Tag Archives: Elaine Daignault

Calling All Neighbors!

Call it the COVID Paradox: At a time when people most need each other — for solace, for hugs, for simple companionship in a crisis — we’re commanded to stay far apart. Being close can kill. New phrases like “self-isolation” and “social distancing” sound as grim as they actually are.

In mid-March, Navida Greifenberger started a “Westport Coronavirus Info” Facebook group. It was a way to share ideas, and create community.

As important as it was, it did not take long for Greifenberger to realize that more was needed. Beyond group sharing, she wondered, how could she help individuals?

She created a simple Facebook form, linking those who wanted to make phone calls with those who wished to receive them. One of the first volunteers was 3rd Selectman Melissa Kane. She quickly realized this was a great project for the town’s Department of Human Services. Director Elaine Daignault agreed.

No matter how you connect …

Together the department, Greifenberger and Kari Bley established structure (including background checks and orientation) for volunteers.

Anyone 18 and older is welcome, from every neighborhood and with all kinds of interests.

Once a background check is completed, Human Services matches callers with recipients. Matches may include common interests, but some volunteers and recipients indicate that they want to be matched with someone older or younger.

No particular skill is needed. The only prerequisite is completing the form, and establishing a compatible call schedule.

The goal  of the program — called “Hello, Neighbor” — is for each pair to have at least one conversation a week. Anything beyond that is up to them.

… both the caller and recipient will benefit from regular phone conversations.

“We’re excited to have put together a program that doesn’t differentiate between volunteers and beneficiaries,” says Kane. “Everyone wins when a connection is made. Our community becomes richer as a result of making new friends, mentors and confidantes.”

“Social media is a wonderful and important tool for people to communicate,” Greifenberger adds. “But it doesn’t compare to the comfort of hearing a voice at the end of the phone.”

Daignault believes that participants will get “far more out of a regular conversation with a neighbor than they anticipate. It’s not so much about the content of the conversation, but the impact of ‘showing up’ for one another.

“Many people miss their routine. It’s nice to have something like this to look forward to. One-to-one calls provide an unusual opportunity for people to be truly present, without distractions.

“This is key for anyone who may feel isolated. Mental health is tied to our interactions with others. In the current environment, avoiding person-to-person interaction, many people feel invisible and alone. We hope this program helps everyone feel important and heard.”

If you want to be heard — as a volunteer or recipient — click here. Questions? Email helloneighbor@westportct.gov, or call 203-341-5037.

Human Services: Don’t Neglect Mental Health!

This afternoon — as Westport schools mark 6 weeks since closing — town officials reminded residents that despite physical isolation, we all need social connections. They’re key to maintaining mental and physical health.

Department of Human Services director Elaine Daignault says:

When we must stay at home, it can be challenging to maintain connections, and manage new or existing mental health matters. Many of us are learning to live with uncertainty, which requires a degree of patience with ourselves and others.

Identifying and discussing your own anxieties and fears is one way to manage the stress that we all feel. You may also choose to create a daily routine that includes exercise, a hobby and time for yourself.

Sitting with this discomfort is part of the process. So is finding activities to engage your mind and body to relieve yourself from the worry. For those experiencing significant anxiety and depression, please acknowledge that you need help and seek additional support. Start with your primary care provider and/or your mental health provider. Most are offering tele-health visits from the comfort of your own homes.

Many therapists are now online.

If you’re having trouble getting started, or require a personal conversation to determine which options are best for you, Department of Human Services staff are available by phone and/or email Mondays through Fridays. 830 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (203-341-1050 or Humansrv@westportct.gov).

We are happy to speak with you, and will provide resources to support you and your families now and in the future.

We also recognize that this can be a stressful time for families. Westport Together was launched in late 2019 as an alliance between the town, Westport Public Schools, PTA and many local non-profits to strengthen the health and well-being of youth and families.

While in-person events have been canceled, we continue to provide relevant and dynamic content on our Westport Together Facebook page. Click here to see. Stay tuned for more details on excellent panel discussions ahead.

Westport Food Fund: The Sequel (Hint: Westport Rocks!)

Yesterday, “06880” announced the opening of a Westport Food Fund. The aim was to raise money for the 4% of our neighbors — 1,200 or so — who face food insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis.

The goal was $50,000. A couple of generous contributions had seeded the fund. But there was much more to raise.

Within 12 hours, that lofty goal was reached.

Organizers were ecstatic — and inspired. The new goal: $75,000.

Department of Human Services director Elaine Daignault says:

We don’t know how much longer and to what extent this crisis will affect the community. But we do know the challenges are significant.

