DANVERS — A new town employee is bridging the gap in services between the senior center and Danvers' food pantry, and connecting residents in need to resources they never knew were available.

This fall the town teamed up with nonprofit People to People Food Pantry on Sylvan Street to hire the first Assistant Director of Senior and Social Services and Food Pantry Manager Maureen Howlett. 

"This is a private-public partnership, there's no other term for it," Town Manager Steve Bartha said. "We've been able to kind of expand our capacity by partnering with the council. It gives them access to professional resources. They would not have been able to hire someone like Maureen if not for this partnership. We get access to the population that (she) can help access additional services."

Howlett is filling the shoes at the food pantry of Barbara Remon, a major longtime volunteer who recently "retired."

Howlett, who previously worked as a housing manager for the Wakefield Housing Authority, will be paid an annual salary of $65,991. The town and pantry split the cost of her salary; the town funds 25 hours a week that Howlett will spend in senior and social services, and the pantry funds 15 hours a week she spends working for the pantry. 

Since she began her new role on Oct. 1, Howlett has already begun to make changes. She said she's worked to make the pantry more "warm" and "inviting," and clients at the food pantry are now called "shoppers," to preserve their dignity while utilizing the pantry's services.

People to People provides groceries, produce, toiletries, and other household items to Danvers residents in need.

The pantry has 460 registered families, and 220 people "shop" at the pantry an average of twice a month. The pantry has 400-plus visits a month, serving 825 people, or more. Volunteers from the pantry also deliver goods to 25 seniors and disabled people who are unable to leave their homes. 

Howlett has also made plans to bring a brochure rack to the pantry to help connect people with additional services. But even without that, she has been able to connect people of all ages to resources they weren't aware were available to them. She said her role as a town employee keeps her abreast of various programs available, like veterans services.

"Being (at the pantry) on a day-to-day basis and talking to the mothers and fathers...about their needs, some of them have learned about other goods and services in the town we can supply," Howlett said. "By being there and talking to people and getting to know them, especially during the holiday time, I am able to then refer them."

For example, Howlett said she was able to connect a woman in her 20s, who is raising her 5-year-old sister, to resources in veterans services she wasn't aware of. She was able to help a senior citizen, who's a veteran, obtain a much needed mattress to sleep on and oil for his oil tank.

"We were able to pick up the phone and get him oil," Howlett said. "For me, it's great because it's actual cause and effect, active things I can do to help people. And that's just by being at the pantry, it's a hub for a lot of different people."

And vice versa, Howlett has also connected people from the senior center and social services to the pantry.

"Prior to Maureen coming on board...I feel that my ability to do really adequate outreach to the community was really hampered by the fact that I didn't really have anybody to support me in that role," said Pamela Parkinson, the town's director of senior and social services. "So having Maureen, it's just been a perfect marriage. I was doing the stuff Maureen is doing now, but I was doing it from offsite at the senior center. I would have people sent over from the food pantry, almost like nonstop, like a revolving door coming in to ask for help.

"Often times it is by developing a relationship with the client, or the shopper, that she (Howlett) finds out about a need that they didn't realize that somebody in the food pantry could even help them (with)," Parkinson said. "Whether it's health insurance, or whether it's just advocacy."

Howlett will also help the town work towards it's "age-friendly" initiative. 

This initiative comes from the "Age-Friendly Communities" network created by the National Health Organization and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), Parkinson said, and encourages communities to work to make their cities or towns more livable for people of all ages by examining accessibility, transportation, housing, open spaces, civic engagement, social isolation, and other factors.

Parkinson said seniors often simply need a person to advocate for them because they "aren't always confident to speak up for themselves." For instance, she said, a senior may need someone to advocate for them if they have hired a contractor who isn't following through with their work. 

"If they come to us, if we can't do it for them, we help them find a way to get their problem solved," Parkinson said.

Kelsey Bode can be reached at 978-338-2660 or kbode@salemnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsey_Bode.

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