Norwich — The past year has been one like no other for staff at the city Human Services Department, much different than what Director Lee-Ann Gomes had anticipated a year ago.
Gomes had planned to retire last spring but quickly put that plan on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last March, throwing people out of work and in need of support — many for the first time in their lives.
“This has been, definitely, the hardest year in human services, but it’s also been my most rewarding year,” Gomes told the City Council during her budget presentation Monday. “I think this year very much highlighted the importance of a local municipal human services department, and we were proud, and I was proud, of all my divisions that stepped up and did so many different things to help during the COVID pandemic.”
Monday provided a very different budget hearing experience for Gomes, who usually must plead for funding and fight potential staffing and budget cuts. The agency’s budget faces no cuts thus far in the budget process.
Gomes, 56, told the council she now plans to retire June 30 after 35 years of working for the city. She was named director in 2014, succeeding her longtime mentor, former Director Beverly Goulet – “I had great training,” she said.
The city Human Services Department includes the Rose City Senior Center, Youth and Family Services, adult services and the city Recreation Department. In response to the pandemic, the four divisions helped with food distributions, applied for grants to help residents with rental and utility bills, scrambled to secure internet connections for adults working at home and students in remote school and provided child care for teachers’ children when schools reopened.
The senior center vans delivered food to shut-ins and COVID-19 quarantined residents, provided medical appointment rides and the senior center later became a COVID-19 vaccination site and a drive-through food distribution site. The Recreation Department was one of the first city agencies to reopen for public programs last summer for local youths after months of isolation.
“It’s been quite the year for us,” Gomes told the council. “But I hope you can see the value a local human services department that we direct, that you can tell us what to do and we can respond.”
The director position has been advertised, and City Manager John Salomone said Monday city officials plan to interview three or four finalist candidates in the next couple weeks.
Mayor Peter Nystrom and several council members thanked and praised Gomes for putting off her retirement and leading the city’s exhaustive COVID-19 response.
“You were supposed to retire,” Nystrom said. “You sacrificed greatly to stay, and I can’t tell you how important that was to the people of this city and how grateful, as I believe all of us are.”
Alderwoman Stacy Gould, who worked with Planning Director Deanna Rhodes last summer in a fundraiser that provided food gift cards for Human Services clients, thanked Gomes for her work in all four of the agency’s divisions.
Alderman Derell Wilson said the pandemic showed the importance of the Human Services divisions, especially the senior center, played in the past year.
In a year like this past year, where it’s been hard to get direct contact with other agencies, whether we’re talking state and federal, we’ve got our own individual department that’s been able to circumvent many of those systems, so I just want to thank you for what they’ve done.”
Alderman Mark Bettencourt said Gomes “certainly provided me an education” in the operations of the department. He thanked her for her sacrifice, while acknowledging it’s a job she “truly loved doing.”
Alderman Joseph DeLucia said Gomes has been a dedicated city servant throughout her career, and especially the past year.
“For all the years that the question was asked: why does Norwich need its own HS department?” DeLucia said. “Well, it only takes a pandemic or some serious event to answer that question.”