The Mansfield Community Council And The War On Poverty

Historical Article Series May 3, 2020 > The Mansfield Community Council And The War On Poverty

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 49, No. 4, November 2013

In his State of the Union address on January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed legislation that would become known as the “War on Poverty.” During his administration, the U.S. Congress passed the Economic Opportunity Act, which established the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) to administer the local application of federal funds targeted for poverty relief. Federal programs as Head Start, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and Job Corps continue today as legacies of Johnson’s War on Poverty initiatives.

In 1966 the Mansfield Community Council was formed to address local issues of poverty.  Over the past year, Betty Heiss, a former co-chair of the MCC, has been compiling its history and documenting the important contributions of this group to the War on Poverty.  She has presented her archive of materials to the Mansfield Historical Society.  It includes written statements by former MCC volunteers and members of the Mothers Group, along with newspaper articles and photographs. Below are her own recollections of her work with the Mansfield Community Council.

As Co-Chair of the Mansfield Community Council in 1968, I will write about my involvement in the Council and some of its history.  It’s now 2013 and you are probably wondering why it has taken more than forty years to tell this story.  I do so at the urging of my friend Ann Smith, an active member of the League of Women Voters in town.  She knew of the Council’s important work in addressing the needs of Mansfield’s low income population and thought it should be documented.

Trudy Coolbeth
Trudy Coolbeth delivering surplus food

Back in 1967 I was the Chairman of the Human Resources Committee of Mansfield’s League of Women Voters and we did a study accessing the need for day care centers in town.  I was not naïve and knew there was poverty in the inner cities and rural areas of the country.  But, like most of the Storrs academic community, I was unaware that it existed right here in Mansfield.  Most of the poor lived in trailers or isolated houses throughout the town.  As I surveyed a section of town called Eagleville I met a number of large families living in Eagleville Court.  Their needs were many and I felt a strong inclination to help.

It was fortuitous that just around the time of the survey I got a call from my close friend Barbara (Bobby) Ivry inviting me for coffee.  It turned out that Bobby was chairman of the Mansfield Community Council from 1966 and, while she wanted to remain a volunteer, she asked me to take on the role of chairman.  I said “yes.”

The Council was an outgrowth of the Windham Area Community Action Program (WACAP).  WACAP was created as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and it encompassed most of Northeastern Connecticut.  Bill Olds was the Director and he persuaded Bobby, the two Town Public Health nurses, Mrs. Newman and Mrs. Abbey, and the Town social worker to form the council.  Bill Olds wanted the Council, formed late in the spring of 1966, to be the sponsoring group for the Mansfield Head Start program and the Surplus Food program.

Since I agreed to be chairman, my next step was to meet Trudy Coolbeth, WACAP’s neighborhood worker for Mansfield.  Her job was to deliver the surplus food to the town’s low income population.  (This was the era before food stamps.)  Once you met Trudy, you’d never forget her.  She was a warm, vivacious woman with a head of bright reddish orange hair.  Sadly, she died last year at the age of 92.  The two of us hit it off right away.  She suggested that I accompany her when she delivered the food to the mothers in Eagleville and she would introduce me as a volunteer who was available to help in whatever way would be most productive.  Trudy herself knew what it was like to be poor, having raised nine children on a meager income.

Before meeting with the ladies on a Tuesday afternoon, I received “Trudy’s rules” (actually these were the guidelines for all WACAP neighborhood workers):

  1. Don’t overdress.
  2. Ask about gripes but don’t take notes.
  3. Get information little by little – not too much at the first visit.
  4. People are very sensitive about their age, amount of education, and money.
  5. Never promise anything.  Let them know there are economic guidelines.  
  6. Confidentiality is important.  

That spring afternoon Trudy and I went to the Machados’ house.  It originally was the Eagleville district school but in the sixties it was rented to low income families.  It is now restored and is currently the headquarters of Joshua’s Trust.  

I felt appropriately dressed in slacks and a blouse.  The ladies, however, wore their Sunday best and, though I didn’t say anything, I felt a little embarrassed.  Trudy introduced me to Betty, Jean, Joyce and Gladys.  I remember saying to them that I was a faculty wife and mother and I didn’t know what it was like to be poor.  I asked them to consider me as a resource person with many connections in town.  I would listen to their concerns and do my very best to meet their requests.

Well, I flunked their first request.  They wanted to learn how to sew in order to make clothes for themselves and their children.  I told them that I almost failed sewing in elementary school but I would find someone to teach them.  I was thinking of my friend B.J. (Betty Jane Bennett) who was not only a nurse and fantastic cook, but an excellent seamstress as well.  If not B.J., I would come up with someone else.  Our first meeting was a success because they said “We’ll see you next Tuesday!”

The following week I came with Trudy and B.J. with her sewing machine, fabric and thread.  B.J. had a kind, patient, no nonsense way of connecting with people and the women took to her right away.  B.J.’s skills and mine complemented each other perfectly and that evening I asked if she would be my co-chair of the Council.  Happily she said “yes.”  

