Phyllis Hyman, Administrative and Policy Associate at Partnership for Strong Communities.
For the past two years, I have had the privilege of interviewing and writing the program pieces about the awardees for the Partnership’s Reaching Home Dinner. The challenge, of course, was to describe the work they do and their outstanding qualities, while keeping the pieces short enough to fit. Not an easy task. This year, I returned to the office after these interviews, and told my boss, Jane Peters, that I was blown away by the courage, character and accomplishments of these amazing people. But 400 words didn’t leave room to share my reactions to what I was learning about them. “I think you should write a blog,” Jane said. So here I go!
My first venture was to Bridgeport to interview Caitlin Mangillo and Justin Williams. They received the Reverend Richard Schuster Advocacy Award. What an amazing duo! I had read about Caitlin’s background before I went and marveled at how, as a blind person, she not only went to college and graduate school but was now dedicating her life to helping young women and families overcome tremendous deficits of a different kind. Her message was all about not discounting vulnerable people who simply haven’t had the opportunities that others have had. “Let them contribute and participate and see the value of what they bring,” was a clear message she wanted to convey.
And Justin – here was this big, hulky guy, covered with tattoos, with a scruffy beard, who had a childhood filled with violence, had been homeless and addicted, had spent 13 years in jail – now exhibiting a kindness and passion for helping others that lets him help women, many of them struggling with domestic violence and addiction, make the most of themselves. They trust him, even though their experiences taught them not to trust men. But they can tell that Justin knows what they were going through. They connect with him immediately.
“People doubt us” they say. Until they get to know them and their clients’ success stories. Caitlin and Justin are truly an inspiring “odd couple.”
Next up was Sharon L. Castelli, the Executive Director of the Chrysalis Center. She received the Barbara Geller Career Achievement Award. I was overwhelmed by her life story, her insistence on focusing on the mission, and how much she has accomplished in her over 30 years at the agency. For example, the food pantry at Chrysalis Center (“Fresh Place”) carries fresh lettuce growing in Chrysalis’ hydroponic garden and fruits and vegetables growing in the 2.5 - acre food forest (where trees, such as apple and pear, blueberry bushes and vegetables, are planted around what is already there, without altering the terrain) behind one of its housing projects. But Sharon wasn’t comfortable with having just a food pantry; only when it was going to be combined with case management for those using it did Sharon approve adding it to the Chrysalis Center repertoire.
Although she gave up teaching fourth grade very early in her career, Sharon is always the teacher. While working full time at Chrysalis Center, she taught 2-3 classes at Capital Community College in Hartford. She had to cut back on that schedule about 8 years ago because she was in the middle of a capital campaign for the amazing building Chrysalis Center now owns and operates on Homestead Avenue in Hartford. But that doesn’t mean she gave up teaching. She mentors a student intern every year who gets to accompany her in all aspects of her job; she works closely with the Leadership Development Roundtable; and now she is starting to groom the next generation of leaders within her organization. What a great opportunity for someone starting a career in the non-profit world!
My third interview was with Carla Witmer, one of the two recipients of the Carol Walter Supportive Housing Tenant Award. What a treat! Lydia Brewster had described her to me as “elegant,” and with “an artistic quality that emanates from her.” She compared Carla to a “gypsy” who danced through life as if she were Isadora Duncan.
Carla is delightful, and I came away feeling lucky to have met her. Her life story is fascinating, and it is amazing how much information she has about so many different topics. For example, we started talking about LEAD, the advocacy group she works with when she speaks to community groups about her experiences being homeless, stressing the importance of everyone having a home. She was searching for what the letters stood for, so we started talking about mnemonic devices as ways to help you remember things. “Did you know that the term mnemonic comes from Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory in Greek mythology?” she queried. Of course, I did not. As we started to discuss the importance of having a support system to manage life and her environment, she broke out into a rendition of “People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.” And when we agreed that it was so valuable for her to dispel the myths and stereotypes that the public has about people who become homeless, she launched into a rendition of the tune, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” It was fantastic!
Carla’s belief in the goodness of people (“God doesn’t make ugly”) and her willingness to see the “seeds of beauty” shone through in our conversation. She is incredibly grateful to the support system she has around her and shares her positive vibes with her world. She’s amazing.
The other winner of the Carol Walter Supportive Housing Tenant Award was Faith Mack. I was struck by Faith’s soft, thoughtful demeanor and how she has taken her life experience and used it to help others. She has certainly had her hands full with caring for her family, which undoubtedly contributed to her depression and inability to manage the world around her. But I love the way she now sees that, before you can take care of other people, you first need to take care of yourself! She goes to Fellowship Place to spend time doing things she likes to do and hanging out with her friends. This gives her the energy to take care of her responsibilities at home. She understands the need to be good to herself so she can be good to others.
By taking advantage of the supports around her, Faith knows that, whatever it is, she’s up to the challenge. After Faith fought breast cancer for the past year, Jocelyn Antunes of New Reach said, “breast cancer has a new champion.” Already participating in the New Reach Alumni Council and the Yale Child Study Center, Faith will undoubtedly help spread the word and educate others about the importance of early detection of breast cancer. She’s just that kind of person who will do anything to help and give back.
Last, but certainly not least, was the opportunity to sit in on a meeting of the Middlesex County Community Care Team, winner of the Diane Randall Leadership Award. This is a group of caring, dedicated professionals from a wide range of community organizations who gather every Tuesday afternoon to discuss, in depth, people who have complex health needs and are often either homeless or unstably housed (40 % of the people are homeless or unstably housed) and make excessive use of the hospital emergency department. The goal, of course, is to wrap services around these people, including housing, so they can address their physical and mental health needs and any substance use disorders before they become acute.
I was struck by the detailed knowledge the members of the group had about the history and the current condition of each of the 10 people discussed at the meeting. There was the woman who drank a lot, had a poor diet and kept all her belongings with her. Her medical condition was deteriorating, and she had bad feet. She stayed in motels until she had no money. Now she had bites from sleeping in the sand and no one knew where she was. By April, she had already had 12 emergency room visits this year, sometimes refusing to leave the ER and requiring security involvement. The plan was for one of the members who knew her to try to find her, get her assessed by a mobile CAN (Coordinated Access Network), find her a place to live, and convince her to take advantage of services. Not so easy and emblematic of the challenging cases the group tackles each week.
And why do they do it? Yes, reducing the number of emergency room visits and inpatient hospital stays saves money for all of us. But I get the impression that the members of the CCT do it because they care deeply about improving the quality of each person’s life, one person at a time.
I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to get to know the awardees, even for just a bit. I hope you had the chance to chat with them at the dinner. If you did, I’m sure you feel the same way.
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