CT News

Conversation with Katie Hanley

The new CEO of Jewish Family Services of Greater Hartford aims to focus on mental health of teens

By Stacey Dresner

WEST HARTFORD – Three years ago, while working at Oak Hill, Connecticut’s largest provider of services for people with disabilities, Katie Hanley was introduced to Jewish Family Services (JFS). At the time, Hanley was serving on a committee called Connecticut Health Advocacy for Adults with Disabilities, along with other professionals, including Janice Rothstein, JFS director of clinical services. It was at several meetings held at the  West Hartford offices of JFS that Hanley met and got to know longtime JFS CEO Anne Danaher.

Now Hanley has been named chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Greater Hartford, succeeding Danaher, who retired in June as the agency’s head after 33 years of service.

Before coming to JFS, Hanley served as the senior director of Oak Hill Centers, where she managed eight of Oak Hill’s specialized community-based programs across five locations. Before that she held several positions at the Charter Oak Cultural Center, where she stewarded nationally recognized arts programs for more than 1,000 inner-city youth.

A native of Worcester, Massachusetts, Hanley received a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy with a minor in women’s studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She holds a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Connecticut, with a focus on social work administration, as well as a graduate certificate in non-profit management.

Hanley lives in West Hartford with her husband Jeremy, and their three young children. She spoke with the Jewish Ledger about her first two months at the helm of JFS and  her plans for the agency’s future.

JEWISH LEDGER:  Your predecessor Anne Danaher was a highly respected professional and very successful in her role as JFS head. What is it like stepping into her shoes?

KATIE HANLEY: Frankly, it’s wonderful. I was able to talk with Anne during the interviewing process and then meet with her extensively when I started and it was wonderful. She just has a very calm, caring compassionate way about her and I think it set the tone for my acclimating to the agency. 

Quite frankly, as somebody with young children, I was a little worried about work-life balance, especially at this critical time for all of us during the pandemic. Anne said something which was just really encouraging; she said, “We always say that ‘family’ is our middle name here,” which was really encouraging, and really set the tone about what I was walking into. So it has actually been a pleasure taking over and having her pass the baton on to me.

JL: Tell us about your experience at Oak Hill.

KH: At Oak Hill I was the senior director of a division of an agency. Most people know us as the largest group home provider or as an accredited special education school, but actually we had a lot of other community programs. I oversaw Oak Hill and that included an adaptive sports and fitness program assisted technology program, two camps and a center for relationship and sexuality education. We had an employment services program; we had a birth-to-three program at one point. 

So I was responsible for the oversight of many smaller programs, which was exciting for me because it brought quite a variety [of experience]. I was able to work with an interdisciplinary team of very smart, thoughtful people. 

We were a non-profit that really relied on grant support and fundraising to succeed. I loved that job. I loved working with everybody and pulling people together to see how we could integrate our services and determine if a program was sustainable or not. The focus was mostly working towards providing services for people with disabilities, but we defined that very loosely. We served everyone, from students that had learning disabilities all the way to people with significant multiple disabilities.

JL: What are your goals as CEO of JFS? 

KH: My goal will forever be to bring in more money, because as the CEO it’s critical for me to consider our sustainability and to make sure we have adequate resources to meet the needs of the community, so that’s certainly at the forefront of my mind. 

As far as growth goes, I can only imagine that JFS has room to grow to meet the needs of the community…That being said, that growth has to be done thoughtfully; not growth for growth’s sake, but growth to meet the need. So I’m in the beginning of my time here I’m focusing on learning the landscape, getting to know the community, analyzing the services we have and figuring out how to meet the need. That’s my preliminary goal, but certainly my vision for the future is to find ways to highlight JFS and all the ways that we can meet needs and be a part of the community, in our own unique way.

JFS was built for this point in time. I mean, JFS was created by a bunch of community members who banded together to help those in need. That was over 100 years ago. So, we can look back and think about what JFS did at the time to get through the flu pandemic in the early 1900s and then the Depression. This is not unknown territory for us in that way. We were built to serve people in times of their greatest need. I feel very energized by that mission.

The pandemic is definitely giving us an opportunity to show people who may not have otherwise seen themselves as needing our services that we are here for them.

JL: In light of the pandemic, how has the need for JFS’s services grown?

KH: From before the pandemic until the time it hit in March, we have had an increase of 108 clients that need our food pantry services. And so… with the food pantry, we quickly switched gears and started delivering meals to people who didn’t feel comfortable leaving their homes. We did that for a long while. Now, two times a month, we do curbside pickup at our offices; so people can apply to be clients of the food pantry. It is a need-based program and we have had an increase there. 

As for clinical services, there has actually been a little bit of a decrease with engagement because of the switch to tele-therapy, which can be a challenge for people, especially for people whom we serve. We have a very large aging population that we serve and a large population of Russian-speaking clients, so there’s a little bit of a barrier in terms of technology – and the comfort level some people have with the technology which we are trying to address so we can still support clients.

Clients that have stayed on, I’ve been told by our clinical team, want to meet more frequently, and have greater concerns. They are grieving the loss of their normal life and their normal routine. 

JL: What about the mental health of younger people? We hear so much about the problems that can come from social media and the increase in teen and young adult suicide.

KH: We do focus on that. One of our programs, Tara’s Closet, was founded by Barbara Roth, and she and I, and the committee, have been talking about what to do for youth who are socially isolated now in a way that they have never have been before; the mental health ramifications and the lack of institutionalized support on a daily basis for them – services and support that they would get at school.

Tara’s Closet is working on awareness, providing education around those issues. Among [their efforts] is an e-newsletter that will be going out this week with a back-to-school theme for children and parents, because it’s a very tough time. There is a lot of anxiety about what school is going to look like; there is a lot of excitement [at the prospect of being around] your friends again. But there are also safety concerns. So there is a whole lot wrapped up in that and Tara’s Closet is really focused on supporting the community in that way.

[In prior years,] Tara’s Closet hosted a very large annual in-person mental health event, which we had to postpone this May. We are still working on scheduling a virtual event. 

The goal is to raise awareness about mental health and to eliminate the stigma. This pandemic has brought to light issues concerning mental health disorders or having mental health concerns for people who might never otherwise have associated themselves with those sorts of issues. And so I think now is a perfect time to bring the community together to talk about mental health. 

I’m very proud to be working right now at an organization that not only does the clinical services for the community but also is trying to do educational outreach and raising awareness.

 JFS is pretty phenomenal in that they have a wonderful donor-base and volunteer base that will do anything to get the word out to help the community.

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