Our mission is to ensure that Westport’s most vulnerable have food on their tables in the coming weeks, and perhaps months. The funds raised in just 24 hours will ensure that their most essential nutritional needs are met.

Our call volume increases every day. We now have more resources to help, thanks to the awe inspiring generosity and compassion of our town.

She  loved the hashtag in one of the comments: #westportstrong. Though she prefers a new one: #westportwow!

 

New Food Fund Eases Anxieties

In fewer than 4 weeks since the coronavirus struck, calls to Westport’s Department of Human Services quadrupled.

Residents worry about countless things. But the most common fear is food insecurity.

“Between our established clients whom we’ve worked with for years, and new callers who find themselves unable to make ends meet, anxiety and panic is setting in for many,” says director Elaine Daignault.

“A lot of them already face tough decisions between putting food on the table, and paying household expenses.” Already, it is estimated, more than 4% of Westporters face food insecurity.

That’s around 1,200 people. Many are seniors and children.

And, Daignault warns, as social isolation continues and unemployment rises, those challenge will be felt by people who never in the past faced financial difficulties.

This photo symbolizes the fears of a rising number of Westporters.

A single mom with 3 kids has kept only one part-time job. But her rent is due. Without enough savings to stock up at the grocery store, she must stop in 3 times a week. That increases her risk of exposure, causing further despair.

One Westporter relies on the gig economy; his wife is disabled. Suddenly, his income does not cover the cost of food, rent and medications.

A senior citizen has worked part-time as a grocery clerk to supplement his Social Security income. Fearful of exposure to infection, he quit working. He can afford food — but he’s stopped paying his cell phone and electric bills.

An elderly, ailing couple have depended on the Senior Center for their daily hot, nutritious meal. The rest of the time, the wife prepares simple canned soups and frozen dinners.

Elaine Daignault

Daignault is proud of her small staff. They  offer connections, support and resources to residents in need. They make personal phone calls, and are working harder now than ever.

They’re providing grocery gift cards to Westporters, and collaborating with the school district to help families access the free and reduced lunch curbside pickup program.

Human Services has a rainy day fund. But there is a limit to their financial resources.

“We can’t wait for state and federal programs to kick in,” Daignault says. “People are hungry now.”

Dan Levinson shares her concerns. A longtime Westporter who years ago helped organize the original Green Village Initiative, he gets things done.

Quickly, he and other concerned residents created a Food Fund. The money they raise will be administered by Westport’s Department of Human Services.

The goal is ambitious: $50,000. But generous contributions jump started it nicely.

Daignault welcomes the support. She calls the Food Fund “a great example of how we as a community can express compassion, and use our skills and creativity to benefit others. It also shows how we are all in this together.”

Senior Center director Sue Pfister adds, “My heart broke when my colleagues in Human Services began to worry about not having resources needed to handle the calls they were getting about folks needing basic food and grocery money.

“I knew if the word got out the community would rise to the occasion, and see to it that not one human being went hungry in Westport. Dan Levinson loved the mission, and ran with the concept. 72 hours later, we were halfway to our goal!”

Click here to donate. For more information — including how to benefit from food funds — call 203-341-1050.

Senior Center Suspends Programs

Westport’s Senior Center is the latest victim of the COVID-19 virus.

A press release from Human Services Department director Elaine Daignault says:

The Westport Center for Senior Activities will suspend daily programs until further notice. This decision has been made after a thorough examination of the widespread health risks posed by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

The closure impacts all activities held by the Senior Center, except for the Home Delivered Meal Program which will continue to deliver to homebound seniors.

Starting Thursday, there will be no daily congregate luncheon program or outside groups utilizing the facility. The building will be open on Mondays through Fridays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during this period, but no programs, activities or scheduled will occur.

The Westport Senior Center.

Senior Center director Susan Pfister said, “The Center has been diligent in following CDC guidelines and has continued to encourage residents to regularly wash their hands, cover a cough or sneeze, and remain at home when feeling unwell in order to minimize the spread of the virus.

“There is no indication of reported cases of the COVID-19 at the Center at this time. The governor’s recent announcement to declare a public health emergency and a civil preparedness emergency in response to the coronavirus exemplifies just how serious this situation is.  This decision to suspend all programming was based on the health and safety of our senior participants, their families and out of an abundance of caution for the greater community.”

Although the Senior Center will be closed for general programming, the staff will be on site for routine administrative operations and communications via telephone and email in order to remain connected to residents. To contact the Center, call 203-341-5099 or email seniorcenter@westportct.gov.

Senior Center gatherings are on hold through the end of March.

