This is the first in a series that highlights the work of those who stepped up to help others during the difficult days of 2020.
Norwich — Retired social worker Debra Hartley likes to do the “silly things” so that the agencies she volunteers for can handle the big problems.
When the pandemic hit, Hartley, now 69, was stuck home like most people. She called Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes.
“Do you need anything!?” Hartley recalled of the message she left. “I gotta get out of here!”
Gomes sure did need help. Norwich Human Services has been hit with repeated budget cuts, and for 10 years has not had a receptionist to answer phones. Before COVID-19 hit, the office was using a service that trains seniors for new jobs. But that ceased in March.
Gomes said her four staff members, already overwhelmed with hundreds of Norwich residents suddenly thrown out of work and needing help with rent, utility payments, food and health care, told their boss they had no time to answer the ceaselessly ringing phone.
“It’s particularly awful when someone’s in crisis,” Gomes said. “They’ve never been through this before. They call, and they don’t get anybody. The phone rings and rings, nobody picks up, it goes to voicemail. I’m not lying when I say I come into work on Monday, and I have 62 voicemails that I have to answer. I am not exaggerating. It takes us a day or so to get through those.”
Hartley, who had volunteered at Norwich Human Services several years earlier to help with filing, processing rental assistance applications and whatever other tasks needed to be done, returned to the office in September to answer phones and direct people to services. She works from 8:30 a.m. to noon on Mondays, and once again helped process rental assistance applications, with filing and anything else the office needs.
Norwich Human Services fielded 727 calls for rental assistance when the state reopened the program recently and mailed applications to all who inquired. Not all would qualify, but Hartley processed the hundreds of applications that did come in.
“I filed them all,” Hartley said. “They’re in that drawer. A lot.”
Hartley summed up the types of calls she gets: “I can’t pay my rent. I can’t pay my phone bill. The landlord is going to evict me. They’re turning off the lights. I don’t have any money to buy my kids Christmas presents. Are you doing this program? Are you doing that program? Where do I go for food? Where do I go for help?” she said. “Everything is just so upside-down now. So many people are hurting so badly.”
Hartley also volunteers for Habitat for Humanity of Eastern Connecticut, answering phones and doing data entry. She serves on different committees for the organization, which helps families purchase their first home.
“Housing is near and dear to my heart, so that’s a fit,” Hartley said.
Hartley grew up in New London and Montville. She graduated from Montville High School and attended Three Rivers Community College “in pieces” while working and raising her son as a single mother.
After she got married, Hartley quit working and attended Eastern Connecticut State University full time, graduating at age 38 with a bachelor’s degree in social services — before the term social worker was applied to the degree, she said.
Hartley worked for the Colchester Housing Authority as a residential services coordinator for 16 years and then for the Southeastern Council on Alcohol Dependence at the Lebanon Pines residential facility and volunteered for the then-Women’s Center of Southeastern Connecticut at its Norwich office.
Working at SCADD and the Women’s Center, Hartley frequently was in touch with Norwich Human Services and other local agencies, so when she retired, she knew where she wanted to go to volunteer.
Her husband of 31 years, Al Hartley, a 20-year Navy veteran, works for the U.S. Postal Service as a technician in Hartford. Her son, Todd Jones, now 47, lives in Canterbury and works as a manager of information services for The Hartford insurance company.
Hartley said she was drawn to a career in social work after having been a young, single mother relying on food stamps. “I’ve always felt the need to do something to help people,” she said. “I’m not analytical, logical, I’m more social.”
She said she feels comfortable volunteering in the Norwich Human Services office. No clients are allowed at the City Hall office, and staff are careful with COVID-19 precautions, she said.
Gomes said her help has been invaluable.
“It’s not just the phones, but the filing and the paperwork,” Gomes said. “All the crazy stuff that must get done. If I could pay her and have her here every day, I would do it in a heartbeat.”