Tag Archives: Gillespie Center

Helen McAlinden Takes Homes With Hope Helm

The other day, Helen McAlinden had dinner at Jesup Hall.

Looking out the window of the handsome stone building, she saw the Gillespie Center next door. She marveled that one of Westport’s most popular restaurants shares its parking lot with a homeless shelter.

She asked Jesup Hall’s manager what he thought.

“We love it!” he said. “We’re proud of it. We send food over, and help whenever we can. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

That made McAlinden proud too.

And it reinforced her belief that the job she’d just begun was the right fit.

Helen McAlinden is the new president and CEO of Homes with Hope. She took over from Jeff Wieser last month, as only the 3rd head in the 36-year history of Westport’s affordable and supportive housing non-profit organization.

In her own way and style, McAlinden is as accomplished and dynamic as her 2 predecessors: Wieser, and Homes with Hope founder Peter Powell.

The only 3 CEOs in Homes with Hope’s 36-year history. From left: Peter Powell, Helen McAlinden, Jeff Wieser.

The daughter of a coal miner, she emigrated from her native Ireland to the US right after high school.

Following stints as a babysitter and eldercare worker, she earned a business degree from Manhattan College. The next step was Wall Street.

But after 9/11, McAlinden felt compelled to do something different. She’d already been feeding homeless people through Irish centers in the Bronx and Yonkers. Inspired by the memory of her uncle — a US servicemember, but not an American citizen, who was killed in the Korean War — she also worked with homeless veterans.

McAlinden left Wall Street, earned a master’s in social work at Fordham University, then spent 18 years at a Bridgeport supportive housing agency.

Helen McAlinden

She knew Wieser through his work on affordable housing initiatives. When she heard he was retiring, she applied. The process took nearly a year.

But Homes with Hope’s thoroughness paid off. She is the perfect person for this extremely important post.

Her first month has been a whirlwind of learning — about programs, people, and the town. But, she says, “This doesn’t feel like a job. It’s something I’ve always loved: dealing with homelessness in a professional way.”

At the end of the day she leaves her Richmondville Avenue office, and heads to the Gillespie Center. She meets “the lovely people who reside there, getting ready for the next step, and all the generous volunteers.”

She is very impressed by Westport’s embrace of Homes with Hope.

“So many affluent communities think there is no homelessness there,” she says. “But people struggle everywhere. We have a shelter right behind Tiffany. Westporters recognize that. And they go out of their way to help.”

On Saturday, for example, McAlinden spent hours with the Sunrise Rotary Club, at a table outside Stop & Shop.

“Many people bought one thing for themselves, then came outside to Rotary Sunrise volunteers with a big bag of groceries for the food pantry,” she says. “Amazing!”

Westporters also help with their time, energy, clothes — and money.

“We get very few federal and state dollars,” McAlinden notes. “The people in this town keep our operations going.”

Many involve their own children. “It seems they want their kids to learn about doing good. They see their parents are giving, kind people.”

Helen McAlinden (far left) at the Gillespie Center with (from left) Allyson Gottlieb, Ian O’Malley, both Homes With Hope board members, and Kathy Knapp, Steve Knapp and Emma Knapp of Christ & Holy Trinity Church, who served dinner.  (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

The CEO has been impressed too with Westporters’ embrace of her. Wieser — who stayed on an extra month to help with the transition — shepherded her from meeting to meeting, introducing her to everyone in  his vast network.

The other day, she met Police Chief Foti Koskinas. “He’s a lovely man,” she observes. “He talked about the importance of treating everyone with respect. Along with the fire department and EMS, everyone wants to work together. There’s a real sense that everyone in town can help get someone back on track.”

Wherever she goes, McAlinden has been made to feel — well, at home.

Now, she turns her attention to the future. As well respected as Homes with Hope is she senses that many newcomers to Westport — young moms and dads, with little kids — don’t know about Project Return (for young women in crisis), Bacharach Community (for mothers with children), and other programs and sites.

Even the Gillespie Center men’s shelter may be “a hidden secret” to them, she says.

