Wilton’s Ceci Maher Leads Person-to-Person as Compassionate Place for People in Need
This is the first in GOOD Morning Wilton’s ‘Season of Giving’ series. Please keep these worthy organizations we feature in mind as we enjoy the riches of this holiday season.
No one asks to be needy. Thankfully there are those who dedicate themselves to helping people who are in need, whether because they’re in a long-term situation or due to a sudden crisis.
Person-to-Person‘s executive director is Wilton resident Ceci Maher, who, when she started working for P2P in 2005, wondered why there was an arbitrary line on a map, one that restricted the agency from serving people in Norwalk and other areas—including Wilton. But finally within the last year, after a merger with Christian Community Action last November, P2P increased its service area to include Wilton, as well as Norwalk, Westport, New Canaan and Weston.
“Many people who live in the town we live in feel very strongly about helping those who don’t have as much as they. Years ago Person-to-Person couldn’t help families in Wilton, even when people asked about helping a specific family, because it wasn’t in the service area. It was a terrible feeling. Now I can say, ‘Yes, we can help!’ Both in areas around what Wilton Social Services is doing and what they’re not able to do.”
Not only do they have their original headquarters in Darien, P2P renovated the Christian Community Action location on South Main St. in Norwalk and made a center where clients can come to “shop” in a bright, sunny area with shelves of food, refrigerated fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products; they also meet with caseworkers.
“Before the merger, it had a very different model—people came in and took a number and they waited as long as it took to get to the food pantry, which basically was a counter and shelves and people would point to what they wanted or they’d be offered options. And they were doing it in front of everyone. Now clients make an appointment, come in and shop and they’re done in half-an-hour. They shop alongside a volunteer, who helps with a shopping list that’s been developed by a nutritionist to provide seven days of food, three meals a day – 21 meals for the size of a family,” Maher explained.
In addition, she said the agency is equipped to provide financial assistance to clients.
“People can come in, sit with a caseworker in a private setting and talk about what are their issues. We provide funding for security deposits, rent and utility bills, and we work with clients to work out budgets, to try and figure out how they got into the position to begin with and how we can help. After bringing their budgeting paperwork, we can then write the check to the utility, the landlord, whatever. We’re highly responsive and non-bureaucratic: caseworkers can write those checks themselves, without coming to me for approval. We can help people when they need help in situational crises.
Maher said that the need in this area is extremely high, and P2P is one of the most important agencies of its kind in this area, and probably one of the largest.
“We’re seeing anywhere from 30-50 families a day. You can have one person shopping for themselves, or a mom shopping for a family with 3 or 4 kids and a dad. We go through so much food. In one week I think we gave out food for 15,000 meals. It’s incredible. The end of the month tends to be high—the most we’ve gone to I think is 55 families in one day. So far this year we’re on track for giving out $130,000 in financial assistance. We serve about 23,000 people on a yearly basis.”
Of course the holidays will increase the need in very specific ways—the agency will give out 700 turkeys, and collect toys for 400 children in Norwalk and 1,400 children via the Darien location. “In the six weeks between mid-November until the end of December, we serve an additional 3,000 people with all of these extra pieces,” Maher said.
P2P Sees Demand Increasing
Sadly, the need is only on the rise.
“We’re in a very poor neighborhood. But also we are seeing people who are on food stamps, on or below poverty level, and the food need is enormous. And now we’re getting 5-percent cuts in food stamps. It’s taking $36/month away from families that are poor, that’s a lot of money, when food stamps aren’t that much money to begin with.”
One major reason the agency sees people is because of situational or unexpected crises. “We have a very strong feeling about the dignity and respect for every client, because what we learned during the recession was, there but for the grace of God go I. We have many people in Wilton who were affected. We have people who come to use the food pantry who were donors in previous times,” Maher said, adding, “We’re very responsive. When a client calls us they can usually be seen within 24-48 hours.”
She explained why the work P2P does is so crucial, and can make a significant difference. “We’re keeping families in their homes, which prevents eviction. The homeless shelter for families and for women and children is in Stamford. So if we keep a family in their home, the children are staying in their schools. It’s so important, because otherwise they lose their teachers, they lose their friends, they go into a shelter! Plus when they lose their home, they don’t have the money to pay the rent, so they certainly don’t have money to pay for storage which means everything goes on the street, and it’s gone. Those are important things to understand.”
Maher, the Wilton Woman Leading the P2P Team
Maher originally worked in fashion marketing, and has always been very involved in the community since moving to Wilton in 1987. She headed Minks to Sinks, was the president of the Junior League, and served on the Wilton PTA Council. Once her children were a little older, she realized she wanted to do something even more, and enrolled in grad school at Columbia University at age 42 to study social work. Once she got her degree three years later, she took all of her life experience to P2P.
That life experience also included a personal understanding of what it means to lose everything.
