It's cold in Weston. Inside, the heater blasts at full capacity. An overdue gas bill looms on the wall. Someone complains that there's no hot water. There's little money in the bank. Something like a panic settles in.
This scene, once rare in Weston, has become increasingly common. "I was trying to get gas out to someone today," said Charlene Chaing-Hillman, director of Weston Social Services . "If they lose their gas, they lose their heat, their hot water. ... Times are tough out there, we haven't seen anything like this in years."
Hillman's caseload has more than tripled in two years. First it was 50 families receiving aid, then 100. Now the number is about 120 homes, and many also receive support from the Community Food Pantry . For a town with a median household income of nearly $200,000 the highest in Fairfield County the number is shocking.
Hillman is not a full-time employee, and neither are her two assistants. But meeting the demand is a matter of principle for the part-time director, not a paycheck.
"It's people's lives," she said. "What are you going to do, not answer the phone? If someone needs me on Sunday night, I have to help them."
Small business owners seem to be hit the hardest. "People who've been in business for 20 years had to come to us," Hillman said. "One-person builders, dance instructors. They can't get a different job, it's all they've known."
Hiring an additional social worker is not an option, so Hillman relies on volunteers and other town agencies. "Without volunteers, we wouldn't be able to operate," she said. "The community gives and gives. We can take [the economic slump] because the families here are extremely generous."
Amongst the biggest givers are families who received services in the past but have recovered. "They remember what it's like, and they give the most," Hillman said.
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