The Town of Westport is encouraging all residents to practice social distancing by maintaining a 6-foot distance between yourself and others, and to take extra precautions by planning for possible social isolation by stocking their pantries with enough food for 2 to 4 weeks, procuring necessary medicine and reaching out to loved ones and neighbors to inform them of their status.

Neighbors are encouraged to check on seniors in their neighborhoods via telephone, to offer assistance and/or refer them to Human Services as needed.

It is advisable to follow reliable news sources for updates including www.westportct.gov, www.cdc.gov/coronavirus, www.wwhd.org, and www.ct.gov/coronavirus. Any resident seeking more local information and resources regarding the COVID-19 can receive the town’s press releases by going to www.WestportCT.Gov/subscribe and selecting “town news.” Residents are encouraged to sign up for the Westport emergency notification system by texting 06880 to 888777 to subscribe, or go online to sign up.

The Senior Center is a program of the Department of Human Services, which offers a variety of services to residents. The department will continue to provide essential support services in the safest possible environment for staff and with careful consideration of our most vulnerable clients.

Residents requiring additional support are encouraged to call 203-341-1050 or visit the Human Services webpage on the town website for information on available services — including the Westport Emergency Assistance application for seniors and people with disabilities who live alone and/or have special medical needs requiring assistance in times of emergency.

To apply for regular check-ins during an emergency, please complete the form online or request a paper copy. Seniors can also call DHS at 203-341-1050 to provide information over the phone.

COVID-19 is an evolving situation, changing by the hour. The DHS, as part of the Emergency Operations Team, is engaged in meetings and coordinating with other government town agencies, and has contingency plans to address varying situations as they unfold.

The uncertainty related to COVID-19 may cause an increase in anxiety and depression among residents.  If you are a parent or a caregiver, and are looking for ways to manage the stress, the following articles may be helpful in establishing healthy coping and communication skills around this issue.

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-to-talk-to-children-about-the-coronavirus-2020030719111

https://acl.gov/COVID-19

https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/03/03/811656226/pandemic-panic-these-5-tips-can-help-you-regain-your-calm

The health and safety of our residents is our top priority. We stand ready to help as needed.

Substance Misuse, Mental Health Survey Now Live

Substance misuse and mental health are national issues.

Local ones, too.

But how prevalent are they? And if we don’t know the answers, how can anyone help?

Today, the Westport Prevention Coalition launches an online survey. It was created by the Human Services Department, in partnership with the Westport Prevention Coalition and Positive Directions.

The anonymous survey will “provide helpful information as the Coalition embarks on prevention and resource development efforts addressing substance misuse, mental health services and overall wellness across the lifespan,” says Human Services director Elaine Daignault.

The goal is to gain input from a cross-section of age groups. It will
complement the youth and parent surveys administered through Positive Directions bi-annually in partnership with Westport Public Schools.

Click here for the survey. For more information, or to obtain a paper copy, call 203-341-1050.

 

How To Help This Holiday Season

‘Tis the season to be jolly.

And to help those whose holidays may otherwise be less than joyful.

Eileen Daignault — director of Westport’s Department of Human Services — offers these ideas:

You and your family can ring the Salvation Army bell, December 14 at the Westport or Fairfield Stop & Shop. This date and these locations directly benefit Westport residents in need. To help, click here.

You can also deliver a meal to homebound residents on Christmas or New Year’s Day.

Brighten someone’s day by delivering a Christmas or New Year’s Day meal.

Volunteers meet at the Sherwood Diner mid-morning to pick up their food and route. They head to the home of the resident, knock on the door and offer the meal. Some residents even invite you in for a few minutes.

Volunteers deliver 1 to 4 meals. Families and friends can deliver together. To help out on one or both days, click here. For more information, email kmalagise@westportct.gov.

Human Services’ Holiday Giving Program is also in full swing. Last year, 412 people — including 229 children — were helped by this effort. To purchase gifts or gift cards, or donate cash, click here, then scroll down). For more information, contact sstefenson@westportct.gov.


Meanwhile, Westporter Joel Treisman and his daughters have initiated a winter clothing drive. They are collecting new and gently used adult winter gloves, hats and scarves for the Gillespie Center. Overflow items will go to nearby shelters.

Collection bins have been placed at Westport F-45 Team Training, 222 Post Road West (5:15 a.m. to 11 a.m., 3:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.); Steven Mancini Salon, 180 Post Road East (business hours, Tuesday through Friday) and JoyRide Cycling, 1200 Post Road East (weekday and and weekend mornings; weekday evenings).

Joel Treisman, JoyRide’s Michaela Conlon, and a collection bin.

“Westport Together”: It Takes A Village To Raise Our Kids

As long as there have been teenagers, adults have worried about them.

