Retiring homeless shelter director a ‘blessing to Milford’

Toni Dolan (left), executive director of the Beth-El Center in Milford, at the center's No Freeze Shelter with Jenn Paradis, who will be replacing her in June.

Toni Dolan (left), executive director of the Beth-El Center in Milford, at the center's No Freeze Shelter with Jenn Paradis, who will be replacing her in June.

Toni Dolan has been executive director of the Beth El Center homeless shelter and soup kitchen for 12 years, and still gets a thrill hearing success stories like that of a recent longtime and hard to place client who finally landed a place of his own.

“He said, ‘I’m a happy camper,’” Dolan said of the client, a huge smile flashing across her face. “It’s so rewarding, because in my opinion, we shouldn’t have anyone who has to live on the street.”

But she also feels upset knowing a few of the soup kitchen’s regulars — and others — choose to remain homeless, while there is hope right there. Dolan recently asked a man in that position, “How are you doing?” His response: “Still a free man,” she said.

Dolan, who by all accounts saved the ailing center when she took the helm a dozen years ago, is retiring June 1, meaning she’ll be just a guest at the center’s spring gala fundraiser the next day on June 2.

Taking her position, in what is expected to be a smooth and natural transition, is Jennifer Paradis, who for nearly three years has been the center’s director of programs and facilities.

When Dolan started at Beth El, it was supposed to be a six-month stint as interim executive director, then she became “engaged in the community.” Dolan said she’s met some of the finest and most generous people she knows in Milford.

The agency, begun more than 30 years ago by a group of parishes and lay people responding to the trend of homelessness moving into the suburbs, was a financial and organizational mess when Dolan arrived, officials said. Once faith-based, the center is now broad-based, although many are involved through houses of worhip.

Ed Davies, chairman of the center’s Board of Directors, calls Dolan “a visionary leader with a passion for serving the hungry and homeless.”

“She has stabilized and strengthened not only the staff and programs; she has also become the ‘go to’ person in Milford for information about the issues that contribute to the problems faced by Beth-El’s consumers,” Davies said. “She has built a team of staff and volunteers that work together to support and serve the needy.”

Gary Johnson, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Milford, has worked closely with Dolan all these years because Beth El is one of United Way’s 20 partner agencies.

“When Toni came in, the agency was really in trouble financially,” Johnson said. “She was a breath of fresh air.”

Johnson called Dolan “an outstanding executive director and outstanding leader,” and said the center — “a beacon of hope for many today” — is also one of the best-run shelters in the state.

Mayor Ben Blake called Dolan “a community treasure who’s dedicated her life to serving those less fortunate.”

“She’s respected, admired and held in the highest esteem by everyone who meets her,” Blake said. “She has been a blessing to Milford.”

Dolan said by the time people get to the shelter, they are ready to move forward, they are motivated and persistent. While most of those housed at the shelter work, most are underemployed and or just can’t afford housing on minimum wage earnings. The center’s team of case managers help clients maneuver the hurdles — and usually, there are many.

Because the shelter is relatively small, Dolan sees the clients, knows their cases and she likes that connectedness.

Dolan has many concrete accomplishments at Beth El Center, including: successful fundraising needed to keep the center going, especially in recent years of serious state budget shortfalls; she established a no-freeze shelter that provides 12 extra beds in times of storms or freezing temperatures; she established an educational component in nutrition and budgeting for food; she created the “meals-to-go” program for when there is no dinner meal served in the soup kitchen; she’s overseen the expansion of groups volunteering to cook meals; and has been part of the successful statewide effort to eliminate chronic homelessness among veterans and single people. The current push, she said, is on eliminating chronic homelessness for families and youths.

The center’s statistics show that between Oct. 1, 2016, and October 2017, the shelter served 87 single adults and 20 families during the regular course of business. In the No Freeze shelter, open from Dec. 7, 2016, to March 24, 2017, 68 individuals were served. With the capacity for 12 individuals nightly, bed nights for the season totaled 1,200.

The center also has 60 soup kitchen volunteers and office support staff, who served 25,000 meals.

Dolan said she feels good handing the reigns to Paradis, as they’ve worked closely, share philosophies and approach, and love working with the “most vulnerable population.” Both hold the belief that homelessness could touch any of us in some way at any time.

Of Paradis’ appointment to lead the agency, Davies said, “She shares Toni’s passion and has been a creative force in enhancing program offerings. It was apparent to all of the members of the search committee that Jenn will continue with the excellent foundation she has built for program improvement and is the right person to lead the agency in the years to come.”

Dolan, whose husband, Ray Dolan, is retired, said she is looking forward to not having a schedule and spending time with him and their family, maybe even golfing.

The couple, who live in Glastonbury, have two adult children and seven grandchildren. Dolan, who took a less conventional career path, attended Trinity College in her 40s when the kids were older and started a career after that.

Of her time at Beth El, Dolan said: “It was a challenge in the beginning. I’m proud of the work we did.”