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Settling in at the new Hands On Hartford Center for Community

One of our community partners asked the other day, ‘How are things going at your new building?’  As I drew a deep breath to give an answer, I realized that we are really here, and so much is happening!

55BThe thirteen supportive housing tenants upstairs at the 55B Apartments are settling in and getting to know the vibrant and diverse Parkville neighborhood.  Four of them are building their resumes and getting job training as maintenance support for Hands On Hartford.  The HOH Housing Services staff also continues to work with all of the former residents of Peter’s Retreat, as well as providing housing support services and homelessness prevention assistance to a number of other folks across Hartford.

pantryThe MANNA Community Pantry and the Backpack Nutrition program areas are clean, beautiful and light, with more room to store and distribute fresh produce (along with fresh milk, eggs and bread), and also more room to store donations of regular pantry staples.  With a loading dock in the back of the building, it is easier than ever for us to receive large food drive donations and deliveries of food obtained from Foodshare.

screeningNeighborhood services are going strong.  Because the new location is on two major bus routes and a CT Fastrak station is located directly behind us, clients from across Hartford find it easy to get here.  We continue to offer referrals, utility assistance, limited security deposit assistance, training and employment opportunity assistance, health screenings and even a new diaper bank, made possible by some truly generous donations and the extra storage space we now enjoy.

serviceLarger customized service projects, immersions and “Dash for a Difference” events now kick off in our Community Room and Café space, and community partnerships and collaborations on service events continue throughout the city.  Individual volunteers help out at the pantry and backpack program on a daily basis, and groups participate in special events for the 55B tenants, as well as diverse service projects at other nonprofits, parks and schools in Hartford.

eventThe Community Café space, community room and training & conference room enable us to host events (like our annual Volunteer Appreciation Event) and community meetings, as well as serving as a host site for  Coordinated Access Network Assessments, a collaboration intended address homelessness and housing crises more efficiently and effectively.

CMTwo programs which are not yet operating from our Center for Community are Community Meals, which provides hot meals and vital assistance to homeless individuals and working families, three days and two evenings a week (still located at 45 Church Street) and Senior Community Café, our weekend senior meals program.  Very soon, we will be receiving and reheating the weekend senior meals at our Community Kitchen at 55 Bartholomew!

kitchenWith funding provided by a grant from the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, we have undertaken a very exciting planning initiative focused on new uses for the large commercial kitchen and café space at the HOH Center for Community, not the least of which will involve operating a Community Café.  This process is nearly complete and we will soon be announcing our short and long term plans.

powerhousePlanning is also well underway for the development of our second building, which will have an additional 30 units of affordable housing.  The Powerhouse Apartments (so named because the building formerly supplied power to businesses all along Bartholomew Avenue) will be a combination of one-bedroom and efficiencies, some single-floor and some townhouse style.  We are currently in the process of selecting a general contractor, with a goal to “break ground” in 2017.

Finally, a general invitation:  Come for a visit!  We love to share our programs and plans with friends, old and new.

With best regards,

Kate Shafer, Communications Manager, May 12, 2016


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Hands On Hartford Center for Community is Open!

outside buildingAfter years of planning (and hoping and praying and collaborating and connecting and more planning), the day is here – we have moved to the Hands On Hartford Center for Community!  The last week has been a whirlwind of activity, but as I catch my breath at the end of the week, I am simply overwhelmed with the hard work, generosity of spirit, teamwork and collaboration that has made all of this possible.

two menVolunteers helped us pack and unpack the entire pantry full of food, not to mention our offices.  William B Meyer Moving Company moved boxes and furnishings from three different locations with speed and courtesy.  TWO MEN AND A TRUCK donated 90 hours of moving services over a 12 hour day to move thirteen tenants into brand new apartments at 55 Bartholomew.  Our construction team continued to work to finish up the commercial kitchen and last details of the building renovations, even as we moved in.  IT Resources had our computers up and running the day after we moved in, no mean feat!

