NEWINGTON – The former St. Mary School is being put to good use now that it is serving as the new Catholic Charities Family Center at Annunciation Parish.
The family center houses Catholic Charities’ new Learning and Life Skills Program, which is intended to help people with developmental disabilities acquire daily living, social and employment skills.
“This is a perfect location for us — for our clients with disabilities,” said Douglas DeCerbo, director of residential services for Catholic Charities Developmental Disabilities Program. His office oversees housing for clients in group homes and apartments, and also manages the new Learning and Life Skills Program.
“Our wheelchair vans can drive right up to the overhang, so inclement weather doesn’t bother clients,” DeCerbo said. “Everything is on the first floor. There’s a lot of space, and there’s handicapped-accessible bathrooms. So it really was an ideal space for us.”
Some of the center’s clients with developmental disabilities also have physical disabilities, DeCerbo said.
St. Mary School, which served grades kindergarten through eight, closed in August 2016 because of declining enrollment. On Nov. 1, 2017, Catholic Charities Developmental Disabilities Program moved its administrative offices from the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield to the former school at 652 Willard Avenue in Newington.
Now that DeCerbo and three other staffers have settled in, they’re planning to grow the new Learning and Life Skills Program.
“We’re looking to expand the services for the disabled population,” he explained. “There aren’t as many services as there can be and should be,” especially for those “who age out of high school.”
The former school offers larger space with offices, classrooms, kitchen, gymnasium and a stage.
“For the staff, we can adapt to any office space but the opportunity it gives our clients — that’s innovative. It just brings a whole different level of energy to everybody,” DeCerbo said.
The Developmental Disabilities Program currently offers housing in group homes and one-person apartments in Hartford County for 34 clients, ranging in age from 24-87, DeCerbo said. Traditionally, it also has provided case management, created individual goal-oriented plans to help its clients develop daily living skills and offered additional workshops in the homes.
The new facility enables the agency to move some of its daytime services, such as art or music therapy, from the group homes to the family center as part of its new Learning and Life Skills Program. With room to grow, the family center will also allow for more social interaction among clients and volunteers, and offer new job training activities.
DeCerbo said his agency plans to develop clients’ employability through cottage industries that will train them in areas such as the graphic arts, culinary skills or horticulture. Clients could then produce products for sale to the public. DeCerbo’s office would set up a business model, develop a work program and subsidize the workers’ pay, he explained.
“A lot of our clients work well with computers,” he added. “We have one person who is now infatuated with calendars. I would hope we could get some into photography. There’s a lot that can be done with a little bit of an idea [now that we have] the facilities.”
DeCerbo previously worked in Deep River at the Academy of Mount St. John, which offers similar vocational programs.
DeCerbo said he also hopes to develop a custodial team to work at the facility and at other Catholic Charities buildings. “The desire is to create meaningful work,” he said. “We want to create our own jobs.”
Daniel Labrecque, a 39-year-old client who lives in his own apartment, already works as a custodian at the new center. He’s done plenty of cleaning and furniture moving, DeCerbo said.
Labrecque takes the bus to work each day and is so conscientious that he arrived early on the day of a recent snowstorm, DeCerbo said, while agency administrators who drove their own cars struggled to get in on time.
Since the closure of St. Mary School more than a year ago, the building was used on occasion by the Town of Newington, the Rotary Club and a weekend renter who chose to move to another facility. A number of local churches and nonprofits also expressed interest in renting the property.
“We just sat on it,” said Father Shawn T. Daly, administrator of Annunciation Parish. Annunciation Parish includes St. Mary Church and Church of the Holy Spirit, both in Newington.
Eventually, Catholic Charities called and said they were interested. “I talked to my trustees and I talked to a few parishioners,” Father Daly said. “They thought, ‘This is really an outreach of what we’re all about as a parish — continuing in sharing the faith, evangelizing and doing the works that Christ taught us to do.’”
The parish decided to lease the first floor of the former school to Catholic Charities, Monday through Friday. The new usage required a zoning change, and parishioners spoke in support of the proposed use at a local zoning board meeting.
DeCerbo and his team currently occupy a portion of the first floor of the building. “As we expand our programming, we’ll expand into the space,” he said. “The goal is to grow it and hopefully take the entire space at some point.”
Father Daly said he and his parishioners are all for it.
“We want them to be very successful,” Father Daly said, “because the more space they use, the more people they’re going to be servicing.”