The new leader will use social media to reach these new residents. She wants to offer tours to interested groups. “Community organizations, PTAs — anyone can contact me!” she says. (Her email is hmcalinden@hwhct.org.)

In her few off hours, McAlinden spends time with her husband and 16-year-old daughter. She enjoys visiting her mother and family on their sheep and cattle farm, back in Ireland.

In fact, she laughs, Westporters are not much different from the Irish. Both groups are “welcoming and inviting.”

And wherever she is — Ireland or Westport, the Homes with Hope office or Gillespie Center — Helen McAlinden feels at home.

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.

Unsung Heroes #117

Alert “06880” reader — and Homes with Hope CEO — Jeff Wieser writes:

I was at the Gillespie Center community kitchen the other night. I often go at 5 p.m. to thank the volunteers. This generous group of Westporters and Westonites has served dinner there every night since 1989.

I went this time especially because Dolores (“DoDo”) Bacharach was serving with her friends from Assumption Church. She’s done that every month, since she and others formed the community kitchen in Save the Children’s offices around 1983.

It got me thinking that DoDo has done this community service quietly and loyally for all these years — and so have 500 or so volunteers every year since the kitchen started.

Generous family teams, groups of friends and business colleagues, groups from houses of worship and local clubs — all contribute their time, cooking expertise, and the food to serve 20-30 people every night.

Not only do they not ask for thanks, they usually enter and leave the Gillespie Center noticed only by those grateful souls whom they feed. Yet the diners are appreciative. DoDo once said that she loved cooking at Gillespie because “everyone is far more grateful than my family ever was!”

Assumption Church “Ladies of the Ladle” volunteers (from left): Michele Harding, Mary Welsch-Lehman, Katya Lebrija, Marilyn Moran, Dolores Bacharach.

Westport is unique among Fairfield County suburbs in having this sort of facility. Shelter residents get the chance to interact with caring neighbors, and local residents can teach our children and friends that this is not just a bubble of privilege in an enormously blessed community.

These Unsung Heroes — those 500 volunteers every year — quietly show a commitment to social justice and support of our neighbors that should be applauded.

We don’t get many chances: For the few volunteer appreciation events we’ve had, the turnout was light. Our volunteers don’t ask for thanks; they simply want to do what is right for some disadvantaged neighbors.

Chef Cecily Gans’ students prepare food for the Gillespie Center.

So I nominate volunteers from the following organizations who serve dinner at least monthly at Gillespie:

  • Staples High School culinary classes
  • The Service League of Boys (“SLOBs”)
  • National Charity League
  • Staples High National Honor Society
  • Elayne Prince & Friends
  • John Karrel & Friends
  • Wilton Friends Congregation
  • Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
  • Greens Farms Congregational Church
  • The Conservative Synagogue
  • United Methodist Church
  • Unitarian Church Youth Group
  • Norfield Church
  • Temple Israel
  • Emmanuel Church
  • Assumption Church
  • Saugatuck Congregational Church
  • Sunrise Rotary Club
  • Peter’s Weston Market
  • Zeta Phi Beta Sorority
  • Westport Rotary Club
  • Westport Young Woman’s League
  • Weston Kiwanis Club

… and all the families and friends who fill in throughout the year.

Westporters of all ages volunteer at the Gillespie Center.

 

Jeff Wieser To Retire From Homes With Hope

Jeff Wieser — longtime president and CEO of Homes with Hope — will retire from the multi-purpose housing organization by the end of 2019. Board chair John Walsh announced the news today.

Jeff Wieser

In his 9 years as director, Wieser has been a driving force for HwH. During his tenure he has overseen operations at the Gillespie Center and the Bacharach Community. He also expanded the portfolio of 44 supportive housing units, which the agency owns and operates.

Homes with Hope more than doubled its shelter capacity, providing beds for 115 people each night. And Wieser introduced an after-school mentoring program for the 30 children in HwH facilities.

In addition, Wieser led the merger with Project Return, the housing program for young women ages 18 to 24.

