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One For Winooski

Local Matters


Published July 8, 2005 at 8:11 p.m.

Winooski has lost a few businesses in recent months -- Hooper's Pub, the Vermont Sandwich Company, and the Burrito Joint have all closed during the first phase of the city's ambitious downtown redevelopment. So city officials were thrilled to discover one organization moving in instead of out. Last week, Casey Family Services relocated its 15-person Waterbury office to the first three floors of the new four-story brick building on the corner of West Center and Main streets, a site historically known as the Hanson Block. The building's fourth floor remains unoccupied.

Casey is a private child-welfare organization -- the direct-services arm of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, established by UPS founder Jim Casey in 1948. Headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut, Casey Family Services opened in 1976. The organization has seven offices in New England, including two in Vermont; the other location is in White River Junction. Its offices provide a range of programs that help parents and communities provide a safe and healthy environment for kids.

The organization will find plenty of work in Winooski. An astounding 40 percent of the city's children grow up in poverty -- that's almost four times the state's rate of 10.7 percent. And kids in Winooski are three times as likely to be on welfare as kids in other parts of the state. It's no coincidence that Winooski families also experience a higher rate of domestic violence than families in other parts of the state, or that only 63 percent of them graduate from high school.

Casey's Vermont Division Director Nita Lescher says the organization relocated to Winooski in part because their Waterbury office -- a restored home on Main Street -- was too cramped. She says Winooski's needs also played a part, but she's careful not to emphasize the city's problems, and equally careful not to portray Casey's foster care, post-adoption services, and community outreach programs as a miracle solution. Lescher says Casey is only one of many social services organizations serving the city. "We want to help provide the best outcomes for kids in Winooski," she says.

To that end, Casey has already begun working in collaboration with community groups. Community Liaison Robyn Wainner is partnering with the city's Americorps-VISTA worker, and a group of Winooski students, to bring a teen center to the Champlain Mill. And Wainner recently took over as co-facilitator of the Winooski Community Network, a coalition of human service and neighborhood agencies. Last week, she spent a couple hours attending an evening meeting of the West End Neighborhood Association. "The West End" is the new name for the neighborhood formerly known as "The Flats."

Lescher says Casey's new building will mostly house offices -- "this is not a walk-in center," she says -- but a short tour of the new space also turns up a teen room, a space for supervised family visits and a conference room that will seat 50 to 75 people for large gatherings. Winooski Community Development Director J. Ladd interprets the move as proof that Casey is committed to the city, and its families. "They're not in Winooski because it's convenient," he says. "They're here because they're following their mission."