Who keeps Wilton safe? Police officers, firefighters, EMTs, nurses, and doctors are all praised for their service, but another unsung Wilton hero is on the frontlines as well, protecting Wilton’s children in a myriad of often unrecognized and intangible ways.
For the past 26 years, Colleen Fawcett has spent every workday weaving a safety net for Wilton’s children and teens in her role as the Wilton Youth Services coordinator with Wilton Social Services. In her work, she has strived to make sure no Wilton child or teen suffers in silence, by tackling the institutional, systemic, and personal barriers that create a need for and prevent people from seeking mental health treatment.
This past Friday, Aug. 14, Fawcett retired from her long-held role, concluding a chapter that changed the way this community discusses, acts on, and regards mental health. Her collaborative and personal efforts to fortify the mental well being of the community have not gone unnoticed, and colleagues say she is a force that will be missed.
“She has a heart a gold for kids and for the community in the sense that the longevity that she stayed on this long,” Wilton Youth Council President Ginna Yerall said of her long-time friend. “She just really cares about the needs of the schools and the student population and Wilton.”
Fawcett’s Tireless Work
Whether through counseling children one-on-one, securing grants for additional staffing or program needs, collecting data about mental health in schools, or creating programming in the community, Fawcett tirelessly fought to keep Wilton’s most vulnerable community members safe and conquer barriers that have prevented people from getting help.
According to Genevieve Eason, executive director of the Wilton Youth Council, Fawcett’s work as a “calm and steady leader” is often behind-the-scenes, no matter how instrumental it was to making change.
“Colleen has never sought the spotlight, so many people probably don’t realize the impact that she has had in Wilton,” Eason told GOOD Morning Wilton. “Over the last two and half decades, Colleen has been critical to creating and sustaining a strong mental health safety net for children and youth in Wilton.”
Her career path in public health immediate or planned. While Fawcett said she “always” had working with children as her one goal, she first became a private school teacher upon graduating from college. However, it wasn’t long before she noticed the existence of persistent barriers that prevented too many of her students from learning at all–a problem she couldn’t ignore.
“A lot of my students would come to me with some pretty significant problems…that were going on in their personal lives or in their home lives that were sort of getting in the way of their [learning],” Fawcett said. The realization reinvigorated her goal–not just to teach kids, but to take a broader, more holistic approach to help them learn more easily.
As Fawcett worked to get her degree in social work from Columbia University, she interned and eventually worked for Kids in Crisis in Greenwich, a crisis intervention service. Yerall, who first met Fawcett as a co-worker there, and admired her natural talent at that early stage in Fawcett’s career.
“She just is a very relaxed, very calm, very knowledgeable, just so great at what she does,” Yerall said. “If I have to turn to people in my field that I need to run something by or speak to, she’s somebody that I would always turn to.”
Soon after that, Fawcett applied for an opening as WYS coordinator and with a “leap of faith” accepted the job. “I was thrilled,” Fawcett said. But it wasn’t easy.
“When I first got the job I had a phone, and no computer and a lot of the work was through phone and in the field,” Fawcett said. “[I was] moving around the community a lot, visiting people, keeping in touch with what the resources were, [and] talking to people about what the [mental health] needs were.”
She discovered those mental health needs were great. In her coordinator position, Fawcett collaborated with many individuals and organizations on addressing and tackling the priority needs of the town. From the start, she worked closely with the non-profit Wilton Youth Council, which then was all volunteer-run. According to Eason, Fawcett played a role in “almost every WYC program.”
Fawcett’s early work created programs around parent education, as well as PeerConnection, Youth to Youth and PeerVention, programs that empower teens to build skills to protect their mental wellbeing, the conviction to remain substance-free, and the tools to help recognize when others need help.
Vanessa Elias, past president of Wilton Youth Council and facilitator for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said that Fawcett’s influence on WYC programs was critical, both in terms of her clinical experience and her work to secure grants to ensure the viability of the programs despite the WYC’s “shoestring budget.”
Local Advocacy – Information, Education, and Action
In addition to collaborating with local organizations, Fawcett’s job was also “ensuring that there was a safety net of mental health services for kids.” In that “net,” Fawcett was tasked with both identifying where the holes were through data collection, and then repairing those holes by educating parents and the community, and working with community partners so no child would go on suffering.
“We try to address the needs usually using a three-pronged approach, which would be: getting information to the community, getting information and skills to parents, and then working directly with youth with all partners, [including] the school, the community, the [Wilton YMCA and] the library,” Fawcett said.