Wieser has helped Homes with Hope become a national role model, demonstrating how a suburban town can effectively respond to homelessness.

“Jeff has been a transformative, innovative leader” in the fight against homelessness, Walsh said.

“He is also a powerful advocate for the homeless beyond our community in his roles in Opening Doors of Fairfield County and as board chair of Supportive Housing Works, a regional collaborative whose mission is to end chronic homelessness in Fairfield County.”

Westporters of all ages volunteer at the Gillespie Center.

Westport 1st Selectman Jim Marpe called Homes with Hope “one of the community services that makes Westport so special.” He noted that under Wieser’s leadership, the organization has “expanded its affordable, supportive housing options, its relationships with other not-for-profit agencies and its overall community support.”

“As a local resident, Jeff saw the opportunity to leverage his business and professional experience with his passion for helping others, and has helped make Homes with Hope even better than he found it,” Marpe added. “On behalf of the town of Westport, I want to thank Jeff for his untiring service to our community and wish him well in the next chapter of his life.”

Wieser will stay in his position until a replacement is found. A search committee will focus on finding a local leader who understands both Westport and Fairfield County.

“Being involved with Homes with Hope over the last 30 years, first on the board and then as executive director, has been the most satisfying professional role of my life,” said Wieser.

“It is easy to be proud of the Homes with Hope organization, and it is easier to be proud of the community that supports HwH so spiritually and generously. I look forward to staying involved in any way that I can be useful to Homes with Hope and Westport.”

Staples, Farmers’ Market, Gillespie Center: Seed, Feed And Lead

The Westport Farmers’ Market opened for its 12th season last month.

As usual, plenty of vendors offered everything from locally grown and raised produce and meat, to honey and bread.

The crowd was large. The vibe (and weather) was warm. Another year was underway.

And — for the 9th year — the Market will partner with 2 other important town programs: the Gillespie Center, and Staples High School’s culinary classes.

It’s a win-win-win. In fact, it’s one of the most intriguing partnerships around.

Once a month — at the end of Thursdays, as vendors close up — the Farmers’ Market purchases unsold food. Volunteers transport it to Staples.

There, chef Cecily Gans’ students create unique menus, and prepare wholesome, nutritious meals. The Farmers’ Market picks those up and takes them to the Gillespie Center — Westport’s emergency shelter.

Gans’ students — with help from Rotary Club members and the Farmers’ Market — then serve the meals they’ve cooked.

“Seed, feed and educate” is the way WFM director Lori Cochran-Dougall describes the 3-prong partnership. They call it “Farms to School to Community.”

“We’re lucky to live in a privileged area,” she says. “This program allows kids to see neighbors who have fallen on hard times in a different light.”

Relationships bloom. Last year, an older man gruffly refused vegetables.

“My mom always says to eat all your vegetables,” a girl replied.

His face softened. He took some.

Fresh strawberries, tomatoes and other produce are used creatively — and deliciously by Staples’ culinary students.

Soon, he was back for more. He told the teenager he had not tasted tomatoes like that since his mother served them.

“People in Westport are very generous with their donations to the Gillespie Center,” Gans says. “But there’s not a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables.

“We bring in high, nutrient-dense foods. That makes a difference. Think about how you or I would function if we didn’t eat well.”

Gans’ students appreciate the opportunity to cook for the residents — and to make their menus count. Each month, the ingredients are different.

Among the recipes: Hungarian gulyas; butternut squash pasta; asparagus with miso lemon dressing; quinoa tabouleh with parsley and mint, and curried pumpkin with raisin.

“They think outside the box,” their instructor says. “They’re creative. They get the opportunity to serve, and see the needs of their community. Their level of responsibility really impresses me.”

Three graduating seniors — Christian Franceze, Alex Ialeggio and Ryan Liu — have been involved for all 4 years at Staples. Next year, Gans counts on juniors to fill their shoes.

Chef Cecily Gans’ students prepare food for the Gillespie Center.

