By Anne W. Semmes
Originally published in the Greenwich Sentinel, Feb. 3, 2003
A nonprofit organization in the town of Greenwich that’s been providing a host of services to an often-overlooked residential population has a new name and a new location and it is thriving. For over 60 years it was known by its acronym CCI for Community Centers Inc. located next door to Glory’s Diner. But its new name spells out its history, “Barbara’s’ House.” For it was Barbara Nolan, a pioneering social worker who opened CCI’s doors in 1955 as an advocate for those most in need in our community, those living in our public housing.
Nolan is now in her 90’s and retired upstate. She is succeeded by executive director Gaby Rattner who played a part in the renaming. “I have a huge value on history,” tells Rattner. “I stand on very big shoulders. Barbara’s an amazing woman…And a lot of what we do today is either what she did or similar. Our clientele is somewhat different, and their needs are different, but the ideas are still the same.”
Gaby Rattner, executive director of Barbara’s House, attributes finding its new space to “divine intervention.” Photo by Anne W. Semmes
Rattner welcomes in her expansive office on the second floor of 2 St. Roch’s Avenue, across the street from the Hamilton Avenue School. The sidewalk entryway has a plaque with the house outlined logo of Barbara’s House. No more confusion says Rattner with that former Community Centers name. “I literally had people coming and asking for beach passes because they thought we were the Civic Center or confusing us with Family Centers…It just didn’t have a meaning.”
Rattner attributes their new expansive space, formerly a school building for St. Roch’s Church next door, to “divine intervention” at the time of the beginning of Covid. “We were very lucky. We heard from a board member who’s a member of the St. Roch’s parish, that there was space going to be available. Another wonderful board member helping me look for space looked at it and said, this would totally work. And it has room for us to get even bigger…We’re growing into it.”
School days Homework Club
Down the hall came the sound of happy children arriving after school – its Homework Club time. Rattner has been working with one of the children on her English homework. She was happy to hear from the student her teacher was now “very pleased” with her work. Comparing the advantages often present in privileged families, Rattner notes, “You go home, and your mom helps you or your dad helps you, or your grandmother. But these kids often don’t have that as an option.” Her student now goes to school “all caught up. So, it gives her a sense of empowerment.”
Social worker intern Anthony Barkai gives some guidance to a student in Homework Club. Photo by Anne W. Semmes.
So how many generations have profited from CCI and now Barbara’s House? “We have a woman who came here as a child, who sent her children here, who sent her grandchildren here. And now she’s back working here part-time.”
“We have clients from school age to old age,” she tells. “Our youngest client is in kindergarten and our oldest client is over 95. But the population is changing. We have a lot of new families living in subsidized housing. They may have come in the past 10 years.”
And where are they coming from? “South America mostly and Central America. We run an immigration program to help them become citizens if that’s an issue, and if they’re not already, to help teach them English.” She adds, “And a couple of years ago we added an immigration attorney who does immigration counseling who can tell them whether they are going to be able to become citizens or not, and what they have to do.”
The influx of Hispanics she says has been “a big change” from clients being “mostly African American. But it’s not a huge majority.”
Kids reading to seniors
So, what’s the percentage of seniors served? “About 25 percent. We serve approximately 85 seniors.” She describes a program where the kids go to senior residences like Parsonage Cottage and read to seniors. “The kids bring the books – the seniors give the Oreos.” COVID suspended the program, she tells, “But we’ll be bringing it back. Everyone loved it.”
There’s no question, Barbara’s House is an intergenerational enterprise. “There are a lot of agencies in town, and they all do amazing work and most of them work with a particular segment of the population,” she notes. “But we’re the only one that works with school age to old age. We have seniors who are living alone and kids who live in single parent households or households where the grandparents aren’t around. And so, bringing them together and seeing the joy on both their faces when they’re reading together or doing an arts and crafts project together is wonderful. And the common theme in everything we do is empowerment.”
We step into the classroom where the Homework Club is in process. But on the wall is a large white board featuring a diagram of the government of the United States: “The Constitution…the supreme law of the land…executive, legislative, judicial.” It’s the Citizenship Program,” tells Rattner. “It starts with ESL because you have to be able to take the test in English unless you’re over 65. So, we help people prepare for it. If they don’t pass the first time, we’ll take them right back and help them some more.”
Around the Homework Club table, a tall, handsome Anthony Barkai, a social work intern is coaching a young student with his homework. The student scribbles away as Barkai describes his work. “We do a lot of special needs groups,” he tells. “On Monday, we have a special needs group with senior citizens. On Tuesday we do art therapy with the seniors at Parsonage Cottage. It’s amazing. They’re such a vivacious group of ladies. It’s so cool.”
Social worker Vanessa Cardinal with Gaby Rattner shares the impact of Barbara’s House on students: “The changes that are made, the smiling we put on these guys.” Photo by Anne W. Semmes.
Kickboxing and turkey dinners
When the Homework Club ends daily at 4:30 there’s a special needs group for young adults,” he adds, “They’re actually all around my age, like 25 to 35. And tonight, we’re doing kickboxing.” That divine intervention includes a kickboxing gym at the other side of the former St. Roch’s school building. The gym owner, notes Barkai, “generously donates his gym once a week.” His adult group “loves it. They’re the most active group of individuals that you’ll ever come across. Last week we did a book club, and we went to the Greenwich Library.”
Barbara’s House also has its own library with a wall full of donated books and sitting at a nearby table is that CCI first generation grandparent now part timer coaching a young student.
In the hallway as we pass a large mural featuring those involved with Barbara’s House, Rattner praises the kindness of St. Roch’s for allowing their food program out of the Church’s basement. She shares a food highlight during COVID. “We literally turned on a dime and became a major food distribution center. We collaborated with Neighbor to Neighbor and Food Rescue and Jewish Family Services and Meals on Wheels. We began delivering fresh food and produce and prepared food and groceries three times a week, and by the time we were done, it was to almost 400 people.”
Speaking of food, Rattner names Thanksgiving her favorite day of the year at Barbara’s House. “We have a chef who volunteers to make a hundred meals for the senior citizens. He provides all the raw ingredients except the turkeys, which we get elsewhere for the families who get huge boxes of raw ingredients to make their own Thanksgiving dinners. Volunteers deliver them the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. And it’s just so incredible that we get to do that.”
“We couldn’t do any programming like this in our old building,” tells Rattner, “because the rooms were too small, and everybody would be too crowded. But all of this is possible because the Church makes it possible for us to have a space like this.”
And come springtime she shares, “We’re going to start a community garden on a field the Church has nearby. We’re going to partner with them and with Windrose, a special high school run by Greenwich Public schools that has a greenhouse. They’re going to start and cultivate the seedlings until they’re little plants, and then everybody’s going to come together and plant them in the Church garden… So, partnerships and collaborations are what makes this all possible!”
Gaby Rattner looks on favorably to a student’s assignment in Homework Club. Photo by Anne W. Semmes.
Gaby Rattner stands by a hallway mural featuring those involved with Barbara’s House. Photo by Anne W. Semmes.
The new “historic” logo for the nonprofit Barbara’s House. Photo by Anne W. Semmes.