During that afternoon while the women took turns at the machine I just hung around and listened and listen I did.  There were requests to have a garden area to grow vegetables, a recreation area and ball field, an expert who could help them manage money, and someone to tell them how to pay for a funeral if the need ever arose.  I set about finding ways to address these needs.

The Machados’ house sat on eight acres of usable land owned by two men in New York.  They agreed to lease the land to the town for one dollar a year as long as they had no liability costs.  UConn’s President Homer Babbidge offered to have the agriculture school plow and make the land ready for planting.  Jay Shivers, Mansfield’s Recreation Director rounded up some men and built a playground and ball field.  The town contributed money and even teenagers got in on the project, sponsoring a dance at St. Joseph’s Church in Eagleville to raise money for equipment.  David Fury from UConn’s School of Business gave a presentation on money management and funeral insurance.

All of the above were done in less than two months.  By this time the group had outgrown the Machados’ house for meetings and moved to the Storrs Congregational Church.  The small group of women mushroomed into a plethora of other mothers recruited by Trudy, the Eagleville women and our two public health nurses.  The local churches, with Gerry Zazama in charge, recruited a large number of volunteers to do a wide variety of tasks – everything from transportation, childcare (while the mothers were meeting), chaperones for teen dances, and building playground equipment. The Town’s First Selectman, Meryl Klinck, and UConn’s president and faculty members were also involved in the effort.

The Sixties were a time when the Women’s Movement was making its impact felt in America.  The rise of feminism, however, was largely focused on the middle class and Ms Magazine highlighted this with its many articles.  

I wanted to see something written about working class women and I was fortunate enough to discover a writer who contributed to Ms. Her name was Nancy Seifer and she had recently written an eighty-five page pamphlet called Absent from the Majority: Working Class Women in America.  

I contacted Nancy in her New York City office and invited her to spend a weekend in Storrs to meet with the Mansfield Mothers Group, take pictures and write a story for Ms. It didn’t work out quite that way.  Instead of writing an article, Nancy became mesmerized by Terry Dezso, a member of the group.  Nancy was in the midst of writing a book called Nobody Speaks for Me – Self Portraits of American Working Class Women (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1976).  She chose Terry as one of ten women to have a chapter devoted to her life.

Terry, a devout Catholic mother of nine, was recently divorced and was told of the Tuesday meetings by Mrs. Abbey.  She attended one afternoon and was picked up by Nancy Chance, one of our most dedicated volunteers.  Over the years the two became very close friends.  Sadly each died within the last few years.  

The chapter devoted to Terry Dezso in Nobody Speaks for Me, includes an interview with Terry and Nancy describing their involvement in the Mothers Group.  Terry stated: “I hate to think how my life might have been without the Mothers Group.  It was like an oasis because it was a place to go and get some kind of relief, and some kind of enjoyment and knowledge.  It was something that directed me to the things I needed and helped me to find things I didn’t even know about.” 

In addition to group activities, there was another aspect to the Council’s work.  B.J. and I learned through Trudy that there were a number of isolated low income families who needed more hands-on help.  Since I knew Dr. Eleanor Luckey, head of Family and Child Development at UConn’s School of Home Economics, I asked her how she might assist us.  She graciously gave us eight graduate students who we placed in the homes of mothers who could benefit from some personal help.  These young women spent two afternoons a week with their designated families and found out that their skills were needed in just helping these moms cope with everyday stresses.  Some mothers were emotionally and intellectually challenged and felt overwhelmed.  Having someone there to wash dishes, change diapers and lend an empathetic ear was something they appreciated and looked forward to each week.  The students in turn came away with a whole new understanding of rural poverty and its depravations.

Additionally there were quite a few elderly people who welcomed visits from volunteers, both men and women, to give a hand with chores, take them to appointments with doctors and 

In 1969 my husband got a one-year position at the College of the Virgin Islands and our family moved to St. Thomas.  As a result of my volunteer work with the Mansfield Mothers Group, I landed an exciting position with the poverty program there.  When we returned to Storrs I became an administrator for WACAP.  It was a full time job so I was no longer active with the Mothers Group.  But it continued to flourish until the 1990s.  

I will always remember my organizing and working with the Mansfield Community Council.  The wonderful people I met, both volunteers and those they helped, the energy and enthusiasm of all – these are the memories I’ll cherish for a lifetime.

Betty Heiss

NOTE:  In the years following Betty Heiss’ involvement with the Mansfield Community Council, the volunteer group continued to grow and expand the scope of its work.  A food-buying cooperative was formed and a successful clothing exchange program was established.  Classes on nutrition, parenting skills and many other topics of interest were offered.  A day care center was opened in the basement of the First Baptist Church. The group also raised funds each year to send local disadvantaged children to summer camp. 

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