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Norwich — Debbie Kievits was a shy single parent of two young boys in 2000 when she become president of the Bishop School PTO and didn't know how to challenge threats to close the school.
Then she met Beverly Goulet, the longtime city Human Services director who had just helped launch a new parent leadership program.
Since then, Kievits has become one of Norwich's loudest voices of advocacy for children, low-income families, homeless people and anyone else who feels as helpless as she felt in the beginning. She credits Goulet and her leadership class with getting her started.
Stories like these about Goulet, who retired in June after 29 years as Norwich Human Services director, are commonplace in the Rose City.
Her staff and community leaders are organizing a retirement gala in her honor to be held Aug. 1 in Salon D at the Mohegan Sun.
Goulet repeatedly thanked and praised her staff for the success of innovative programs ranging from job training to emergency responses and efforts to reduce the city's homeless population. Norwich Human Services was among the first agencies to eliminate its winter homeless shelter and concentrate on finding people permanent housing.
From Nov. 1, 2013, through May, the agency screened 131 people, diverted 60 of them from shelters to other housing and referred 65 to shelters. Only a handful remained in a shelter, as case managers worked to find many of them permanent housing.
Norwich Human Services coordinates a Housing Management Team with representatives from city agencies and private social services discussing specific people, addresses and problems. The agency's Safety Net Team does the same to address poverty.
"The team effort is so important," Goulet said. "Get the state agencies there. Address the problems. It's all about relationships. There's always going to be loners, but people have to work together."
That philosophy played out perfectly in the aftermath of one of the city's worst fires. The 120-unit Peachtree Apartments burned to the ground April 26, 2008, displacing 150 people, many of them on fixed incomes, their belongings and vital documents destroyed.
Goulet's office mobilized and became the central clearinghouse to get residents replacement prescriptions, driver's licenses, military documents and Social Security cards. Social workers collected donations and contacted landlords to find them new homes.
Two years later, Pastor Estime Jozile of First Haitian Baptist Church of Norwich saw the results of Goulet's ability to pull agencies and public support together. With an estimated 5,000 Haitians living in Norwich, the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake that devastated Haiti hit the Rose City hard.
Norwich Human Services organized a committee, with state, federal and local officials and church leaders to help local Haitians contact loved ones, help Haitian visitors get extended visas to stay here longer and collect money and supplies to send to Haiti.
"She did an awesome job," Jozile said. "She is somebody that's always, always willing and happy to help when it comes to someone in need. She's always, always happy to do that."
"It's a very, very important, long-term commitment for our office to help members of the Haitian community get stabilized, find jobs and learn English," Goulet said.
One of the most controversial proposals that still generates criticism and misinformation was Goulet's 1996 plea to the state Department of Social Services that Norwich be allowed to retain local control of the state General Assistance Program. Norwich stood alone in that desire. Goulet still has the proposal and accompanying City Council resolution petitioning DSS Commissioner Joyce Thomas to continue to administer the $1.5 million state-funded benefits program.
People continue to believe that meant Norwich was the only city in Connecticut to still have a local human services department. In reality, there are dozens of city-run human services agencies in Connecticut. The state eventually did take over administration of General Assistance in Norwich.
"Bev believed in local delivery of services," said Lee Ann Gomes, assistant director of Norwich Human Services. "We can meet the client's needs immediately."
Norwich Human Services staff didn't just hand out the checks, but tried to address why a family needed it and whether there were other problems that could be addressed.
The department tackled substandard housing, job training and even fraud and abuse issues.
"The difference was people used to come in and get their checks," said Janice Thompson, who started working at Norwich Human Services one year before Goulet. "Bev said 'Wait a minute. Why do they need the check?'"
Norwich also administered the state Rental Assistance Program, but Goulet insisted on changes. Often, landlords would just take the state assistance money and not bother to collect the required family's share of rent. Goulet required that participating families pay their share.
Goulet and others rejected the argument that poor people move to Norwich because Norwich Human Services does such a great job providing services. Abundant, cheap housing and low-paying jobs brings people to the city, Goulet said. And many of the department's clients are longtime Norwich residents.
"We're the most impacted city by the casinos," Goulet said. "People have been doing this for decades, moving to cities where they can get jobs."
What: Retirement Gala for Norwich Human Services Director Beverly Goulet
When: Friday, Aug. 1, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Where: Mohegan Sun, Salon D
Tickets: $40 per person.
Ticket deadline: Friday, July 25.
Contact: Norwich Human Services at (860) 823-3782.