If Newington had a fairy godmother, Karen Futoma would be it.
As director of the town’s Department of Human Services the last five years, the town native is the voice for disadvantaged residents and families and a beacon of support for any and all. She is retiring June 23 to take another position with the state’s Housing Finance Authority, helping elderly and disabled people.
As they prepare to bid their leader farewell at the end of June, department staff are reflecting on the impact Futoma has had on Newington.
“She identifies a problem, brainstorms and pulls us together to solve it,” Human Services Coordinator Carol LaBrecque said this week. “She will be missed.”
The pair has worked together the last 22 years.
Futoma’s career in social services began in Hartford after she graduated from college. There she determined folks’ welfare eligibility, work that was rarely fulfilling. It wasn’t until accepting a social worker position in her hometown that she really began doing what she loved.
“I was so excited to give back to the town I grew up in,” Futoma recalled.
That was July 1985. A year later she was promoted to coordinator, a position she held until 2012, when former director Ken Friedenberg retired and Futoma took the reins.
In the last five years the department has led several important initiatives under her leadership, including establishing the Newington CERT. They also built a Yurt at the Milk Lane Challenge Course. A Yurt is an all-season building, and is used by Youth Services Coordinator Rik Huggard to facilitate programming in any weather.
“Karen has always been an exuberant inspiration for youth programs,” Huggard said this week. “Her ideas and support have been instrumental in my having such a successful experience here in Newington.”
Futoma was the driving force behind the statewide hoarding task force, a committee working on training emergency responders and others to respond to hazardous living situations.
While these projects were underway and regular social services continued being provided, department staff were responding to numerous unexpected crises affecting the community.
In March 1998, Connecticut Lottery accountant Matthew Beck showed up to Lottery headquarters in Newington, killing four of his bosses and then himself. Employees took shelter in the surrounding neighborhood before human services went into crisis mode, arriving at the scene to calm people down. The department’s offices were opened as a safe haven. Futoma remembers giving a woman an extra pair of sneakers she had with her at work.
“We just lent whatever support what could lend,” she said, pointing out that the situation was the first of its kind. The shooting at Columbine wouldn’t happen until over a year later. Soon after, schools and workplaces began implementing stricter security procedures. Later on policies to help sufferers of mental illness would be backed by social workers like Futoma and her staff.
Then came September 11, 2001.
“We were on standby to help families,” LaBrecque remembered. “Parents wanted to know if they should still send their children to school.”
“We gave them advice on how to make their families feel safe,” Futoma added. “Crisis situations stay with you forever.”
Empathy is among the department’s defining qualities.
“We cross boundaries and borders whenever we need to help each other out and work as a team,” says Futoma, a contender for the state’s 2016 Social Worker of the Year.
The nomination came from her co-workers, who admire her persevering spirit.
Social worker Pam Wassik calls her “Wonder Woman.” Clinical Services Coordinator Pat Meskill points to a table decoration in her office that reads, “It’s a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together.”
Futoma calls her departure “bittersweet.”
“I have loved coming to work every single day,” she said. “I love who I work with and what I do. It’s very difficult to leave but comforting to know I’m leaving a team that’s so competent and caring. I know people will continue getting stellar services here.”
The town is hosting a send-off party on Wednesday, June 21, at 4 p.m. in the lobby of Town Hall. All are welcome.
“We want to extend an invitation to any folks in the community who have been touched by Karen’s influence,” LaBrecque said. “Come and show your support.”
Erica Schmitt can be reached at 860-801-5097, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go:
WHAT: Retirement reception for Karen Futoma, director of Newington Human Services
WHEN: Wednesday, June 21 from 3 to 7 p.m.
WHERE: Front lobby on Newington Town Hall, 131 Cedar St.
HOW: RSVP by June 16 with Pat at 860-665-8597 or Carol at email@example.com.