“When our daughter was two-and-a-half and our son was three months old, we had a house fire. The house literally, on a scale of 1-10, was a nine. We wound up with these two munchkins, in an apartment for eight months sleeping on mattresses on the floor. We borrowed furniture, we had nothing. It truly speaks to my heart to do this work. As the chairperson of Minks to Sinks, I saw that need too. That’s what we’re doing here at P2P, on a broader scale, year round.”
Now that P2P mission has expanded, it’s been very gratifying to Ceci to know that she can turn to her own hometown to ask for help, knowing how willing and eager many Wilton residents are to help those in need.
“Just the other day the Wilton Woman’s Club donated 18 bags of food. I spoke to them, their focus was children—juices and snacks. We had a gentleman come in here, he was the sole caretaker for his two little girls and he started to cry when he saw that he could bring them juice and afterschool snacks. He certainly couldn’t afford to buy it and he was thrilled. So that’s what I asked the Woman’s Club for. I love Wilton, and it was wonderful to be able to bring the information to the Woman’s Club.”
P2P’s Relationship with Wilton
Maher is pleased to be able to supplement and provide what Wilton is able to offer through Wilton Social Services. “We have started working with Cathy Pierce, the director at Wilton Social Services. Wilton does have a great food pantry and social services department. But sometimes, what we can do is help meet an additional financial need, that may add additional support to a family in Wilton that is facing crisis. Certainly, if Cathy thought a family could come here, we would do that as well.”
She adds that they are always willing to help out, especially around the holidays. “I know that WSS takes care of that for Wilton families but should they ever need more, we are here to help.”
At first glance, some of the towns in the now-wider service range seem unlikely places from where clients will come, Maher says, “Will it ever be the same as Stamford and Norwalk? No, it’s not the same population. But we serve 1-percent of New Canaan and 1-percent of Darien. It’s very likely we’ll end up serving people in poverty in other towns that we’re now helping, including Wilton.”
Given that the demand may not be as high in Wilton for the services that P2P provides, the relationship that P2P will build is one that can work both ways as well. “The casework and furniture resources are also available to families in need, but as well, a family that is looking to get rid of a child’s twin bed, or a small table and chairs, we can pick those up and deliver them directly to a client.”
How People can Give, Get Involved
Of course, one of the easiest and most important ways that people can help support P2P’s mission is by a monetary donation. “Money is very easy. There’s a donate button on P2Phelps.org. Any amount is incredibly helpful and enormously welcome,” Maher said. “If we’re giving out $130,000, that money has to be raised somehow. Or people can donate by sending a check to Person-to-Person, 1864 Post Rd., Darien, CT 06820.”
Another important way to help is through food donations. Maher explained: “Food drives—community drives through any civic organization or group that want to help make a difference. Sometimes Girl Scout troops will give us cookies. Any organization can—independent schools, corporations, public schools, churches—and we are constantly doing food drives. The big thing is often people will buy when they do shop for their own family. When it goes on the shelves, it’s an additional dignity for the client because they get to choose the food their child would eat. One time we had a mom come in and she was thrilled to see Corn Pops. She said, ‘I could never afford Corn Pops.’ So it’s about giving diversity of choice, which is dignity, instead of only coming in to a place with just generics.”
P2P also needs donations of furniture. “People with furniture donations can call 203.939.1650 and just ask for Kathy, who will coordinate pickups and delivery. With furniture, we try to keep things smaller—the apartments and homes our clients live in are not large so a smaller loveseat, not a sectional.”
Similarly, the agency helps their clients with clothing, so apparel donations also go a long way. “We have a clothing center in Darien—we give out about 50,000 bags of free clothes a year. So a clothing drive is great.”
Like any charitable organization, P2P runs on the steam of volunteers–and in the case of this one, about 3,000 people give of their time to help out, but they could always use more people willing to pitch in. “As soon as we went to the self-serve shopping model, volunteers took extra shifts because they enjoyed feeling like they were really making a difference. We’ve had an 85-percent increase in volunteers here. There are so many ways to take part. Most shifts are three hours, you can do it once a week, once a month, whatever.”
Indeed, Maher called the organization one that is very “volunteer driven,” with volunteers taking an active role in running the food pantry and reception, stocking the shelves, picking up food from the Lower Fairfield County Food Bank in Stamford (where they get the bulk of their food), and such. “I can’t speak enough about the good work that this agency does, and it’s really due to the dedication of the volunteers.”
One other very important thing to note, Charity Navigator recently recognized P2P as a “Four-star charity,” largely in part because 95-percent of all donations go to programming. In addition, this is the first year that P2P is connected to the two-year-old campaign called #GivingTuesday, started to follow the Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday campaigns.
All in all, Person-to-Person is a deserving organization, worthy of your consideration and one to keep in mind this holiday season. You can contact them for more information on their website, P2Phelps.org, via email (info@P2Phelps.org) or by calling them at 203.939.1650.