P2P cel­e­brates 50 years

Non­profit agency for those in need had ori­gins in the civil rights era

The Norwalk Hour - - FRONT PAGE - By Ta­tiana Flow­ers

NOR­WALK— Af­ter Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was as­sas­si­nated on April 4, 1968, a group of parish­ioners met at St. Luke’s Epis­co­pal Church in Darien to ex­press con­cern about grow­ing civil rights is­sues.

The Rev. Robert Nel­son Back was head of the church at the time and had at­tended sem­i­nary with Martin Luther King Jr. Dur­ing meet­ings, he and mem­bers of the church dis­cussed ways to re­spond to the rocky so­cial jus­tice cli­mate. One way they chose to re­act was by form­ing Per­son-To-Per­son.

“They got to­gether, read books and had meet­ings,” said Ceci Ma­her, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor at Per­son-to-Per­son (P2P), a non­profit that of­fers emer­gency as­sis­tance to peo­ple in the Greater Nor­walk area.

At its start, P2P be­gan ed­u­cat­ing the com­mu­nity about poverty and in­jus­tice while of­fer­ing free food and cloth­ing to those in need. Within a year, Ma­her said, ser­vices ex­panded to pro­vid­ing emer­gency fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance, camp pro­grams and col­lege schol­ar­ships — some­thing it is still do­ing to this day.

“The whole idea is to cre­ate sta­ble com­mu­ni­ties, to keep chil­dren in schools and keep fam­i­lies in their homes,” Ma­her said. “The whole idea be­ing, we want fam­i­lies and chil­dren to thrive.”

Vol­un­teers and staff are cel­e­brat­ing 50 years of ser­vice this year. In the past half cen­tury, the or­ga­ni­za­tion ex­panded out

of Darien and now has lo­ca­tions in Nor­walk, Darien and Stam­ford with a walkin op­tion in all but Stam­ford.

On Wed­nes­day morn­ing, vol­un­teers at the Nor­walk site sorted through boxes and placed food onto shelves while clients pe­rused the aisles, choos­ing from fresh pro­duce, legumes, juices and other items. Re­cep­tion­ists of­fered cof­fee to peo­ple who waited at the front of the build­ing to be ser­viced. The .

“We help 25,000 peo­ple per year with food and cloth­ing and fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance,” said Ma­her, who ex­plained the or­ga­ni­za­tion has 24 staff and 4,000 vol­un­teers.

Be­sides pro­vided food, each year the non­profit sends 100 peo­ple to col­lege on a $25,000 bud­get and 450 stu­dents to lo­cal camps each sum­mer.

About 50 per­cent of stu­dents at­tend in-state schools and the other half leave Con­necti­cut. Clients have grad­u­ated from Nor­walk Com­mu­nity Col­lege, Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti­cut and Western Con­necti­cut State Uni­ver­sity to name a few. Most of P2P’s clients live in lower Fair­field County, in Stam­ford, Darien, Nor­walk, New Canaan, Wil­ton, West­port and We­ston, Ma­her said.

P2P is a com­mu­ni­ty­sup­ported agency, with 3 per­cent of its fund­ing com­ing from the city of Nor­walk, Stam­ford and the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency. About 50 per­cent comes from in­di­vid­u­als do­nat­ing food, cloth­ing and money. The re­main­der comes from com­mu­nity fundrais­ing events and grants, Ma­her said.

“We re­ally de­pend on vol­un­teers,” she said. “We have vol­un­teers who have been com­ing here for 25, 30 years be­cause they feel as though they’re mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in the com­mu­nity, and they truly are.”

Honey Sec­chi has been a vol­un­teer in Nor­walk for 14 years. Ini­tially, she thought to do­nate one week­end of her time. But clients and vol­un­teers have made her stay.

“I just find it’s a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence,” she said. “That’s what I keep com­ing back for.”

Some clients have told her they don’t know how they would sur­vive with­out the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s ser­vices and oth­ers have said they used to do­nate to P2P but are now on the re­ceiv­ing end.

Most clients are work­ing peo­ple with minim wage jobs, liv­ing in one of the most ex­pen­sive real es­tate and hous­ing mar­kets in the coun­try, Ma­her said.

“We’re just help­ing peo­ple get over that rough patch,” the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor. “In 13 years of be­ing here, I can count on one hand how many times we were know­ingly taken ad­van­tage of. Peo­ple who have used the ser­vices in the past have come back to pay it for­ward.”

Naima Daniels has re­ceived ser­vices for a year. She moved to Nor­walk from the Bronx be­cause she couldn’t find fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance or food ser­vices in New York.

“There weren’t enough ser­vices there. When you do find them it’s such a run around that you just get a headache try­ing to find the ser­vices,” she said. “It’s not like that here. Peo­ple help you here.”

Each month she’s el­i­gi­ble for fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance and can re­ceive one week’s worth of food when she needs it. When P2P is not equipped to help clients, they of­fer re­fer­rals to out­side so­cial ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tions.

“So far they’ve helped me a lot. They’re help­ing me every month so I know they’re help­ing thou­sands of peo­ple,” Daniels said.

A small per­cent­age of clients are per­ma­nently dis­abled or have men­tal health is­sues, but most clients have ex­pe­ri­enced “sit­u­a­tional crises that gen­er­ally re­solve over time,” Ma­her said.

Many fam­i­lies start out us­ing P2P’s ser­vices reg­u­larly but af­ter four or five years, most move on to not need­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s help. Some clients may come in episod­i­cally af­ter that four- or five-year marker, but most will not rely on the or­ga­ni­za­tion reg­u­larly, Ma­her said. And that’s Per­son-To-Per­son’s mis­sion: to move clients to­ward sta­bil­ity.

Alex von Kley­dorff / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Per­son-to-Per­son Ex­ec­u­tive Di­rec­tor Ceci Ma­her sorts through do­nated clothes at the non­profit agency’s Darien lo­ca­tion on Thurs­day. P2P of­fers emer­gency as­sis­tance and ba­sic needs to fam­i­lies as they move to­ward fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity.

Alex von Kley­dorff / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Per­son 2 Per­son Chief Op­er­at­ing Of­fi­cer El­iz­a­beth Finn un­packs boxes of do­nated food from Whole Foods Thurs­day for the pantry at their Darien lo­ca­tion.

Per­son 2 Per­son vol­un­teer Patty Cun­ning­ham of Darien sorts chil­drens clothes dropped off in Darien Thurs­day.

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