Transition becomes official at Norwich Human Services

Dec. 20—NORWICH — Finally, Lee-Ann Gomes can retire.

Working for the city's Human Services Department for 36 years as a social worker, supervisor and director for the past seven years, she twice delayed her retirement as the city grappled with the COVID-19 crisis that affected thousands of local families.

While the pandemic is far from over, the 57-year-old Gomes is confident that her successor, Tara Booker, can take over the department, which has had just two directors for almost 40 years. Gomes' mentor, Beverly Goulet, had led the department for 30 years.

Booker, who grew up in New London and has worked in human services, nonprofit management and grant-writing capacities, started her new position Dec. 6.

During her first week, Booker, 49, shadowed Gomes, attended numerous meetings on the COVID-19 pandemic, homelessness, utility assistance, children's mental health issues, juvenile crime, substance abuse and holiday assistance for local families.

"It seems like three weeks," Gomes said. "We fit three weeks into one week."

Booker had been working as chief operating officer for Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness in Sarasota, Fla. She was visiting family in Rhode Island when the pandemic hit in March 2020. She worked remotely in Charlestown, R.I., living with her mother and close to her daughter, a student at Providence College.

"I stayed and stayed and stayed," Booker said, and eventually decided to remain close to her roots in southern New England.

She started looking at job postings and found the Norwich human services director position. Gomes was thrilled by her application.

"To see it on paper was exciting, but then to meet her in person was even more exciting, because I knew instantly she was the right person for the job. I appreciate everyone who applied," Gomes said.

Booker has a master's degree in nonprofit management and a bachelor's degree in sociology and applied social relations from Eastern Connecticut State University. She has had roles as chief financial officer and as interim CEO for companies. She has worked in program development, grant management and fundraising and worked with youth, families, veterans and volunteers.

Gomes' last day is Dec. 30. She thanked City Manager John Salomone for allowing her and Booker to work together on the transition for three weeks.

Booker has been working with department staff on routine matters and specific issues, taking Gomes' spot on various regional boards.

The two share a strong philosophy that a municipal Human Services Department is critical to a high quality of life for the city. During any local emergency or crisis — be it a fire that displaces one or 100 families, natural disasters, housing condemnation, crises in foreign countries that affect local immigrants, substance abuse or pandemic — residents and other service agencies have turned to Norwich Human Services.

"I really feel that's the role of a municipal human services agency," Gomes said. "If we were a state agency or a nonprofit, that's not our purview. But we are here for the city. When something happens that affects the city, we group the teams, we organize the people, we convene the groups."

Booker hopes to build on the department's legacy and will stress to local businesses and economic development leaders that an investment in the city's people brings an economic boost to the city.

"I am so impressed with the amenities and programs in place through the Human Services Department and think Norwich should be proud of what they do to enhance the quality of life for all its citizens," Booker said. "Being a great place to live is important to attracting new businesses and economic growth. All of our city's departments are critical in achieving this."

Norwich Human Services encompasses four divisions: Adult Services, the Rose City Senior Center, Recreation Department and Youth and Family Services. It has 29 employees, including per diem van drivers and one intern.

Pre-pandemic, the agency faced budget battles each spring before the City Council. That all changed with the CARES Act and then later the American Rescue Plan, which brought millions of federal dollars to help families, businesses, health care agencies and human services agencies.

Norwich is receiving more than $28 million over two years through the ARP, and the city received community development block grants and other aid through state or federal agencies prior to that.

When schools closed, Norwich Human Services scrambled to equip families with laptops and internet service for remote learning. The office helped coordinate food drives and distributions as well as utilities and rental assistance programs.

The department helped with COVID-19 testing sites and vaccine clinics and still is working on vaccine access equity throughout the city, Gomes said.

The Youth and Family Services division has been tackling youth mental health crises with programs for families on suicide prevention, anxiety and depression. Some services at the senior center have resumed with strict COVID-19 protocols. And the City Council has approved big dollars in ARP grant money to upgrade long-neglected city recreation facilities.

More than the funding changed with COVID-19, Gomes said, as people who never needed assistance turned to the city for help.

"I think COVID has pointed out the value of the local human services department," Gomes said.

She thanked Republican Mayor Peter Nystrom for his strong support throughout the pandemic. For months, Nystrom volunteered at weekly food distributions and raised money for food. He continues to host bi-weekly teleconferences with city and regional social services and health agencies.

"He has been supportive of us and has complimented me and our department at every turn," Gomes said of the mayor, "and I really appreciate all of his support and the faith that people have had in me."

During Friday's teleconference, several participants congratulated Gomes on her retirement and thanked her for her 36 years of service as she introduced Booker. Several participants applauded Gomes.

Last summer, Gomes had offered to remain even after her retirement to help coordinate local ARP spending. She said with many funded projects underway, that will not be necessary. She will turn the task over to Booker.

"The last thing I want to do is to be hovering over Tara as she tries to build relationships and form her own relationships and do things the way she wants to do," Gomes said. "Between Bev Goulet and I, it's been a half century, literally. We need change. We need new ideas, new people coming in. I did things a certain way, and I'm sure Tara's going to do them a different way and make it her own. And that's good and exciting."