Six years ago, Providencia “Angie” Astacio fell on hard times, was left with little hope, and ended up homeless. Her cousin took her to LifeBridge Community Services’ Community Closet in Bridgeport, Connecticut in search of clothes and other provisions. Neither of them had any idea how significant the Community Closet would be in rebuilding Astacio’s life.
LifeBridge is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “empower people in the Greater Bridgeport area to build a brighter future.” The organization links innovative programs to strengthen personal capability, develop skills, and build a pathway to economic self-sufficiency.
LifeBridge (formerly known as FSW Inc.) was founded in 1849. At that time, its mission was humble: to aid small groups of people, namely widows and orphans. But throughout the years new programs were implemented to expand their reach.
The Community Closet Program was one such program. It was developed in 1991 to help the disadvantaged of Greater Bridgeport secure clothing, diapers, school supplies, and small household essentials. It was initially developed and ran by the UJA Federation of Eastern Fairfield County, but was moved into the basement of LifeBridge in 1993; until, finally, in 2013, LifeBridge took over the operational responsibility and integrated it into their Economic Empowerment Program – one of LifeBridge’s four core programs that are used to make-up a comprehensive plan of services for each individual client. (The other three core programs are Youth Services, Behavioral Health, and Social Enterprises.)
It was the tangible supplies Astacio was after when she first visited the Closet years ago, but she ended up with so much more. “My cousin and I didn’t know about all the other services they provided, or that it would become a permanent thing in my life. I started as a shopper and I really liked what they did, so I started volunteering,” explained Astacio. “Later I became a sorter [sorting clothes], then I became a data entry person, and then a translator.”
Astacio has not only found a renewed sense of purpose at the Closet as both a shopper and a volunteer, but the program has also helped her develop valuable life and job skills. Today, she is a supervisor volunteer at the Closet, works a part-time job on the weekends, and continues to take training programs at LifeBridge, receiving certificates and badges of completion that help her in her job search. She was also able to see a therapist at the center when she first arrived, which she said helped her in many ways.
“[LifeBridge] has encouraged me to believe in myself and believe that I can do things,” Astacio explained. “Every day that you do things that you love and you succeed, it helps. It has helped me to stop doubting myself, and have confidence that if I try and fail, I can try again.”
LifeBridge is successful in aiding thousands of people and families every year and has become known as a leader among social service agencies. LifeBridge states on their website that the community “defines the need. LifeBridge delivers the programs to meet the need.”
Today, many of those needs are being defined by the Latino community. Each year approximately 10,000 shoppers visit the Closet; 56 percent of those are Latino.
Last year, (even though it was out of service for eight weeks due to the flood) the Closet saw 6,165 shopping visits, welcomed 2,161 families, received 1,341 donations from 907 donors, including 114,166 disposable diapers, which were distributed to 319 families for 369 children.
Eileen Brennan, Manager of Communications and Marketing at LifeBridge, said that the large number of Latinos visiting the Closet is a reflection of the community. “The percentage of clients who are Latino is representative of those who live in the area. Ideally the way to reduce the number of people who need basic needs services is to help them achieve greater self-sufficiency through better jobs, small business creation and the knowledge and skill to prepare for and cope with the inevitable financial instability that is part of life for low and moderate income people.”
Today, with the Latino population in Bridgeport continuing to increase, LifeBridge is adjusting to the need by adapting their services to cater to Latinos, such as seeking bilingual volunteers who can speak Spanish.
“Many of our volunteers (probably 50 percent) speak Spanish,” said Andrew Geisert, the Director of Economic Empowerment Program and overseer of the Closet. “The need for Spanish speaking volunteers is more acute for other programs where we don’t have enough bilingual volunteers.”
Although Astacio is Latino, she says she doesn’t read or write Spanish, though she is able to adequately speak it. In her position as translator she never misses a chance to encourage shoppers to learn English.
“Besides just being hard times, there are many other reasons a lot of Latinos show up here,” said Astacio. “Many of them don’t know English, or they are afraid they might get deported, or there are things here that they don’t know how to deal with — they don’t know how to cope with a situation. Let’s say if they get robbed, or if they get conned into signing something and they don’t know English, how are they going to take care of that?
“I tell little kids, ‘The next time you come in I want to know that you read a book! And when you get back I want you to tell me what your story was about.’ And the kids remember, and they come back and tell me their story.”
“Many of our Latino families are new to the area or country,” added Brennan. “The Community Closet is a critical service that helps stabilize our clients and meets some of their most pressing needs. A recent immigrant or someone who has lost their possessions due to a fire or eviction needs to focus on obtaining shelter, food, and clothing before they can contemplate taking further steps towards greater financial stability or advancement.”
Astacio says she has noticed that a good percentage of the Latinos that come in are from places farther away like Colombia, Honduras, and Ecuador.
“I am not sure that I would say Latino’s come more than another group,” Geisert said, “but it can be a close-knit group and there is a lot of word of mouth referrals to the Closet. We get referrals of new immigrants from the International Institute that’s a couple blocks away and it seems like once one person knows about the Closet they send their family and friends.”
Astacio says the Closet is a place that is very inviting, and that anyone of any nationality is welcome, “and if I don’t know the language they speak, I will find a way to know what they are saying in order to make sure they get the services or information they need.” As an example she described a recent encounter with a family from the Congo that spoke Swahili and how she used Google Translate to communicate before an interpreter could be found.
“They started laughing they were so happy I could help them,” she recalled. “It’s amazing when you can help them out and can listen to them, because everyone needs to be understood. And while I didn’t understand what they were saying when they were leaving, I did understand the smiles.”
Astacio says she was scared when she first came to the Closet, as she had gone through a lot up to that point. But she quickly realized that they were there to help.
Now Astacio wants others to understand that: “We are here to help. I am happy to pay it forward, because that’s what you do, you help the next person in your life. [The Closet] is like a big family. We all share. We all care about each other. There are some volunteers that have been here for 14 years. It’s not just a Community Closet, it’s a community family.”
The Community Closet is actively recruiting to fill the volunteer position of Community Closet Supervisor to supervise volunteers, oversee the acceptance of incoming donations, maintain the general upkeep of the shopping area, assist customers and perform other general supervisory and administrative duties, 4 to 10 hours per week.
Position requirements include outstanding administrative and supervisory skills, ability to work in a dynamic environment, cooperative, dependable, honest and ability to work well with a variety of people. Bilingual skills are preferred.
The Community Closet is also actively recruiting part-time volunteers to perform a variety of key functions. Volunteer responsibilities may include greeting donors, receiving and sorting incoming donations, maintaining the general upkeep of the shopping area, providing tax receipts, and assisting customers, as needed. Volunteers may supervise other volunteer staff and assist with general administrative duties such as answering the phone and data entry. The responsibilities will depend on the needs of the Community Closet and the volunteer’s interest, skills and experience.
Individuals must possess concern for others and be cooperative, dependable, able to tolerate stress, maintain self-control and work well with a variety of people. Bilingual skills are a plus. The work of the Community Closet is very rewarding in itself but, volunteers will have the opportunity to utilize or develop skills in customer service, office technology, and working in a dynamic group environment.
Interested individuals are encouraged to complete a LifeBridge Volunteer Application Form and send to volunteer@LifeBridgeCT.org or, mail it to the LifeBridge Volunteer Coordinator, 475 Clinton Avenue, Bridgeport CT 06605.
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