Tammy DeFrancesco: ‘How Can We Help?’
If there’s a single phrase Tammy DeFrancesco has said nearly every day for the past 31 years, it has to be, “How can we help?”
As Tammy prepares to retire as Guilford Social Services (GSS) Director on Jan. 6, 2023, she’s grateful for all of the help GSS has received from those “we” folks – community members, businesses, Town departments, non-profit organizations, groups, civic clubs, churches, schools, families, individual donors, and others — to support services and additional beneficial programs provided to community members.
“I feel like if I don’t mention everyone, I will miss someone. I just want to thank them all. They’ve made it so easy for us to provide assistance, and still do,” says Tammy. “I really couldn’t have done it successfully without them.”
Tammy first joined GSS as a part-time staffer, while still also carrying her part-time Assistant Welfare Director role for the Town of North Branford. At the time, the welfare title was based on work to provide clients with what was termed “municipal general assistance.” Towns were responsible for making welfare provisions for indigents and then were reimbursed by the state for a percentage of the monies. The program has since evolved into state oversight programs.
During the winter seasons of 1989 and 1990, Tammy was hired part-time to assist Guilford’s Welfare Director with the town’s energy assistance programming. Soon thereafter, the full-time director’s position opened up, and Tammy was hired in September 1991. During her job interview, Tammy remembers remarking on the incredible assistance she saw the Guilford community providing for neighbors in need.
“I could see how supportive this community this was,” says Tammy.
That support has helped GSS offerings grow in so many ways over the past three decades, she adds.
“As a department, we can connect [clients] with support such as energy assistance, but it’s that additional support and funding created by the community, for what we call quality of life issues like the Guilford Food Bank or the Guilford Welfare Gift Fund, that has been just tremendous.”
Tammy says that, in Guilford, it really is just a matter of asking for help from the community.
“All you have to do is ask for help, and say you need something – and it’s there.”
Helping GSS Evolve
Like her title, which evolved to become Director of Social Services, the programs which were in place to assist community members 31 years ago have also evolved. No matter the need, a client’s visit to GSS is one that Tammy hopes will also provide peace of mind.
“They are looking for assurance — that they’re not going to lose their house, that they will be able to pay their bills, that life can be a little bit easier than what they’re experiencing at that moment,” says Tammy. “And because a lot of services have been regionalized through the state, it’s really a matter of ‘What do I do, and how do I do it?’ We can help.”
For example, GSS partners with Community Renewal Teams to offer state energy assistance grants, so “...people from Guilford can come here for that, so they don’t have to go to Hartford or Middletown for energy assistance,” Tammy says. “And we care more about the fact that they’re not getting what they need when they need it than if they were competing with all the other residents and all the other towns. We’re advocates for our residents.”
GSS also partners with the state’s Office of Policy and Management (OPM) to provide a rent rebate program for those under 65 or disabled under social security and with Operation Fuel to provide services. GSS partners with utility companies to offer another layer of energy assistance beyond standard programs. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of offerings and services delivered through GSS.
Tammy says the community members who are referred to GSS or reach out on their own for assistance often arrive with one need, but usually can be assisted even further. Thanks to community support and fundraising, GSS can offer programs ranging from Back to School supplies, clothes, and haircuts to Secret Santa gifts and much more.
Under a Big Umbrella
Several GSS-based programs are offered under a big umbrella that Tammy helped to open, such as getting the Guilford Food Bank up and running. Tammy recalls her first years on the job when her one-woman office was situated in Town Hall and the “food bank” was a refrigerator and a shelf in her office.
“Residents would always bring in stock food donations but then, in the ‘90s, the need really took off,” says Tammy, who was soon overwhelmed with donations and demand.
“They gave me a room in the basement of Town Hall for the Food Bank,” says Tammy. “But it was just me in the office and at that point, I was still doing the general assistance program with residents. Meanwhile, people were also knocking on the door for food.”
