TORRINGTON – Deirdre Houlihan DiCara is still amazed. She has been executive director of FISH/Friends in Service to Humanity Northwest Connecticut since March and is still wrapping her head around all the community services the 41-year-old agency provides.
"I think it’s amazing what we produce under this roof," she said from behind her desk inside the FISH headquarters at 332 South Main St.
"Friends in Service to Humanity provides the most basic of human needs, and that is shelter and food. And amazingly, in 2012 our food pantry was able to distribute enough food to provide 140,000 meals," Mrs. DiCara said.
FISH is funded in part by the Vicariate Outreach Program (VOP) of the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, through the Torrington Cluster of Roman Catholic Parishes and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in nearby Litchfield.
"The generosity of the churches has been great," Mrs. DiCara said.
Services include emergency shelter for families, veterans and individuals; case management; a food bank; food delivery for the sick, elderly and disabled; a GED program; energy assistance; and much more, including next-step programs to get clients into housing, jobs, rehab programs, etc.
The agency is shedding its old name, the Torrington Chapter of FISH Inc., because, Mrs. DiCara said, the name was not descriptive of what FISH stands for and there is really no other chapter anyway.
The FISH shelter has three dormitories totaling 35 beds for men, women, children and veterans. Families and individuals are urged to find permanent housing (with help if necessary) within 90 days. Veterans are often allowed to stay up to two years. In 2012, the shelter had 13,969 bed nights.
Vera Halilaj, a paralegal, has been at FISH for three years as a case manager for veterans. "It’s something I love to do," she said. "My background is military anyway. My husband was in the military, and my father was a policeman. I have a special place in my heart for children and families, as well."
She said her goal is "to move individuals to the next step, because this is the bottom of where people can go to in life."
Mrs. Halilaj recently coordinated a stand-down at the Torrington Armory a few steps up the street, where she was able to help about 20 veterans get into various assistance programs.
Many people FISH has helped in the past come back to say thanks. Mrs. Halilaj said, "We had a veteran that stayed here almost up to two years. After he was discharged and into housing, he was able to come back and donate $2,000."
Steven Caruso, president of the board of directors of FISH, said, "I just believe in who they are and what they do. They’re serving a real need in the community. They are a true safety net here. If it wasn’t for FISH, what have these people got? They’d be out on the street. They’d be living in cars, in tents and under overpasses.
Mrs. DiCara sees the election of Pope Francis as a hopeful sign because of his emphasis on helping the poor. "I was so moved and just bubbling over because of his message to serve those in poverty," she said. "I really hope people take it to heart worldwide and recognize there are so many needs out there, and until you walk in other people’s shoes you have no idea."
When Mrs. DiCara conducted a tour of the shelter dormitories, Scott Carey of Winsted was resting on his bed. He told the Transcript, "I’ve been here since July 5. I came up from Louisiana in ’04 and have been battling with alcoholism, up and down, up and down, up and down, and finally I came here and I was just headstrong about trying to change my life."
He said FISH has saved his life. "They allowed me to stay in and do a lot of service work," he said.
FISH is one of about 250 charitable organizations served by the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal through parish initiatives. In 2013, about 9 percent of appeal money is earmarked for such initiatives.