OLD SAYBROOK — The line for food stretched nearly the length of the parking lot. Young families, single adults and the elderly, holding cloth shopping bags, waiting outside of Grace Church on a chilly Thursday afternoon in Old Saybrook.
Inside, American Job Center and the U.S. Census Bureau had set up for recruiting, tables were filled with second-hand clothes, and a town nurse was checking residents for high blood pressure.
“When I got here the line was already down the stairs and around the corner, filling the sidewalk to get inside,” said Sue Consoli, the director of Social Services in Old Saybrook. “The general idea is that we don’t have these problems in Old Saybrook, but we do. Everywhere has these problems. Even at the state level, we are forgotten about down here, our district office is in Middletown and not on the bus route.”
Consoli began hosting monthly social services days when she took over as director in 2012 in an effort to reach as many in-need people as possible. Each month about 100 families, or 250 people, come to the five-hour event.
“Really, honestly when I started I just didn’t know how I was going to keep up with all the need. I could see that it was too much and growing,” Consoli said. “This particular day has really been a lifesaver to bring all these services to Saybrook for our residents… and all under one roof.”
Consoli also has computers set up to help individuals register for food stamps, HUSKY health insurance, state and energy assistance grants.
“On days like this we are really able to streamline our services and serve so many more people than I can do alone in my office,” Consoli said.
Although many in the state think of the shoreline as primarily a wealthy area, Consoli said there is a large and growing elderly population living on fixed incomes that need help.
“A lot of elderly are eligible for food stamps and other services, but not signed up. It takes a lot to convince them that they deserve these services, that they don’t need to give up their spot for a family or children,” Consoli said. “They come from a ‘tough-it-out’ generation.”
Consoli said that there are also families that come to town and are living in motel rooms and academic rentals in the beach communities so that their children can attend better schools.
“Do you know what those folks do when they get priced out in the summer? They go camping, they live outside all summer,” Consoli said.
Since Consoli became director, the number of people seeking social services has grown from 100 cases in 2012, to 1,000 in 2019. Since that time, Consoli has continued to see more and more people coming in her door.
“Part of that is we’ve done better outreach. We are very connected to the community and we let people know about anything that is of value that could help them. But even so, the trend is rising,” Consoli said.
According to Consoli, providing social services in Old Saybrook, instead of bus passes to services in Hartford or Middletown, has made an enormous difference for younger adults and families. The regional location for services in Middletown is otherwise a 30-minute drive and no longer on the local bus route.
“A trip to the employment office could be an all-day affair,” Consoli said. “For a mom that has to take her kids to school and pick them up, that isn’t possible.”
The closest state office, when it comes to job training and employment opportunities, is located in Meriden.
Social service days always host the Connecticut Food Bank truck, but the indoor services rotate to address a new area of need each month, Consoli said. For example, in January social services focused on job training and employment opportunities.
The event helps residents in Old Saybrook find better job opportunities — including work as a truck driver and nursing assistant training — without having to leave town, said Darlena Young, a representative for America Job Center.
Other days it’s a dental clinic, back to school supplies, gardening lessons, plant giveaways, and winter clothes events.
In addition to actually assisting those in need, the social services days also serve to make everyone in town more aware of the problems.
“The great part about these days is that volunteers come to realize that there are ways they can help and there are people in need right here,” Consoli said. “This is my encore career. For years, I got up, went to work, came home and didn’t see any of this. I didn’t know about the need. I wasn’t a bad person, I just didn’t know about it. When volunteers come and see this, they understand and they want to help.”