Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Person of the Week

Laurie Heflin: A Neighbor Who Helps Neighbors


In the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, Laurie Heflin founded the Neighbor to Neighbor program, a discretionary fund within the Madison Foundation that responds to the financial and material crises faced by Madison residents and serves as a safety net for Madison families when other resources are not available. Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source

In the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, Laurie Heflin founded the Neighbor to Neighbor program, a discretionary fund within the Madison Foundation that responds to the financial and material crises faced by Madison residents and serves as a safety net for Madison families when other resources are not available. (Photo by Maria Caulfield/The Source | Buy This Photo)

It happens repeatedly, albeit with one variation or another: An elderly woman realizes she needs to keep the heat going but lacks the money to make sure her home stays warm throughout winter. A man juggles keeping his household intact while working at his job, watching over the children, and caring for his wife who is dying of cancer. A husband throws his wife out of their home, drains their bank account, and abandons his duty to provide for their children.

These are some of the people suffering, not in some squalid neighborhood in Connecticut, but within the town of Madison.

“There are more stories of husbands leaving, walking out the door and leaving their wife with the children—to fend for herself and the kids, with no financial assistance,” Laurie Heflin says.

In cases such as these, Laurie knows she has to step in to help them with the Neighbor to Neighbor fund.

A program that began in 2008 when the cost of heating oil soared to nearly $4 a gallon, the Neighbor to Neighbor fund is the brainchild of Laurie, who saw how Madison residents were affected by the economic downturn and felt she had to respond to the dire needs of her neighbors.

“During the recession in 2000 and the market crash of 2008, the [Madison] Social Services was overwhelmed with need, and they came to the Madison Foundation with a wish list of ways that the Madison Foundation can help,” Laurie recalls.

But the funds of the Madison Foundation are based on the philanthropic objectives of its donors and, as Laurie relates, “[did] not have a lot of discretionary funds.”

So, Laurie came up with the concept of beginning a discretionary account within the Madison Foundation that would respond to the financial and material needs of Madison residents.

“Neighbor to Neighbor is all about basics,” Laurie says. “You have to have the basics to live, [but] it’s expensive. I went home and I said to my husband, ‘Oh, we can do this. We’ll get a name—Neighbor to Neighbor.’ So, my husband, who likes to support the local community, said, ‘No problem, we’ll start the fund.’”

In the early days, Neighbor to Neighbor also took the abbreviated name, N2N.

A Little Help from Friends

For Laurie to successfully serve the Madison community, she knew she had to do two things: raise funds and call on the help of volunteers. While stocking the Madison food pantry, she came to the realization that the work was bigger than her family.

“We went to Costco, we bought [supplies) at Costco, put them in the car, delivered them to the food pantry, put them on the shelves, (and] took them off weekly to substitute the items. And so, it became quickly very clear: One, you go through money like crazy, and two, this was not a one-family job. This had to be a community-wide effort. And that’s how N2N began. And so, I called all my smartest, my most wonderful friends” to help, she recalls.

One of her volunteers was Caron Avery and her husband John, who have both since passed away. To this day, Laurie is grateful for the generosity and dedication shown by the Averys.

Laurie says that in the first year of the program, Avery went all out preparing for a fundraiser at her home.

“We raised enough money to develop more programs than the food pantry. So, we decided we’d have seasonal programs,” Laurie explains.

With their fundraisers, N2N now helps year-round with its programs: It stocks the food pantry in the fall, provides fuel assistance in the winter, aids in restarting heat service in the spring, and awards camp scholarships in the summer.

N2N is the largest fund of the Madison Foundation and works with the Madison Senior Services and the Madison Youth & Family Services (MYFS) to provide emergency funds, heating oil aid, utility assistance, and camp sponsorships for families in need. Senior Services and MYFS make sure that all recipients first qualify for state aid. N2N funds are a safety net for Madison families when other resources are not available.

Under Laurie’s leadership and with the help of Jack, her husband of 35 years, N2N also assists the Madison Community Services Food Pantry to supply the shelves with basic nonfood items and to deliver goods from the food pantry to homebound individuals.

The impact N2N has had on the Madison community has been both widespread and grassroots. In a 2018 year-end letter of gratitude to supporters, Laurie detailed some of the program’s accomplishments: helping more than 100 families who visit the food pantry by stocking up the shelves with paper goods and basic nonfood items, providing heating oil purchased by N2N and delivered to people’s homes, supplying food and gas cards to families in dire need, and subsidizing lunches to isolated seniors.

In addition, N2N helps women regain their financial footing if their husbands abandon them, a situation Laurie repeatedly sees.

In one case, a man deserted his wife and children and left them with an overdue bill that was sent to collection. Although the mother qualified for the energy program for new deliveries, there was no way to pay for past deliveries totaling close to $600. N2N paid the bill for her.

In another case, a woman needed help to renew her nursing license.

“She gave up nursing when she had her family to raise her kids, and then her husband left,” Laurie remembers. “So, you get more stories like that.

“Not that they couldn’t pay their rent, but their husbands drained their bank accounts,” Laurie explains. “So, we paid $300 [for] nursing aid because a divorced mother had let her license lapse and she didn’t have $300 to renew her nursing license.”

But women are not the only people in need.

“A father raising his children on his own had to hire an attorney to help him get sole custody, due to his wife’s addiction problem. As a result of this expense, he couldn’t pay his rent of $1,800. He figured that with overtime, he could come up with $800, but still needed $1,000. N2N paid the $1,800, so that he could be home with his children,” Laurie says in the same 2018 letter.

Laurie’s dedication to help Madison residents in need caught the attention of other organizations. In 2010, she received the Madison Jaycees Distinguished Service Award. In 2013, she was one of the recipients of Shore Publishing’s inaugural Beacon Award.

As of the end of 2018, N2N had given more than $400,000 in grants to the Madison community. It currently has more than $350,000 in an endowment fund within the Madison Foundation. Its goal is to reach $1 million to ensure that Madison families will continue to receive emergency crisis support in the future.

One fundraiser that N2N continues to hold is a nonevent event. As the name connotes, N2N encourages its donors to stay comfortably in their homes and to help the program simply by sending a donation.

Even as she talks about helping people in their time of need, Laurie says that her charitable work has not been a one-way street.

She says, “The giver gets more than the receiver, in feeling that you are able to change someone’s life for the better. It is such a good feeling.”

“In terms of the Madison community, I just have such a warm feeling about Madison being a very special place full of special people. We would not exist if it weren’t for everybody feeling the same way. Everybody wants to help other people in this community,” she adds.

For more information about the N2N nonevent, contact Laurie Heflin at the Madison Foundation, 203-245-2796.

For more information about N2N, visit www.themadisonfoundation.org/n2n.

To nominate a Person of the Week, send an email to m.caulfield@shorepublishing.com.

Maria Caulfield is the Associate Editor for Zip06. Email Maria at m.caulfield@shorepublishing.com.

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