We wouldn’t be here today if it were not for the incredible generosity of so many, including the financial donors to our special campaign, “Moving Together, All Hands On.”  Their gifts made the renovations to the building possible and will support our expanded operations, allowing us to serve more people, more comprehensively.  Stephanie Boyce and Trevonn Coleman, housing case managers, deserve special acknowledgement for working long days shopping with tenants and helping them pack, assembling furniture, and soothing frayed nerves of those around them.  And the master of this move, Director of Finance and Administration Pam Fitzgerald, made the whole endeavor, with all of its complications, work seamlessly – and not only work, but she kept us all in line with great humor, confidence and grace.

first inkind donationVolunteers, food pantry shoppers, and in-kind donors showed up at the Center for Community even as we moved in, and Board members brought plants to brighten tenants’ apartments.  MANNA Community Meals continued to operate as we packed and unpacked, our weekend Backpack Nutrition Program deliveries were uninterrupted, and Senior Community Café operations are on schedule even as I write this.  We are thrilled and almost used to seeing each other every day in one place.  And throughout it all, I have been moved and incredibly grateful to be working in a community of colleagues, clients, collaborators, tenants, volunteers, donors, neighbors and friends who are all committed to working together to put their caring in action to strengthen community in Hartford.


Barbara A. Shaw, LCSW

Executive Director

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Family Volunteering at Hands On Hartford

“Do you allow children to volunteer?”

As the Community Engagement Program Manager, I get asked this question from parents, teachers, troops and youth leaders quite frequently. I am then happy to explain how Hands On Hartford values the time, perspective, and jovial spirit that children often provide when volunteering at our programs.

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2015 Family Volunteer Day

In fact, Hands On Hartford recently had the honor of partnering with over 100 volunteers or 33 families for Family Volunteer
Day on Saturday, November 21st.  Family Volunteer Day is a day of service that celebrates the power of families who work together to support their neighbors and neighborhoods.

Presented by generationOn and sponsored by Disney Friends for Change, this event provided an opportunity for volunteers of all ages a chance to make a difference, while learning about the issues of poverty, food insecurity and homelessness, affecting the Hartford Community.

Families worked together, moving through several project stations to complete a no-sew scarf, decorate a gift bag, decorate a Christmas card, assemble a health kit, and finally place a pair of gloves, deodorant, and granola bar to complete one gift bag. Completed gift bags will benefit guests at Hands On Hartford’s soup kitchen at our Christmas Day Community Meal.

It was an educational and eye opening experience for most volunteers involved. While moving through project stations, families were challenged to dialogue with Hands On Hartford staff on why this project and our services are needed.

So, why does Hands On Hartford not only allow but actively encourage children to volunteer?

It’s quite simple. Volunteering is learning outside the classroom walls.  Volunteering not only provides assistance to a nonprofit but it introduces engagement, service learning, and awareness to youth at an early age. Children, who are encouraged to volunteer, grow up viewing this time as beneficial, both to themselves and those being served. As a child matures, volunteering becomes natural and intertwined into his or her everyday life.

Volunteering as a family also leads to new connections and friendships. It provides the opportunity for youth and adults to cross the invisible boundaries that are often formed between those in need and those who lives are currently stable. Volunteering bridges this divide, leading to one community for all.

Wanda Guzman

Program Manager – Community Engagement

Hands On Hartford

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A Happy VISTAversary

Anniversaries are a time when people set off fireworks, buy flowers, and buy chocolate too if the year before they forgot the flowers. Anniversaries are a time to remember, to reflect, to celebrate. This past weekend three AmeriCorps VISTAs in the Hartford Thrive! project celebrated their 6 month VISTAversary. I’m not going to light off fireworks, but I am going to reflect and celebrate.

Just six months ago, they packed up their cars and left the mountains of New Hampshire, crabs of Maryland, and shoo fly pies of Pennsylvania to dedicate a year of service to fighting poverty in the city that Mark Twain once called home. While they were driving out, I was freaking out, not really sure of what it meant to really lead a team of VISTA members and to orient them well.  I had the same feeling that I get when I’m asked to hold really small babies. I get nervous, afraid that I’m going to break them or sneeze on them the wrong way.

But now that sensation has subsided and I feel more like a proud parent. I’ve learned that it’s not really up to me to make the project fully successful. All of the VISTAs have strengths  they can use to figure things out for themselves and leave behind a trail for future AmeriCorps members to follow. In these six months I have seen them forge trails by giving Faces of Homelessness presentations to 500 high schoolers in Hebron and use their deep passion for housing justice to move towards a sustainable speakers’ bureau. I have seen them form connections with local churches to start community gardens to support our pantry. And I have seen them draw from their deep wells of creativity and engagement to receive funding from the Hartford Wolfpack to make our back packs healthier for the elementary schoolers who receive them.

