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Inside Town Government
By Ron Scopelliti
Given that the United States Census Bureau lists Smithfield’s median household income as $76,014, residents may not understand the need for the town’s Human Services office. But the fact that the census also lists 3.7 percent of the town’s population as living below the poverty level proves that the need exists. Located in the Smithfield Senior Center, the office offers confidential aid to Smithfield residents who qualify under the low-income family guidelines.
“I don’t think [people] realize the need that is in this town, and in almost every town now,” says Human Services Director Karen Armstrong, who is also director of the Smithfield Senior Center.
She says she often deals with people who have temporarily fallen on hard times.
“Some people I just see once, and I’ll never see them again,” Armstrong says. “They’ll walk in off the streets and say, ‘I just got divorced,’ or ‘my husband just kicked me out.’” For others, there’s more of a long-term need.
“There are people at risk, who are living in local hotels, and just barely making it. People now are living in hotels because they find it’s cheaper, because your electric and heat is included in that one room. So they’ll go without eating, or eating canned food out of a microwave, to have a place to stay.”
Consequently, the most prominent service offered by the department is access to their food pantry.
“Clients can come in once a month and use the food pantry, which is locally stocked,” Armstrong says.
The town’s schools, she says, are the biggest donors, noting that the National Junior Honor Society at Gallagher Middle School is currently doing a food drive. The Honor Society also requires community service hours, which students can spend at the food pantry.
“Most of them choose to come here, which is great for us,” Armstrong says.
She says there’s not the demand for canned food that there used to be, and that the schools now tailor their drives to the changing needs of the clients.
“I have a soup and cracker drive, peanut butter and jelly, cereal. They’re all doing separate drives,” she says, “which is excellent.” They’re also planning a pasta and sauce drive. “When they break it down, it makes it easier, because I know specifically what I’m going to have on hand.”
She also credits corporations that do business in Smithfield, such as Stop and Shop, Dave’s Market, and Fidelity Investments for their contributions.
Networking with other agencies is a key component of the job, since there are many services that the department cannot provide. They don’t, for instance, have any cash in the office to provide monetary assistance. If someone needs monetary aid, or help with heat or housing, they’ll refer them to the proper agency.
“We refer out all the time,” Armstrong says.
Agencies she frequently works with include the Tri-Town Community Action Agency, the URI College of Pharmacy’s SNAP Outreach Program, the state’s Department of Human Services, and Operation Stand Down, which provides services for veterans.
The department also works closely with local churches, particularly around the holidays when they participate in Adopt-A-Family programs, which help provide families in need with holiday gifts.
“Clients come in and fill out a wish list for their children, and then I match that up with some very generous donors in town. They’ll purchase the gifts, bring them to me, and then I have the clients pick them up the week before Christmas.”
“We also work with the police department,” Armstrong says. “At Christmas time, the Smithfield Police do a collection for toys.” She says that toys not handed out at Christmas are distributed throughout the year. “If somebody has a birthday coming up, people will come in.”
Fidelity also helps out young people with school supplies, filling backpacks based upon the students’ grade levels.
To make sure that they can continue to meet the needs of Smithfield residents, the office plans to reinstate their spring bowling fundraiser. “There’s also a car show benefit we do once a year,” Armstrong says. “The Rhody Oldies – every year they give us a monetary and a food donation.”
Those who wish to make individual donations can do so at the Senior Center on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
“We’re always looking for kid-friendly food,” Armstrong says. They also accept monetary donations. They do not, however, accept food items that are beyond their expiration dates.
Those who feel they need assistance can call the Human Services office at 949-4590, ext. 20 to learn about the qualifications, and arrange a visit.
“I want people to feel comfortable coming here,” Armstrong says. “It’s not a place that you should have to feel embarrassed coming to.”