Innovation Destination Hartford spoke with Hands On Hartford Executive Director Barbara Shaw and Communications Manager Kate Shafer, about the many ways the organization is making a positive impact in Hartford.
INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: The first iteration of Hands On Hartford was started in the late 1960s. How has the program evolved over the years?
BARBARA SHAW: We were formed in 1969 as Center City Churches. A group of churches was seeing a huge economic shift in Hartford at that time and there was a community need. So they came together to figure out ways to meet that need in a way that wouldn’t be duplicative, where they could share resources and bring different groups together to figure out what were the most important needs at the time.
While we certainly shifted and changed our programming, our name, and our location over these almost 50 years, these underlying concepts still of drive our work.
KATE SHAFER: We have our basic mission of helping people in the areas of food and housing and economic security, but we’re always reevaluating what we’re doing and thinking of ways to do it better.
From the beginning, Hands On Hartford has been constantly innovating and reinventing the ways in which we implement the same mission, looking at what’s the need and trying to be flexible in ways of responding to that need.
IDH: Tell us about the organization’s overall mission and the impact Hands On Hartford has had on the community and the economy.
BS: Hands On Hartford is unique in that we are an affiliate of the HandsOn Network, which is part of the national organization, Points Of Light. A big section of our work is about engaging volunteers to serve through our program but also to serve through other nonprofits and parks and schools as well as through customized service projects and service learning.
At the same time, we serve neighbors through direct service programs aimed at addressing issues of hunger, homelessness, and economic insecurity, which is really rare for a HandsOn Network affiliate.
And then, underlying it all, is our desire to connect communities within Hartford—different folks from different economic situations, people from the suburbs and people here in the city. We share stories of people who struggle with poverty or homelessness and make sure they’re connecting with folks who can understand the issues and make a difference.
Those are our three interlocking focuses: serving neighbors, engaging volunteers, and connecting communities.
In terms of the impact that we see, the driving force is addressing and ameliorating the negative impacts of poverty and then coming at it from those different places.
KS: We do a lot of work here that other soup kitchens, food pantries, and homelessness programs do, which is giving people food when they’re hungry, helping them find housing when they aren’t housed, and helping them maintain their housing. But, we have some specific ways of going about our work.
And one of those initiatives, as Barbara mentioned, is a huge volunteer component. Last year, our agency worked with more than 3,500 volunteers. We do a lot of community engagement work, including what we call customized service projects. We organize big projects for large groups of people, from businesses, faith groups, or schools, putting them to work for a day at places like Keeney Park or Riverfront Recapture.
We also do another fun thing called a Dash for a Difference, which organizes teams of people who spend the day doing community service and learning all about Hartford’s historical and cultural attractions and ethnic eateries.
Hands On Hartford has another great program called the Faces Of Homelessness Speakers’ Bureau, which hosts speaking events where people who are homeless or have experienced homelessness talk about their personal experience to really connect with people who haven’t experienced it and put a face on the people are who are dealing with these troubles. It’s about advocacy and raising awareness.
The last thing that’s quite unique is the Café at Fifty-Five. This is may be one of our most innovative programs.
IDH: How so?
BS: The café opened on October 3, 2016. Hands On Hartford received help from Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), which gave us a capacity-building grant we used to hire Karen Karp & Partners, a company that does different types of food-oriented and economic security-oriented projects within the United States. They helped us determine the best use of our kitchen and our café space and how to pull it all together in a way that’s mission centric to who we are.
When Kate mentioned this café as a “program,” one of the reasons we think of it as a program and not a typical business is because of our goals and our work. The café embodies the three things I mentioned earlier: serving neighbors, engaging volunteers, and connecting communities. I think the café is one of the places where we live it out best.
We’ve created jobs for folks with barriers to employment here in this café. We also involve volunteers who work as café assistants. We intentionally keep the menu prices low. And we have a pay it forward option, so people can buy something for a neighbor who may be low on money, but wants to participate in the community, wants to enjoy a meal, or wants to connect with people. So low prices and the option of actually adding something that someone has prepaid makes this a great, truly open community gathering place.
IDH: Why Parkville?
KS: We moved to this building in February 2015. Before that, our offices were scattered around Hartford. So we’ve brought everything together here. We chose this neighborhood partly because of the access to public transportation, but also because it’s such a great up-and-coming, diverse, interesting, and vibrant community. This is especially important for our tenants who live upstairs—they are all people who were formerly homeless. We wanted a place where people could feel at home. There is stuff going on, it’s not isolated. And for our staff and volunteers, it’s a nice place to go. It’s a fun neighborhood.
And since moving here, the neighborhood has been so welcoming, especially since the café has been open. We’ve gotten a lot of support. For example, we had our annual fundraiser at the end of September. We borrowed a podium from reSET and the Hog River Brewing Company came in and did beer tastings. We also began working with local startup Blue Earth Compost—we’re now composting in our café. So, there’s a lot of community collaboration.
Historically, we were formed as a collaboration of churches, and collaboration has been at the heart of our organization the entire time. This Parkville location is a nice fit for us.
BS: We’ve been very happy with the local community support, which Kate mentioned. Across the board, the community has really embraced what we are working on here. That has been wonderful. Very heartwarming.
IDH: What’s the best thing about living and working in Hartford?
BS: I’ve lived and worked in Hartford for most of the past 33 years. To me, Hartford is a beautiful city, with beautiful people. We have our share of challenges and I’m grateful to be part of an organization that works to try to meet those challenges, but very much through community, by making connections.
Hartford is a vibrant, growing city with so much potential. And there are a lot of great things going on right now. We’re really working to get people to come in to the city and connect in a new way.
KS: I can echo what Barbara said. There are a million things going on in Hartford—from the Know Good Market to Envisionfest or activities at Real Art Ways. There are also plenty of opportunities to volunteer.
I think that in the last couple of years, Hartford has a lot more going on socially and culturally than it has for a long time. It’s just a question of spreading the word and getting people to start doing things. It’s exciting to watch it happen.