Nestled in the northwest corner of the state in Litchfield County, the town of Norfolk, Connecticut, has a population just under 2000. This picturesque town is home to nearly a dozen nationally recognized historic places, and three state parks. Norfolk is also the home of The Yale Summer School of Music — Norfolk Chamber Music Festival held at the Ellen Battell Stoeckel estate. It is the quintessential Litchfield Hills town, located in one of the richest parts of one the richest states in the country.
So it surprises people to learn that 9% of Norfolk’s population live in poverty. Equally surprising is the fact that there is no social worker in town.
Over five years ago, representatives from the Selectman’s office, the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, and Church of Christ, Congregational, UCC, each doing what they could to assist those in need, came together to discuss how to work more efficiently and to complement each other. The three organizations formed Norfolk NET, a grassroots organization committed to alleviating poverty and fostering new relationships.
According to Church of Christ’s Pastor the Rev. Erick Olsen, the organization initially worked to provide a tighter net, “to prevent people from falling through the cracks.” That has changed. Norfolk NET has gone from a team of three people to about a dozen working on a safety net and dreaming about a way to facilitate and foster relationship building in the community.
“We went from trying not to step on each other’s toes, to learning how to dance together and serve the community better,” said Olsen.
By asking what assets were available in the area, the organization began to discover more partners, including leaders from the local and regional school districts, and people related to foundations and funds dedicated to fighting poverty, hunger, and providing for children. In 2017 Norfolk NET receive a $20,000 grant which they divided equally between the Catholic Church, the Selectman’s office, and the Norfolk Church of Christ. These funds have been used for a variety of crisis situations including helping people with doctors’ bills, car repairs, rent, and insurance. Church of Christ even has an agreement with a local gas station where someone can fill up with $20-30 of gas and the station bills the church.
Norfolk NET is now working to go beyond crisis management by raising awareness of the organization’s existence and educating people about levels of poverty in the community. These community leaders are also working to build new relationships. One idea that has come from their collaboration is it gathering known as A' Round Table. It is a sharing circle to which people come with a gift and a need, and has resulted in conversations which reveal needs and gifts the people never knew they had. No money exchanges hands, but mutually beneficial relationships are born.
One growing need of the community revolves around transportation. Through their conversations, Norfolk NET leaders are exploring new forms of public transportation and developing a grassroots network of drivers. The organization is also exploring building a salvage shed, a place to organize items for recycling and reuse. Finally, they are talking about developing a place where skilled creators can come together to share resources, equipment, and experience, with the additional goal of teaching others about creating sustainable and locally produced items. Olsen calls this a Maker’s Space, a place devoted to creation and community building.
Olsen says this collaboration and idea generation is what really excites him.
“It feels like the future of the church,” says Olsen. “We are finding out where the Spirit is moving and where it is alive.”
And the group is not afraid to try something new. Together they discern where they are called to go.
“We floated it out there, and see what happens,” says Olsen. “If it doesn’t work, it’s not a failure. It’s something we tried. You can’t lose if you were trying to make the community better and strengthen relationships.”