The students build strong relationships with the WFM farmers and vendors. “We’re there at the beginning of the Farmers’ Market season, and the end,” Gans says. “We do whatever we can for them. They do the same for us.”

Cochran-Dougall echoes that sentiment. The director praises everyone in the community who participates — including the major funders, the Rotary and Sunrise Rotary Clubs.

In return, the Staples students print and share the menus they’ve created. It’s one more way to help nourish the town.

(Interested in donating to the Westport Farmers’ Market for this project? Click here — and earmark it for the Gillespie Center.)

Nielsen Earns High Ratings From Gillespie Center

From old-timers like Gault and Mitchells to younger arrivals like JoyRide and Saugatuck Sweets, Westport is filled with local businesses that give back in countless ways to the town.

But multinational corporations do it too.

Today, Westporter Bruce Haymes joined a group of colleagues from Nielsen’s Wilton office in giving Westport’s Gillespie Center a thorough spring cleaning.

They worked on the yard, painted the picnic benches and repainted the interior.

Nielsen’s Wilton employees, earlier today at the Gillespie Center.

Passersby might have been impressed to see employees of the giant market research firm spending an entire day helping our local homeless shelter.

They would have been even more impressed if they’d known that one member of the work crew was Mitch Barns — CEO of the 40,000-employee company, with operations in 100 countries.

We give Nielsen the highest ratings for today’s show!

Nielsen CEO Mitch Barns repairs a chair.

“I Should Be A Statistic”: Startling Insights Into Westport’s “Privilege”

The recent brouhaha over TEAM Westport’s “white privilege” essay contest got many folks thinking. Throughout town — and around the globe — they dissected the meaning of “privilege.”

Amelia Suermann has a unique perspective. Today, she shares it with “06880”:

I’m privileged to have grown up in Westport. It is a wonderful and supportive town. I’m so proud to say “I’m from Westport” — even when fellow Nutmeggers roll their eyes.

I did not have the “typical” Westport upbringing. My parents aren’t CEOs or executives. I didn’t live in a McMansion, and I wasn’t raised with other stereotypes of Westport.

But make no mistake: I’m privileged.

I’m privileged to have been homeless in Westport. It could have been a lot worse. I am privileged to have been raised by a single mother who worked 2, sometimes 3 jobs, to afford rent and necessities so that I could grow up in a great town with amazing resources, and attend school in a public system that rivals some of the best private institutions in the country.

Amelia Suermann

Amelia Suermann

I’ve posted before on this blog — anonymously — about growing up homeless in Westport. Without the town’s incredible resources, including the Bacharach Center and Gillespie food pantry that fed us many times when money was tight, God only knows where I would be.

I worked minimum wage throughout high school. Sometimes I used my earnings to pay phone bills or buy groceries. I should be a statistic.

But I grew up in Westport — a community with supportive neighbors and teachers. Because of that, I graduated high school. And as Elizabeth wrote a few days ago, the assumption that I would do so was privilege in of itself.

I went to college in Boston and then DC, where I settled and started my life. I’m a product of Westport’s world. The perspective that Westport has provided me is truly unique.

It’s a perspective of 2 worlds: Food pantry “shopping” on Friday night, lounging on friends’ boats on Saturday. You don’t get more privileged than that.

Addressing your own privilege should be about recognizing that maybe we have it a little easier than a lot of people.

Two faces of Westport: the Gillespie Center and Ned Dimes Marina.

Two faces of Westport: the Gillespie Center and Ned Dimes Marina.

A colleague who is originally from Milford sent me a newspaper story on the essay contest. While I understood the intent, a part of me sighed “Ohhh Westport…” as I shook my head.

I thought about my own life, my own privilege. Could we have had an easier life in a less expensive place? Probably.

But I would not have had the excellent education that set me up for the life I have now. People in other towns and of other ethnicities don’t have the same opportunities as many in Westport do. And while I would like to believe that if a non-white peer having the same experience as I would end up with the same happy ending, I don’t.

There are hundreds of comments on Dan’s various posts. Isn’t that the true intent of the essay contest — to inspire thought and a dialogue about one’s own privilege?