She had a direct impact.
For example, after observing an increase in school absences and other clues in her counseling work, Fawcett advocated for Wilton High School to conduct a survey focused on mental health. Dr. Suniya Luther was brought in to survey over 1,200 High Schoolers in November of 2017, revealing “worrisome” levels of anxiety and substance abuse among WHS students. This research launched Wilton into action, with the district increasing its social-emotional resources and the town hosting a number of talks. The survey was also highlighted in a 2018 NPR segment entitled “The Perils of Pushing Kids Too Hard, and How Parents Can Learn to Back Off.”
Fawcett has also worked to help kids from a systemic perspective. Recently, she worked to help individuals with Husky insurance who had previously struggled to get coverage for mental health care, by identifying how clinicians could qualify as eligible to become Husky providers. Her advocacy and research increased the number of local clinicians who accepted that insurance in the town, opening up the care options for countless Wiltonians.
Moreover, Fawcett secured a United Way Grant, which allowed the social services department to authorize three free sessions for families to get started with counseling. This resource was her creative way to solve the problem of some individuals’ reluctance to enter into treatment because of financial pressures–enabling them to get the help they needed.
Her work was not only centered around intervention but prevention as well. Through countless innovative efforts, Fawcett worked not only to tackle existing problems but also to address the conditions that allowed poor mental health to thrive.
Through “upstream” intervention, Fawcett worked to implement programs and initiatives to the town that empower kids with social-emotional skills before the onset of mental illness. After noticing an increase in children coming to her with anxiety, depression, and OCD related disorders at younger ages, in 2015 she was instrumental in bringing to Wilton GoZen!, an after school program that empowers children to manage their emotions and stress. Since this past January, the program has helped over 200 kids, clearly filling a need in the town.
More recently, her work in leading Wilton Youth Council’s Freeplay Matters Task Force encouraged Wilton parents to give their children more freedom in how they play, based on research that free play is necessary in the development of essential social-emotional skills. The effort garnered national attention on PBS News Hour, as well as in a book and documentary film that will highlight the movement.
Connections–What She Means to the Community
While the national attention is certainly significant, what means most to Fawcett is what happens one-on-one, when she makes connections with clients.
“My favorite piece of the job really was when clients would come in and be brave enough to open up and trust me with some of their most challenging and secret troubles,” Fawcett said. “I’m really just in awe what people are able to overcome.”
This feeling is reciprocal. Fawcett recounted getting a message from a client years after their treatment, who is now a successful teacher. “She reached out to me and she told me that I saved her life,” Fawcett emotionally reflected.
On her last day, Fawcett’s co-worker handed her a stack of letters, messages, and cards that had been collected from local community members touched by Fawcett’s work. These notes are a testament to her wide-reaching impact.
“She is an absolute treasure trove of resources for families,” Elias said, who recalled personally turning to Fawcett when her own family needed support.
“Her intentions are always good and they’re always for the other person. There’s no power-grabbing, no ego, she really doesn’t have any of those [qualities],” Elias added. “Everything she does is for the well being of the person sitting across from her or on the other end of the line.”
Working in the mental health field for as long as Fawcett has is a unique task. According to Yerall, it requires a significant amount of strength, selflessness, and patience, which she says her friend has borne with grace for years, to the benefit of countless Wilton kids.
“She just has been able to handle the ups and downs, whether it’s 9/11 or COVID or the crisis of [teen] drinking and the stress and Wilton,” Yerall said. “I think being in this profession as I am that if you’re somebody that is going to get stressed out and high strung you can’t really do this for long because it doesn’t work.”
Her WYS coordinator position has yet to be filled, but Wilton Youth Council’s Eason said that no matter who will follow in Fawcett’s footsteps will find a community ready to “catch our kids if they fall,” from any challenge they face, due largely to Fawcett. It’s a culture that has personally made Eason proud to say she’s from Wilton, a town that “has a reputation for really investing in the mental health and wellbeing of our kids,” because of Fawcett’s work.
Although she’s retiring from Wilton, Fawcett will still be working in her private practice, building connections with people, as well as continuing her professional growth by becoming a certified mental health integrative medicine provider. Beyond that, she plans to devote time to her garden, her family, and her loved ones.
“In my experience, Wilton has been a community where our most vulnerable are supported and lifted up in times of trouble,” Fawcett said. “I’m proud to have been a part of that and I have total faith that Wilton will continue to be that community.”