And as a proud parent  I’ve gotten to see our family grow, to 10 VISTA members at five non-profits all working tirelessly so that members of our community have access to food, housing, and economic security. They are helping create job pipelines for people who are homeless, increasing the financial literacy of 500 youth, and helping women of our community break beyond living paycheck to paycheck through savings matching programs. At Hartford Thrive! we really do have a lot to be proud of and celebrate. Maybe I should get those fireworks out after all…

Logan Singerman

Americorps VISTA Leader | Hartford Thrive!

Hands On Hartford

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Hands on Hartford VISTA Family

Hartford Thrive! VISTAs atop the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch

Hartford Thrive! VISTAs atop the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch

When I was accepted into AmeriCorps VISTA, my biggest fear wasn’t moving to a city reputed for violence, or surviving on the living stipend, or relying on food stamps to eat. My biggest fear was leaving my family, friends, and life in New Hampshire, and feeling completely alone in this city.

On my first day in Hartford, our VISTA Leader, Logan, advised me to act like Jim Carrey in Yes Man for the first few weeks. That meant that I had to say “yes” to every opportunity that came my way.  For many people, this approach is intimidating – what if you agree to something horrible, like a Tupperware party? I didn’t have many options though; I was alone in a new place.

My first Yes Man opportunity came 24 hours after arriving in Hartford.  Logan brought me to a bonfire with some of his friends and fellow AmeriCorps volunteers. I brought marshmallows, because I’m not above buying friends with sugar. A few hours in, a couple approached me and introduced themselves as David and Navina. Their co-ed soccer team had a game at 7am the next day, and they needed another girl to even the team; would I play?

I do not play soccer. I do not enjoy mornings. And yet…

“Yes! That would be awesome! I would love to play.” I responded.

Seven hours later, David and Navina picked me up and brought me to the game, where they stuffed me in a jersey and released me to wreak havoc on the field.

This is not an uplifting tale about how I’m actually a soccer prodigy and scored the winning goal. I was pretty bad. I ran around and pretended to know what I was doing for 80 minutes. The ball came my way one time, and I panicked and passed it to a girl on the other team.

That was five months ago, and I still hang out with David and Navina. It wasn’t important that I’m terrible at soccer, it only mattered that I took the opportunity to get to know them better.

The Hartford Thrive! Project that I’m part of has fourteen VISTAs, many of whom are from out of state. We all start alone, without friends, in a new city, but we’ve formed a family of our own. Our work brings us together, but we hang out beyond that. We hike together, go to the gym together, go to movies, festivals, and free concerts together. We have a spreadsheet with the best restaurant deals in town, and go out every week.

The overwhelming support we give each other enables us to do our jobs better. Personally, I’m working with the Backpack Nutrition Program and food pantry at Hands on Hartford. My job is to expand knowledge and capacity of the program by acquiring new partners for food drives and donations. I’m also working to make the food in the backpacks healthier, and include non-food items that promote physical activity and health among the kids. This year, we will be able to provide jump ropes, pedometers, water bottles, toothbrushes, fire safety information, and other such items to the kids and families participating in the backpack program. It’s a challenging position, yet intensely rewarding.

If you stop by central office or see Hands on Hartford around town, you’ll probably see a group of VISTAs chatting or doing dorky dance moves. We’re lucky to be connected through Hartford Thrive! and Hands on Hartford!

Kyla Jones, AmeriCorps VISTA

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A Humbling Experience

Words from Stephanie Boyce, MSW, Hands On Hartford Case Manager

Last August I began my journey as a supportive housing case manager to 15 individuals living in the greater Hartford area. A number of those individuals were experiencing homelessness. It was through the Connecticut Integrated Health Care and Housing neighborhoods project that the 15 individuals received a Rental Assistant Certificate to assist in obtaining housing. When I began this position 9 individuals had obtained housing. I am going to share my experience with one of the individuals that I worked very closely with to obtain housing.