Let’s all vow to not let these conversations about privilege go away, simply because they’re hard or embarrassing.

Let’s make them matter.

Remembering Tina

Tina died today. Or maybe yesterday, or the day before.

I don’t know Tina’s last name. I never really talked to her — once or twice, at the Y when it was downtown.

You may not think you knew Tina. But if you live in Westport, you did.

She was the homeless woman with the limp.

We saw her everywhere. Tina was at the library. Gold’s. Oscar’s, before it closed.

And of course, we saw her limping all around town.

A Weston native, Tina was an independent spirit. She didn’t care for rules. She lived life her own way.

Sometimes she panhandled — downtown, or in front of CVS. Some Westporters gave her money. Others didn’t. They thought she’d spend it on alcohol or drugs.

Tina didn’t drink or do drugs. Mostly, she spent what she had on food for her cat.

helping-hands

She ate meals, occasionally, at the Gillespie Center. Volunteers there got to know her, as best they could. Tina was not an easy person to know.

Many people — and organizations — did what they could to help. Homes With Hope tried. Human Services tried. The police tried. Sometimes they succeeded. Sometimes not. But they never stopped trying.

They always treated her with dignity and respect.

Tina got through winters her own way. She lived in a shed downtown.

That’s where she died. Someone who had not seen her in a while went looking for her. He found here there, in the shed.

She’d had a bad leg wound recently. She may not have taken care of it. That was the way she lived, and it may have been the way she died.

Tina’s mother died, not too long ago. Her brothers are also gone.

But Tina may have a funeral. Rev. Pete Powell — a founder of Interfaith Housing (now Homes With Hope) — often leads services for homeless people.

If there is one, I’m sure Westporters will attend. They’ll try to do what they can in death for Tina — the woman with the limp — just as they did in her life.

Remembering Ernie Gazdik

Alert “06880” reader John Karrel writes:

“Ernie G”‘s eldest daughter, Michele Convertito, says, “He could always make you laugh.”

Until October 3, when he died at age 65. The Fairfield native was a truck driver for over 30 years.

I serve a monthly lunch at the Gillespie Center. No person there could brighten my day like Ernie G. After his family — notably his daughters Michele, Melissa and Maria — no passion was more important for him than his Yankees.

Ernest Gazdik

Ernest Gazdik

For years, he and I traded barbs about his Yanks and my Red Sox. Neither of us would win. There was always a twinkle in his eye.

Last time I saw him, some weeks ago, we had both mellowed. We complimented each other on our teams: my Sox headed for the post-seasons, his Yankees seeing a bright future with a host of young players.

Some day, when the 2 teams meet in the playoffs and Gary Sanchez’s walk-off home run propels the Yanks into the World Series, I will be sad. Then I’ll think of Ernie G’s beaming face, and I’ll smile.

And if his beloved Yanks do lose, Ernie G will still have been “one of the greatest men I have ever known,” in daughter Michele’s words.

That’s not bad.

(For Ernie Gazdik’s full obituary, click here. Donations in his name may be made to the Gillespie Center, 45 Jesup Road, Westport, CT 06880.)

What A Difference A Day Makes

Every day, Westporters make a difference.

Once a year, we draw attention to what we do, and how we do it.

The idea behind “Make a Difference Day” is not to pat ourselves on the back. It’s to encourage everyone to do something — anything — to make a difference.

That “day” is actually a week: October 17-25. So far, 42 projects have been submitted to organizers. Many were quickly filled. A few still need volunteers:

  • Fall clean-ups for Homes With Hope, CLASP and Caroline House.
  • 3 food drives at Super Stop & Shop: help man tables at the store.
  • The Gillespie Center needs rooms painted.
  • The Senior Center has drop-in projects (Saturday, October 24, 9:30-11:30 a.m.): assemble toiletry bags for homeless men, comfort bags for abused women, and arts and crafts kits for children in need.

Other projects can be found at www.westport-makeadifday.org. You can submit projects there too. For more information, email makeadif@aol.com.

Make a Difference Day