Helping at home: Town holiday program lets residents give to neighbors in need

Terry Giegengack, Fairfield Department of Human and Social Services Director, with social workers Alicia Condon and Kate Dressel. The department is pairing donors and recipients in the town's annual holiday gift-giving program. (Miriam Kelliher photos)

Terry Giegengack, Fairfield Department of Human and Social Services Director, with social workers Alicia Condon and Kate Dressel. The department is pairing donors and recipients in the town’s annual holiday gift-giving program. (Miriam Kelliher photos)

“I’m not going to be able to do anything for Christmas this year except keep the lights on.”

Those were the words of one Fairfield mother recently to town social worker Alicia Condon. Condon, who is running the annual Department of Human and Social Services holiday gift-giving program, said the woman had just separated from her drug-addicted and physically abusive husband who, without her knowledge, had stopped paying the household bills.

It was only after she left with the couple’s three school-aged children that she learned she was in arrears for housing and utilities, among other things.

“The woman has been working, but at hourly pay,” Condon said. Condon and other town social workers are seeing that hourly wages are not covering the basics in Fairfield.

“We have a lot of families who are working — many of them two or three jobs — just to make ends meet,” said Terry Giegengack, director of the Fairfield Human and Social Services Department, located in the Fairfield Senior Center on Mona Terrace. “Their jobs are low-income. We know, because we see their pay stubs to document their need for assistance.”

Going back about 15 years, the gift program matches donors with town residents in need during the holiday season, when extra costs like heat and cold-weather clothing can snap a budget already stretched to the breaking point. Sometimes, Giegengack said, it’s an unexpected expense like a car repair that “wipes a family out for months.”

While the department’s list of potential gift beneficiaries is made up “predominantly of families,” Giegengack said, it also includes seniors and persons with disabilities. “We’re becoming more inclusive this year,” Giegengack said, covering people trying to manage independently. “A new coat doesn’t seem like a lot for those of us who are working, but it can be out of reach for people on a fixed income.”

Another change in the program this year is that the department is recommending donations in the form of gift certificates, both for donor and recipient convenience, and to allow social services clients “to pick out a gift for their child themselves.”

But, Giegengack added, “We’re very flexible. We want to be able to match our donor’s needs and desires as well,” and as in past years, donors can “adopt” a family and shop from their wish list.

Four categories

Town social worker Alicia Condon is running this year's program.

Town social worker Alicia Condon is running this year’s program.

The department has outlined four categories of giving for the program, the first of which — gift certificates for gas —  contributors might not automatically think of when choosing a gift. The program’s information sheet points out gas is a holiday preparation essential that many people lack:  “Most families cannot afford the transportation needed to go shopping,” the sheet reads, continuing, “A gas card will provide the opportunity for the parents to use our gifts without adding extra stress/financial concerns.”

The second gift card category covers activities, such as movies and bowling. The department also included hair cuts in this group, with the thought that a new coif “can provide confidence and self-esteem for the children in our community.”

The more traditional recommendation of gift certificates for toys and holiday shopping makes up the third category, and the department’s final suggestion is gift cards for food, which the information sheet notes allows families “to have the special holiday turkey or pie without guilt or added stress.”

Giegengack said that as gift cards come in, the department will match them up with recipients on the list with corresponding needs.  She asks that donors include store gift receipts to cover cases where cards weren’t activated.

Increased need

The list of families in need of holiday donations has gone up this year, Giegengack said, from 70 to 110, which she thinks has a lot to do with the expense of living in Fairfield County. “Housing costs are high,” she said, adding, “the cost of living keeps going up, but people’s wages don’t.”

Giegengack’s observation reflects the findings in a United Way report on poverty released earlier this month, called the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) Study of Financial Hardship. According to the report, about half of all Connecticut jobs pay less than $20 per hour, which amounts to a full-time annual wage of $40,000. That number stands in contrast to the $64,889 yearly income the report says is needed by a Connecticut family of four — two adults with one infant and one pre-kindergarten child.

The report, compiled for the United Way by Rutgers University, stated that 20% of Fairfield County’s population is unable to pay for basic household needs, while another eleven percent of the county’s residents fall below the federal poverty line. Statewide, slightly less than half a million people fall into the ALICE category.

Speaking on HAN Radio’s Coffee Break last week, Richard Porth, president and CEO of the United Way of Connecticut, said “ALICE is a population we all know. It could be our friends, neighbors, a family member — a sister who just got a divorce and has two young kids to support, a dad working 15 years, making a good living, but lost his job, through no fault of his own. It could be our parents who lost part of their retirement nest egg or even a young son who graduated from college with $30,000 in debt and can’t earn enough to pay that off live on his own.”

Condon says poverty in Fairfield is sometimes invisible. “You would have no idea that the families are struggling,” but there are significant food and housing security issues in town. “We refer people to the Operation Hope food pantry all the time,” said Giegengack.

Generous spirit

Giegengack worked for more than 20 years in social services in Westport before coming last year to Fairfield, where she has found increased socioeconomic diversity, which she views as a positive. One thing the towns share, Giegengack said, is “a great spirit of good will and generosity.” Town employees and departments, along with civic groups like the Rotary Club, Giegengack said, contribute to social services department funds during the holidays. She noted, “People like to help at home.”

Other services

The holiday gift program is just one part of the services offered by Giegengack’s department, which tries to find funds — whether from the state, town or private groups — year-round for people in crisis. Giegengack said during the 2013-2014 fiscal year town social services obtained state heating assistance for 239 Fairfield households, and used town money to provide heat to 11 more homes.

In addition, during the past summer and fall, the department gave 200 families campership stipends, back-to-school funds or Thanksgiving dinners. Giegengack said the Thanksgiving program alone this year provided dinners to 87 households with help from Holy Family Church, Good Will, the Fairfield Women’s Club and private donors.

Town social workers are also available to advise residents on whether they qualify for Social Security Disability and Medicare, and refer people to town counselors for help with emotional distress, which is often the cause or result of a financial downfall. The relationship between emotional crisis and financial crisis, Giegengack said, “goes both ways.”

Timing

There is no set deadline for the gift program, but the department is asking those who already plan to donate to bring in gift cards by next Tuesday, Dec. 16. Condon will distribute the cards to families the next day, to give them time to shop. Donations are accepted through Christmas Eve, which can help with the calls Condon said she and others in the department get at the last minute from families asking for holiday help.

In her office, Giegengack has a stack of thank-you notes from recipients of last year’s gift program, most of which express gratitude for allowing their children to celebrate the holidays. The expectations of those who ask for help through the program are often modest. Condon said she had just received a call from a mother working at several jobs, who was recently served an eviction notice. Her request? A pair of socks.

For more information, or to donate to the town’s holiday gift-giving program, call the Fairfield Department of Human and Social Services at (203)254-4538 or (203)256-3170.

                                                                                                                                                                  —Reporting contributed by Kate Czaplinski

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