In 1996 the United Way organized 2 townwide forums on youth issues. They led to the formation of Positive Youth Development: a collaborative effort to support youngsters and their families in their homes, at school and throughout the community.

The goal was to prevent risky behavior by providing parental education and support, rather than correcting challenges after something happens.

PTAs helped too.

Dialogue between groups resulted in new programs, including Toquet Hall, Community Service Corps, school psychologist meetings, Suniya Luthar’s research, a schoolwide substance abuse survey, and Risky Behavior Forums.

Now, 20 years after its formation, Positive Youth Development is being revitalized. Teenagers face new challenges (along with the old ones). Town organizations and non-profits have changed.

Information comes at us all in a firehose. In a torrent of emails, meeting notifications and online platforms, it’s easy to miss important ideas.

It’s time for the community to help its young people in different ways.

This morning, at Human Services’ 23rd annual breakfast for mental health professionals, the department will launch “Westport Together.”

It’s a new alliance that advocates for resilient youth, healthy families and strong communities; provides education through programs, presentations and resources, and enhances connections among families, schools and the entire town.

The PYD philosophy remains the same. But Westport Together hopes to enhance links between town and school programs; improve communication among partners and community members, and increase participation and information sharing.

A new website brings a number of youth, parenting and community programs together in one place. There are also pages for upcoming events, and a rich array of resources.

Westport Together alliance members include:

  • Westport Public Schools
  • Westport PTA
  • Town of Westport (Human Services, Police, Fire, Parks & Recreation)
  • Earthplace
  • Westport Library
  • MoCA
  • Positive Directions — Center for Counseling and Prevention
  • RULER (parent group)
  • Wakeman Town Farm
  • Westport Museum for History and Culture
  • Westport Prevention Coalition
  • Westport Weston Health District
  • Westport Family YMCA

Second selectman Jennifer Tooker

Second selectman Jen Tooker helped lead the project, along with Human Services director Elaine Daignault, youth services program director Kevin Godburn and school district coordinator of psychological services Valerie Babich.

Tooker says, “This is more than a revitalization of PYD. It’s a declaration of our commitment to, and prioritization of, the health and well-being of our youth.

“We want Westporters to know this is not an easy topic to tackle. We understand it takes a village to support this initiative. The village is ready and working!”

Back in the day, Daignault adds, “when a kid walked through town, people knew him and looked out for him. There was less chance of risky behavior.

“With Westport Together, we hope to get back to that time when everyone looked out for our kids — together.”

Street Spotlight: Vani Court

This is the 5th story in “06880”‘s series highlighting Westport’s roads.

In 1948 a small road was built as temporary veterans housing. Named Vani Court in honor of Michael Vani — killed in the line of duty during World War II — it was expected that when Westport’s housing supply caught up with postwar demand, the small homes would be torn down.

Though basically just shells — 2 bedrooms, kitchen, living room, with kerosene space heaters, supported by 6 concrete piers, and with topsoil provided in piles for anyone desiring a lawn — they proved popular.

An early renter, in front of a Vani Court home.

A couple of years later, Westport’s Housing Authority reversed course. They offered to sell the homes to tenants.

The 20 homes were quickly snapped up. Three more were soon built.

Vani Court, from 1,000 feet. The Compo Road South entrance is not shown; it would be on the left side. (Aerial photo/Carl Hamann)

The original owners’ names include a who’s who of Westport: Romano, Van Zandt, Benos, Feeney, Bowes, Dorta, Baker, Verina, Giunta.

Nine of the original World War II veterans who lived on Vani Court.

Seven decades later, Vani Court — nestled next to the railroad tracks off South Compo Road, on the right just past the bridge as you head to the beach — remains.

Nearly every home is an original. Only a couple have been torn down. (Longtime residents were nervous when that happened. But, one says, “the newcomers roll with Vani Court.”)

The road is one of Westport’s last old-fashioned true neighborhoods. It’s not just a place where kids ride bikes and play games up and down the cul-de-sac, and wander freely in and out of friends’ homes.

It’s a place where families stay, and put down roots. Children move into parents’ homes, and raise their own children there.

Many residents like their roads. Vani Court residents love theirs. And they are intensely proud of it.

Vani Court, via Google Earth View.

Elaine Daignault grew up in Greens Farms. She and her husband Jesse moved to Vani Court in 1997. Their children grew up there, and — like Elaine — graduated from Staples High School.

Jackson Daignault wrote his college application essay about Vani Court. He said that on the close-knit street he “learned how to comfortably interact with all kinds of people, to observe without judging, and to go with the flow in a community where so many strive to appear perfect.”

