People In Your Neighborhood: Deirdre Houlihan DiCara, Executive Director of Friends in Service to Humanity of NW CT (aka FISH)

This is the second of an ongoing series of community profiles from The Winsted Phoenix. If you would like to suggest someone from the community to feature for this series email us at winstedphoenix@gmail.com

People In Your Neighborhood: Deirdre Houlihan DiCara, Executive Director of Friends in Service to Humanity of NW CT (aka FISH)

Where do you reside?
I am a lifetime resident of Winchester.

What do you enjoy about Winsted?
I have balanced my life between Winsted and Torrington. Living on the hilltop in Winchester, my car heads in either direction. My parents instilled in their four daughters a great sense of community service and volunteerism – and I’m fortunate to be active in both communities. I graduated from The Gilbert School, and Wheaton College with a degree in Urban Studies. Returning to my hometown, I served as the chairman of the Laurel City Commission, producing with a great volunteer team the Laurel Festival for generations of families for sixteen years.

I currently serve as treasurer of the Susan M. B. Perry Senior Housing project, for which I date back to the beginning with the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) application in 2000. I also serve as the Vice President of the Winsted Health Center Foundation. In Torrington, I currently serve on the boards of the Torrington Historical Society and New Beginnings – overseeing the Gathering Place homeless drop-in center. I’ve been an active Torrington-Winsted Area Rotarian, for which we enjoy organizing the annual Pet Parade. I believe the time spent volunteering truly brings joy, and positively enriches my own life.

How long have you been with FISH?
In 2013, seven years ago, I assumed the leadership of FISH/Friends in Service to Humanity of NWCT, as Executive Director. I believe this role, of serving our homeless and hungry neighbors in need in Litchfield County, is my true life calling.

Why do you think your job is important to people?
Pre-Coronavirus, in the best of times with our dedicated staff and volunteers, we maintain a 35 bed homeless shelter located in Torrington – last year serving 101 individuals, families, and Veterans. Our goal is to find permanent supportive housing for our Shelter residents so that they may successfully have a fresh start. We do our best to make everyone’s stay in the shelter as pleasant as can be, and that a resident’s stay may just be a blip on their radar.

Our shelter residents receive meals, bedding, mental health and medical assistance, and GED classes if needed. We also assist with job searches and collaborate with NWCT Community College to encourage residents to enroll in vocational training classes. And at the FISH Food Pantry, we distributed enough food to provide 113,841 meals to 1506 people/657 families last year.

How has FISH been impacted by Covid 19?
When the pandemic hit the world knew we were in a global crisis. Immediately, I thought how will we remain healthy, keeping our doors open, working on front line services for those who depend on us? How will I fund the organization, and need to purchase food as life shut down, as we usually depend on donations? And my greatest fear – how will we keep the FISH Homeless Shelter staffed if staff falls ill? With medical advice, we have rearranged the dorm rooms to social distance, created isolation areas, and developed our “Team Stay Healthy” protocols. We continue to provide hope and build morale. And some weeks we find ourselves stretched with the addition of area residents who are furloughed or have lost their jobs and have families in need.

Yet I’ll share we have been blessed with many angels and heroes who have miraculously appeared during the pandemic! I use Facebook regularly to share the good deed stories – there are mask makers; health care providers who helped rearrange the Shelter’s sleeping areas and advised me on health and safety protocols; amazing financial donors; friends, church and civic groups, along with organizations, businesses and Food Rescue US who have delivered grocery donations and gift cards for the FISH Food Pantry; the Litchfield Distillery has donated their collected financial contributions to FISH as they distributed free hand sanitizer to the public; there have been weeks of life-saving donated meals to the shelter, and at the worst of times in the spring – hearts and rainbow pictures from children to decorate our walls. There have been so many shining in their goodness and generosity, and we are extremely thankful.

Any other thoughts?
Even with the pandemic rates scarily growing, we know we need to help families in need, and we are currently running our 6th annual “Rally to End Hunger and Homelessness in NWCT” Coat Giveaway on Saturday, Nov. 20 and Sunday, Nov. 21 at Joseph’s House at 116 Water Street in Torrington. Any extra coats are distributed through the Open Door in Winsted. We are also pleased with the flow of generosity in our NWCT communities to assist us with our annual Thanksgiving and Christmas meal giveaways, and our toy program. And, we are doing our best to provide holidays for our folks residing in the FISH Shelter. Truly, our hearts are warm and filled with hope, as we give thanks to the many in our communities making generous donations to our FISH NWCT programs, so that we may serve and bring some joy to those in need.

For more information about FISH go to the organization’s website at www.fishnwct.org or www.facebook.com/fishnwct.org.

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Winsted resident Erica Taylor wrote for several years for The Winsted Journal and studied Journalism at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.