When I caught up with Lee-Ann, she had just returned from helping a client manage a bedbug infestation. Still poised and without missing a beat, she sat down with me to discuss her work on the United Way Board of Directors and why it’s so important to address community needs collectively.
Hi! Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been involved with United Way?
My name is Lee-Ann Gomes. I’m the Director of Norwich Human Services; we cover youth and family services, the Rose City senior center, Adult and Family Services, and now the Norwich Rec Department. I’ve been with the department for 32 years, and I’ve been the director for about five of those years. So I’ve spent my whole adult career working with people in human services.
I think this is my third year on the board with United Way. I was very, very pleased to be asked to serve: my boss had always represented our agency on the board, and when she retired I was thrilled that United Way asked me to take her spot on that board.
Why do you give back to the community with United Way?
Well, just, in working with people, there’s just tremendous needs in our communities. And what I always tell people is that while you might not be able to do anything specific to help Syrian refugees, or worldwide problems, but you can help in your own backyard. And I think when you give to the United Way, that’s where your dollars stay, that’s who you’re helping; you’re helping your neighbors, your family, your friends sometimes, and if you work in human services you’re definitely helping your clients. Because one agency can’t, in and of itself, address all the needs of a family- it truly does take a village to get families back on track, especially in Southeastern Connecticut where we’re not as thriving as we could or should be, compared to the rest of the state and the rest of the United States. So I’ve given to the United Way for I think about 30 of the 32 years I’ve been with the department. It was really important to my boss that her staff saw the value of the United Way, and hopefully I’ve carried on that tradition with my staff in ensuring that they recognize the importance and the value the United Way has in what we can do to help locally.
What made you want to serve on the Board of Directors? What kind of work do you do on the Board?
I think the United Way- to those of us in human services, the United Way is seen as sort like Switzerland- they don’t have a dog in the fight usually when there’s competing dollars among agencies in town, we usually meet at the United Way, we usually have the United Way convene the meeting and everything because they are seen as impartial and neutral, and that’s something that I’ve always admired about how they were able to straddle that fence. Me, here at Norwich Human Services, I have a vested interest in Norwich: sometimes it’s hard for me to do things regionally because I’m paid by city tax dollars and the city wants me to focus on Norwich residents only, so there’s some stress that occurs between our agency and other agencies. So I really like the United Way, I like their allocations process, how they have strong reporting measures, and metrics that you have to abide by to get funding, I think sometimes in human services we rely too heavily on the anecdotal stories instead of the real hard data as to who we’re serving and how our money is having an impact on the community, and I like that the United Way goes in that direction. The committee that I’m really proud of, that I’m serving on right now at the United Way, is the Governance committee. And I think ensuring that our policies and procedures are very strong obviously helps the agency stay a strong agency and helps guide the agencies who are served by the United Way, and guide the membership of the United Way board.
Are there any stories or particular moments from your experience with United Way that have really stayed with you?
Yes. My best experience with the United Way was a couple years ago, they did a flash mob where they did some choreography for those of us who were interested. My two daughters and I participated, my daughters were young at the time, and we spent many a summer day in the parking lot at United Way practicing our dance to a Michael Jackson song. Then we went to the fair and we all had our Live United T-shirts on, but we were dispersed through the crowd, and we all started to collectively come together and put on this performance, and it was just so fun, and such a great thing to do to highlight the Live United campaign. It was definitely out of the box and it definitely puts a smile on my face every time I think about it, and that was probably my most happy moment with United Way.
What is your favorite thing about serving on the Board or being involved with United Way in general?
You know, sometimes you serve on a board and it’s not well structured, or you don’t feel that they’re really tackling things, or it’s more of a social gathering than a goal-task-oriented board, and I’m a very goal-task-oriented person, and I like that the United Way has definite benchmarks that they want to hit, and things that they want to do, and they can demonstrate that with numbers, again. So I like that aspect of it. I also like that you’re with some pretty prestigious people in the community, and if in any way, shape, or form the United Way considers me to be in that group, I feel very honored and privileged.
What would you say to someone who might be considering volunteering here?
I’d say definitely do it! There’s no lack of need in the community. There’s reading to children, there’s the food pantry, there’s the allocations process, there’s volunteering in the office- if your company is one of those companies that allows you to do that on work time even better- but I think volunteerism is very very important to our communities. Like I said, one agency, all of our agencies together, can’t get the job done- we need everybody in the community to give a little bit to make progress in our society.
What does ‘Live United’ mean to you?
‘Live United’ means exactly what it says- we have to think of ourselves as a community. Kind of like string theory- like what I do affects you, and what you do affects somebody else, and we’re all connected somehow. So the richest among us have an impact on the poorest among us, the poorest among us have an impact on the richest among us, and we have to realize we are a society, and we have to live and act like that and all support each other to the best of our abilities.