The Town reached out to Guilford Interfaith Ministries (now Guilford Interfaith Volunteers/GIV) seeking help for the Food Bank program. GIV agreed to develop a partnership with GSS which continues to this day.
Through the years, Guilford Food Bank grew to fill a former Town garage on Boston Street, then moved again to its current location on Stone House Lane. From that point to this one, Tammy has been grateful for GIV’s unyielding support for Guilford Food Bank, and beyond.
“Besides the fact that we partner on the Food Bank, we partner in caring for the individuals that need caring for. If I feel there’s someone who needs a [GIV] Friendly Visitor or the Meals on Wheels program or Charlie’s Closet, all I have to do is pick up the phone. And they, in turn, call me when they have a concern about somebody they’re serving.”
Speaking of Staff
GSS staffing grew slowly during Tammy’s first years on the job, with some part-time staff provided during times of peak needs. Throughout that time, the number of community members seeking assistance began to grow.
By the mid-2000s, Tammy says, “...I went from servicing about 100 households to servicing 400 or 500 households, by myself. That was during the time that was ramping up to the recession [in 2008]. Then, when the recession hit, I went to servicing about 800 to 900 households.”
Tammy’s staff first grew to include one full-time and one-part time member. By 2015, both staffers will full time. About two years ago, a third full-time staff member was added to GSS. The GSS offices also changed locations through the years, moving out of Town Hall and into the Community Center before finally finding its own home building to service clients at the present location, 263 Church St.
Having three full-time professionals on staff in the GSS offices had long been a goal for Tammy.
“I remember saying to someone, I finally had a job where I wasn’t here until 7, 8, 9, 10 o’clock at night,” she says. “The job is never really done. But I love what I do. It was a passion that my family competed with all these years.”
As Tammy knows, “...people’s lives don’t stop.” That means there’s not a family vacation — including a trip to Italy last year — when Tammy has not been contacted with GSS calls or emails to which she’s responded and provided assistance, long-distance.
“My sons have those memories [of] being in Disneyworld and me being on the phone,” Tammy says. “When you’re dealing with other people’s lives, you feel like you owe them something. It’s not just about you. Here I am enjoying myself and somebody isn’t. What can I do to help?”
Tammy thanks her husband, Larry, and their two grown sons, Jason and Evan, for not only their understanding but their help. Everyone in the DeFrancesco family has gladly pitched in to help special GSS programs through the years.
“They were very proud of what I did and they were very helpful,” says Tammy, adding, with a laugh, “... my sons have probably packed more baskets, stocked more shelves, and stuffed more envelopes than anyone.”
That same type of above-and-beyond family support has been shown by GSS staff, past and present – including Danielle Scheltens (now residing in Amsterdam,) Kristen Jones, Gina Blakeslee, and Deborah Foster.
Leaving A Helpful Legacy
While the Town of Guilford’s next GSS Director has not yet been decided upon, Tammy says, “...I’m sure someone else is going to be able to pick up the mantle and do some things that I never thought of doing and that will be great for Guilford.”
Tammy hopes she’s also left a helpful legacy, including what she terms “toolboxes” supporting programs she and GSS staff have helped to deliver to clients. Starting from scratch over the past 31 years, Tammy has set down protocols, practices, and guidelines to make sure the work to provide services is uniform, efficient, and, most importantly, successful. She’s also encouraged her staff to create and build toolboxes of the knowledge and resources they provide to clients.
Tammy says it will also be very difficult to say goodbye to the many clients she’s come to know through the years, and just as difficult to thank all of the clients who have gone on to give back by volunteering to help GSS programs.
“Guilford is a wonderful community to serve,” says Tammy, who also offers a bit of advice for the person who will carry on in her role.
“Definitely listen. Think with your head, and follow with your heart. Always look for something that can help — they may not be eligible for what they want, but look for an alternative that you can tell them about that will make their lives a little bit easier. And always utilize what this wonderful community can offer you.”