Carol is a 51 year old African American woman. When I first met Carol we drove from Hartford across the state so that she could obtain her housing certificate. Carol was in a housing crisis, she had just left a shelter in Hartford due to difficulties with other people staying at the shelter. Carol had nowhere to stay that evening. Once Carol and I were back in Hartford we began to call other shelters to see if they had any openings. Unfortunately they did not. Carol was able to find a friend who could put her up at her house for a few nights. Over the next week Carol and I called several places every day to see if they had any openings. Finally, Carol was able to get into a shelter in a town near Hartford.

Over the next several months, Carol and this writer looked at apartments all throughout the Greater Hartford area. Even though Carol had a housing certificate, it was still extremely challenging to find an apartment. There are many landlords who require that prospective tenants have a certain income and no criminal history. Carol became very discouraged and did not think she would ever find an apartment. I kept reminding Carol, “there is a landlord out there that is willing to work with you and we just have to find that person!”  A week later, we did.

Carol obtained her apartment in December of 2014. She is no longer in a housing crisis. She attends all of her medical and behavioral health appointments because she no longer has to spend all her time looking for a place to stay. Carol has a very spacious one bedroom apartment. Over the past 8 months, she has worked hard to make her apartment into her home. Every month we go to various stores so that she can buy household items such as a dining room table, a bed, sheets for that bed, and the list goes on. Carol has a place to call home.

Going through this process with not only Carol but 5 other individuals has been such a humbling experience that I find hard to explain, but I am going to try my best. The individuals that I have the pleasure of working with have changed my life. The process of finding an apartment cannot only be challenging but very frustrating. However, to see the smile on their face when they sign a lease and are given keys to their apartment is worth all of the frustration in the world. To be able to help and individual through the process of obtaining an apartment after experiencing homelessness is something I feel everyone should do. Working with the Connecticut Integrated Healthcare and Housing neighborhoods project has been such a wonderful experience and I continue to learn from the individuals that I work with.

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You Only Need a Heart Full of Grace

“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

This year of service with Hands on Hartford at Community Meals has led me to meet many great people. When I began this year, I knew that I would both serve and be served. Doing service is like that; it’s reciprocal. You can’t give and not receive something in return. I knew that going into this experience. What I didn’t know was how many people would serve me or how big of an impact they would have on my life.

Alex connecting at Community Meals

Alex connecting at Community Meals

Hands On Hartford is made up of a passionate, dedicated team. Every single staff member and board member is full of grace and love. Their compassion shines through in the work they do to bring help to those in need in Hartford. Each person I have interacted with on this team has inspired me to keep pouring myself into my work at Community Meals. We all know that the work we do helps someone in a very real, tangible way, and we also know that we couldn’t do it alone.

The volunteers and donors who make it possible to run Hands On Hartford have also served me this year, especially the volunteers who come to Community Meals. Many come regularly to serve lunch or dinner, giving of their time and treasure to keep our meal program going. Their dedication and enthusiasm remind me of why I signed up to do this year of service in the first place. They are open to each client who walks through our door, ready to serve the meal with a smile and some conversation. They give of themselves freely and fully, putting aside their work and personal cares for a while to serve meals. Their dedication to service in the midst of their busy lives has continually reignited my passion for service; I know that even when this year of full-time service is over, I plan to serve regularly wherever I go.

The clients I have met this year have served me in the most unexpected of ways. So many small interactions have touched me and given me strength and hope this year. I will never forget one time I opened the door five minutes late in the morning. After I apologized, someone said to me, “It’s okay, you’re only human.”Alex1 (1)

            You’re only human. That has stayed with me through the challenges of this year. Sometimes, when you are in the profession of helping people, it can feel as though you are seen as more than human. You give and give, serve and serve, and you don’t show your frustration or impatience, hunger or exhaustion. Clients depend on you, no matter what you may be going through on the inside. To be seen and recognized as only human, even if by one person, gave me the strength and freedom to know that I cannot always do everything perfectly, but I can do my best to serve and give to the people I meet. With grace and love in my heart and soul, I can be great enough to serve others, inspired and encouraged by the other great people—clients, volunteers, and staff alike—who serve me.

Alex Pierlott

Mercy Volunteer at Hands On Hartford

July 2015

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