There’s an office at Darien Town Hall that’s packed full of school supplies for children every August and full of Christmas gifts and hats and scarves for children every December.
But that’s just the beginning. Darien Social Services Director Olive Hauser and her staff, Inta Adam and Elaine Kilbourn, keep busy all year helping Darien families who are having difficulties or facing a crisis. They help people negotiate the state bureaucracies and apply for aid (energy assistance, renter’s rebates) and they have their own funds, raised locally, to help with individuals’ needs.
I myself have had to go to Social Services for help over the years, and I’ve always wondered how they fund all of the benefits they provide people who need help.
Hauser, who has been with the department for 20 years, explains that they’ve always had a relationship with the Salvation Army, but that they didn’t always have a “kettle program.” A “kettle program” is the lingo for those Salvation Army buckets and bell-ringers that encourage people to toss in a coin or a bill. About 18 years ago Darien started its own kettle program and now you can see them at Palmer’s or Stop & Shop or Shaw’s or the Sugar Bowl. Ninety percent of donations to Darien buckets stay in Darien.
The town supplies emergency funds to the department.
“The town increased our budget last year significantly,” said Hauser. “Particularly because of the fuel situation and the types of problems we’re seeing, such as jobs lost.” Using the town’s funds, the agency is able to also buy grocery store gift cards to give to clients.
Other funds are available to help clients through the department’s Gifts and Donation Fund, comprised of private donations, The Touch of Life Fund made available through the generosity of the Community Fund of Darien, and the Darien Fuel Bank which is also comprised of private donations and held at Person to Person.
“Person to Person is an incredibly good organization,” said Hauser. “Through our collaboration we are able to provide clients with resources we could not provide on our own.”
If you throw a dollar into the Darien Salvation Army bucket, or write a check to the Social Services Gift Fund, Darien Social Services can:
Help Darien residents who “slip through the cracks” pay fuel and oil bills and electric bills. An example of this would be a woman whose husband just left her, leaving her with a house but no cash. She isn’t poor, just broke until the courts straighten things out. Meanwhile, she has no fuel oil. Social Services will make sure she has heat.
Help people pay individual bills in times of crisis. This would include things like rent, gas, utilities and medication.
Even if a family has come to the well before, Hauser says that their needs are still evaluated according to their situation. For example, if there are children and the house is in crisis, they would help. “If a child needs a coat, he gets a coat,” said Hauser.
Which brings me to another nice thing about Social Services: the Loan Closet. There is a whole closet full of medical equipment (wheelchairs, crutches, etc.) that is available to residents on loan. Some of the equipment is new and some is donated by people in town.
Last but not least: the holidays. No surprise, but the holidays can really stink when you’re in trouble. Darien Social Services again combines forces with other organizations to get people some holiday help and cheer.
Hauser explained to me that Alicia Sillars, the Director of the Darien Youth Commission (that organizes the TOPS events) plans a movie event each Christmas. The Darien Playhouse donates both screening rooms for a free movie if you bring a new toy or child’s hat and pair of gloves. I have seen the Social Services room after this collection, and it looks like Father Christmas has arrived.
Our high school students collect gift cards or teenager gifts (and teenagers are hard to collect gifts for, Olive tells me and I know from personal experience) as an entrance fee to the Snow Ball. Last year there was no Snow Ball, but that didn’t stop Darien High School students—they went ahead and collected the gifts anyway and donated them to Social Services.
Hauser also told me about a group of friends (she mentioned Seana Turner and Eleanor Palmer) who get together and do a wish list for a family in particular need each year. Now that’s the real spirit of Christmas!
I myself have experienced the joy and relief this agency can provide. One Thanksgiving when I was struggling, they arranged for me to receive a “free turkey” from Person to Person. I went to Person to Person, and I was given a turkey on an enormous metal cooking tray (like the ones you see in the supermarket), which was also stuffed full of all kinds of fixin’s from stuffing to gravy to mashed potato mix, all wrapped up in a giant cellophane and tied with a bow like a Thanksgiving Basket. On top of this, I was handed a home-baked apple pie that would put your mother’s pie to shame. It wasn’t just a free turkey, it was a holiday gift that brought tears to my eyes.
When you’re in trouble, an act of generosity can make all the difference in the world.
“We don’t ask anyone to pay back what they have received from Social Services but we hope they will pay it forward,” said Hauser.
Final Note: On Friday, October 16, at 4 pm the Person to Person Youth Group is hosting the premier of Where the Wild Things Are at the Darien Playhouse. Tickets cost $10 and 60 percent of the profits will go towards the Youth Group Car Seat Program, which provides car seats to families in the area who cannot afford them. For more information, contact Judy Kilmartin, Director of Volunteers, at 203-656-4631 x152.