Mary Ellen LaRocca, the long-time Woodbridge Human Services Director, is going to retire later this month. Her last day on the job is January 22. “It went by so quick,” she said with a touch of surprise, looking back on over 30 years of serving the people of this community.
Colleagues and friends had planned a dinner in her honor for Thursday, January 9, in the Center Building gym. The snow date for the event is January 16.
LaRocca started in January of 1989, her first “office” consisting of a desk and a two-drawer filing cabinet at the Town Hall. She was the first person to fill this position, as the town had no Human Services Department before her arrival. She became the boss of a part-time senior center director, and started to work from there.
LaRocca was hired to build a Human Services Department and the town named a corresponding commission to support the effort. Today, the department serves not only the senior citizens, but youth and families and their needs as well. Staff has grown to some 17 employees, four of them full-time.
Senior citizens are the primary recipient of services, with emphasis on offering inspiring classes, opportunities to socialize, rides for those who don’t drive anymore, a lunch program and more. The center is run by Jeanette Glicksman.
According to the town’s website, the department provides a part-time social worker, Judi Young, and a municipal agent for information on referral and outreach programs concerning health issues on the local, state and federal level. A staff member is available for home visits, telephone contacts and family conferences.
LaRocca also is a trained CHOICES counselor, to provide counseling and information on health insurance options, ranging from Medicare and supplemental insurance, to long-term care insurance and other state and federal benefit programs. A few years ago, LaRocca was appointed the town’s veterans’ ombudsman, to provide information, referral services and advocacy for veterans and their families.
The department sponsors a Friendly Visitor/Telephone Reassurance Program, which is an outreach program for the home bound, handicapped and elderly in Woodbridge. “Through friendly visits and telephone calls, our goal is to help improve the quality of life for those who are feeling isolated and lonely due to decreased mobility,” the town website reads.
The department also provides information and referrals for younger families, helping them build bridges to social services and support agencies, and providing healthy activities for young and old. The Youth Program is run by Nancy Pfund.
To this day, the department relies on the help of volunteers to get everything done, and her first big event, that of a Volunteer Tea, became a tradition in Woodbridge. Every spring, the department thanks its volunteers with a formal recognition and a reception.
Before she came to Woodbridge, LaRocca served as Director of Community Services at TEAM, a social service agency in Derby. To this day, the Woodbridge department is the “intake site” for fuel assistance – local families who need help with their fuel and electricity bills can apply locally.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the economy tanked, and more people state-wide were struggling to make ends meet. The department under LaRocca’s leadership started an emergency food pantry. During the holidays they also provide holiday “baskets” with gift certificates for families who have a hard time to provide during those times. This year, they distributed 46 baskets, she said.
The Rotary Club, of which she is a member, also helps prepare Thanksgiving baskets, together with volunteers from Assumption Church and from the Junior High School in Bethany. They provided a combined 31 Thanksgiving baskets this year.
“It’s never a boring day,” she said, when ticking off all the different responsibilities under the umbrella of the Human Services Department. Add to that the paperwork that goes along with much of it, also meetings and planning, networking and keeping up-to-date with state and federal regulations.
As the circumstances change, so do the town’s needs. Over the last decade the center building, on occasion, was used as the town’s emergency shelter, and Human Services staff helped keep track of senior citizens during prolonged power outages. Volunteers help set up cots and provide food and assistance to those who seek shelter, but volunteers need to be recruited and trained, all of which takes a fair amount of outreach and planning. “Everyone chips in,” she said. “It’s a really good team.”
She also is grateful for the involvement of the 9-member Human Services Commission. “It’s a working committee,” she said. “It has been very rewarding.”
She has built friendly ties with people ranging from town hall to the police department and many of the seniors who attend programs. Woodbridge has become her home away from home. “You get to know everybody,” she said, “even people in other departments.”
Yet she is looking forward to retirement. “I’ll do a little traveling,” she said. “I look forward to spending more time with my four grandchildren,” three of whom live near Boston. She plans to do all the things she had very little time for while working, such as reading a book or exercising. “In retirement you are creating a new life.”
She does not anticipate to be idle for long, though. “I like to give back,” she said.
Human Services Director Mary Ellen LaRocca is planning to go see places in retirement. This picture was taken in Ireland in September 2019.
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent