she already knows. “People, particularly other women, were always completely shocked when I said I didn't plan to have my own children,” said Atkins. “I think there is a lot of pressure put on women to be a cookie cutter version of what society says we should be. I've always sort of beat to my own drum and done what I've thought was best for me.”

Atkins, who holds two masters degrees - one in Human Resource Management and one in Teaching - considers herself a lifelong student - she is currently furthering her education with coursework in Applied Behavior Analysis. She also enjoys singing and has performed with a few local bands at venues like the Wolf Den and Ocean House. She says she is very close with her family, and credits her mother for helping her to become who she is today.


Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.




GREAT NEW LONDON WOMAN | Sharene Hyslop

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For Sharene Hyslop, baking is a way of life. Since she was seven-years-old, she has loved being in the kitchen, and translated that love into a profession when she graduated from the Lincoln Culinary Institute in 2005.


Hyslop, 36, lives here in New London with her daughters, who are 10 months, 5, 12, and 14 years old. She works full time as a Job Coach for Buckingham Community Resources and also works as a licensed PCA.

She has been building her business, Sweet N' Elegant by Sharene, since 2016, and in 2018 her cheesecake was featured on the menu of Harp and Dragon in Norwich. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing though, and she has been discouraged by chefs she worked under who told her that there isn’t money in baking. However, Hyslop has kept a positive outlook. She says that you should “never be afraid to fail, believe in your craft even if you’re the only one.”

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While she is working long hours at her regular job and caring for her children, she has to find the time to put into her developing business. She doesn’t want to take time away from her girls, so she works late, baking while everyone else is sleeping, and then wakes up at 6 a.m. most days to do it all over again. 


She says she didn’t know how much people loved cheesecake, but it is one of her most popular items, and also her favorite thing to bake. There is a lot of love that goes into it - it’s time consuming, needing a water bath and gentle, long baking to create the perfect texture and prevent surface cracks. Ultimately, she would love to have a food truck to sell her confections so that she can “get out and put smiles on peoples faces.”

Hyslop says her biggest challenge has been juggling being a wife, mother of four, working two jobs and trying to start a business. Despite that, she is focused on her goal, and says that, “the reward is her children seeing their mom as successful.”


Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.

GREAT NEW LONDON WOMAN | Chelsea Phillips

Up until 2015, New London youth had never had the opportunity to play lacrosse in town. That all changed when Chelsea Phillips founded the New London Youth Lacrosse program

Philips, a 26 year-old Waterford native, began playing lacrosse in middle school and went on to play in high school for Saint Bernard School. When it came time to apply to college, her first choice, Emerson College in Boston, put her on the admissions wait list, but her skill on the lacrosse field earned her recruitment to Salisbury University in Maryland. After a semester at Salisbury, she transferred to Emerson, where she also played for their women’s lacrosse team.

Phillips returned home to CT after graduating from Emerson in 2014, and began coaching the Mitchell College women’s lacrosse team as a 22 year-old, even coaching young women her own age. However, she didn’t stop there; Phillips, who spent time growing up in New London, has always loved the city and wanted to give back. Seeing the opportunity and need for it in New London, Phillips started the New London Youth Lacrosse program in 2015, with the ultimate goal of eventually creating a lacrosse program at the high school level in the city.

That goal became a reality in 2017 when she created and began coaching the New London High School girls lacrosse team, with help from grants she received from US Lacrosse’s First Stick program, which provides equipment to new lacrosse teams, and donations from local businesses. That first year, they played at the club level, moving up to playing a junior varsity schedule in 2018, and finally playing at the varsity level this year with a roster of 30 girls.

 
 

A newer sport to the school, the lacrosse program is not in the High School’s athletics budget, so while the school does help by paying for buses for away games and referees, Phillips (along with assistant coach Stephanie Roberts) volunteers all of her time coaching. Phillips has also applied for, and won, additional grants through US Lacrosse’s Urban Lacrosse Alliance, which helped to provide the team with uniforms. 

No stranger to hard work, Phillips works full time as a project manager for a construction company and just earned her masters degree from Columbia University this year. While one of her long term goals for the team is to win ECC championships, she also wants to help as many girls on the team as possible get into college.

Reflecting on her experience applying and getting in to college, Phillips knows that lacrosse can be a great way to get your foot in the door. She says that though New London’s focus has historically been on other sports, lacrosse provides even more opportunity to help New London students get into college. “With a sport like basketball, there are only five girls on the court at a time,” said Phillips, “but with lacrosse, there are 12 girls on the field that can potentially be seen by a recruiter."

 
 

Brenda’s Note: This profile is part of my “Small City, GREAT Women” Photo Project, which celebrates the women of New London, CT who are doing great things. If you know a woman who would be a good fit for the project, NOMINATE HER HERE.