Playing basketball in the street, riding out a hurricane with several families in one house, and growing up knowing every neighbor’s name gave him “an understanding I never could have reached living in my own wing of a mansion.”

In fact, Jackson said, “the sound of the commuter train, just steps from my kitchen window, has been the soundtrack that shaped who I am today.”

Kids of all ages play together on Vani Court.

Elaine — who is Westport’s director of human services — appreciates from a mother’s perspective the comfort of knowing neighbors looked out for her kids, just as she did for theirs.

“Anyone who needs helps can knock on any door,” she says — and that goes for any age. “Literally, if someone needs a cup of milk, we’ll bring it over. And if someone takes a tree down, everyone comes over, chops wood and brings it home.”

Jonathan Greenfield lives near — but not on — Vani Court. When his dog Buddy was lost, neighbors rallied around to find him. Here they are together again, on the road.

Vani Court is located a few steps from one of Westport’s true hidden gems: the  Saugatuck River railroad bridge pedestrian walkway. Linking South Compo with the train station, it’s a great amenity for residents who commute — or want to walk to Saugatuck. (It’s also a wonderful place to watch the fireworks.)

Just as great, Elaine says, is that kids can ride their bikes from Vani Court to the beach without ever crossing South Compo.

She is amazed — but not surprised — that families raised several children in the small homes. On the street’s private Facebook group, she sees photos of kids waiting for school buses in the 1950s. The images are similar to those of her own kids — and now, the younger families moving in.

Easter on Vani Court. This photo could have been taken years ago — or this year.

Elaine mentions the Boone family. Jon Boone’s in-laws — the Kappuses — moved to Vani Court decades ago.

Jon — a noted youth coach — bought that house. After he died suddenly last year, neighbors rallied round. They celebrated his life together by erecting a large screen and sitting outside, in the rain, watching football.

Though most owners (and even renters) stay for years, their ties don’t break when they move. The other day, the entire street headed to Fairfield for the birthday party of a 10-year-old girl whose family has relocated.

Over the years, owners have remodeled, renovated — and enlarged — their homes. This one is at the end of the cul-de-sac.

A number of Vani Court residents worked, or still work, for the town. Rick Giunta — whose parents were original owners — is a longtime Parks and Recreation Department employee. His sons work there too.

For a while, 3 generations of Giuntas — Rick’s dad, he and his wife, and their boys — lived together on Vani Court. He calls it “a blessing” to have watched his kids go to the same schools he did, play the same kickball and whiffleball games on the street, and enjoy the comfort and security only an “extended family” like the road could provide.

“It’s the best place in the world,” Rick says.

All Abilities Welcome At ADA Compo Celebration

At first, the long blue mat drew puzzled stares.

Very quickly last year however, the Mobi-Mat — running from the Compo Beach boardwalk to the water, near the brick pavilion — proved spectacularly popular.

People using wheelchairs and walkers — plus parents pushing  strollers — loved the non-stick surface. Soon it was used by others who, for whatever reason, had trouble navigating the sand.

One of the Compo Beach Mobi-Mat’s many users. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

It was a smart, simple solution to an age-old problem: providing access to amenities for the many folks with mobility or related issues.

That’s not all that our Parks & Recreation Department has done to make Compo more accessible to all.

The boardwalk was extended 2 years ago, from the pavilion to the cannons. This year another section was added, from the cannons to the end of South Beach.

It’s a safety measure for all. And a godsend for everyone with a mobility issue, who just could not walk on the sand — or in the road — to enjoy the very popular barbecue-and-sunset-watching end of Compo.

The new South Beach boardwalk increases accessibility, adds safety — and does not take away those beloved close-in parking spots.

The addition of picnic tables with cutouts for wheelchairs — in the pavilion next to Joey’s by the Shore — was one more small but important recognition that Westport is a place that tries to welcome everyone, of all physical abilities.

So it’s fitting that next Wednesday (June 26, 5:30 p.m., near the new South Beach bathrooms), the town celebrates Westport’s efforts to improve accessibility everywhere.

Parks and Rec director Jen Fava, Human Services director Elaine Daignault and Westport’s Commission on People with Disabilities will host the event. First Selectman Jim Marpe — an ADA champion — will be there too.

The location is significant. Not only are the new bathrooms handicap accessible — of course! — but they’re located across from 2 barbecue stations with ADA-compliant surfaces. They’re specially marked, for folks with wheelchairs and vehicles that transport them.

Jr’s Deli will provide free hot dogs.

Crumb Together — the bakery that trains and employs adults with disabilities — will be there too.

Everyone — of all abilities — is invited!