With a background in criminal justice and counseling, Bill Okwuosa brings a unique perspective to his new post as executive director of the Norwalk Open Door Shelter. One of his goals is to ensure that people who are homeless in Norwalk receive the cognitive, educational, vocational and health services that they need.
Okwuosa started out his career, at the age of 18, as a corrections officer for the state of Connecticut. He had a deep desire to help people, though, and came home feeling unfulfilled every night, he said.
After receiving his bachelor's degree in human services and criminal justice from Springfield College, Okwuosa was hired to manage Re-Entry Supportive Housing at The Connection, a program for ex-convicts. He was responsible for helping people to transition from jail to living in a home and finding employment.
Gaining some valuable experience, Okwuosa then left for a position at the helm of New Opportunities at Shelter Now in Meriden, Conn. Working with the homeless and operating a shelter was his real passion, Okwuosa discovered, he told the Citizen.
Very quickly, though, Okwuosa saw a discrepancy between services offered to the incarcerated and those that the homeless are eligible for. "Incarcerated individuals were getting more services than the homeless," Okwuosa stated. "I wanted to be part of that change."
Although he's only been at the Norwalk Open Door Shelter for two weeks--his first day was Valentine's Day, Feb. 14--Okwuosa said that he's impressed with the support he's received from city administrators. "Norwalk is very supportive of each other," he explained. "I've been received very well by people. I feel that when people see that you are invested in their town, they want to help you to succeed."
And, Okwuosa is clear about the positive changes he plans to enact to ensure that the residents' needs are met. One of these initiatives is a new job training program that the shelter launched last November. Although only 10 individuals are enrolled in the inaugural Hope Works program, Okwuosa is excited about its expansion. "Hope Works is going to be my baby," Okwuosa enthused. "It's going to be huge. We want to promote employment services. First, I want to help this population receive any mental health services that they might need because of drug abuse, personality disorders and things of that nature. They also sometimes need family services."
Then, when the person is ready to acquire the skills necessary to obtain employment in an entry level position , Okwuosa plans to introduce them to the benefits of the Hope Works program. "I can make a difference and I will make a difference," he stated.
He envisions Hope Works' outplacement services to include internships in local corporations.
Okwuosa returned to college to obtain a master's degree in organizational leadership and certification to work as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor. As deputy state director of Mentor Network REM Community Services, a non-profit organization based in Middletown, Okwuosa supervised a staff of 320 who were providing services to individuals with mental disabilities living in group homes throughout Connecticut.
"I liked the job but I always knew that I would get back to doing I love to do, which is shelter work," Okwuosa said. "This is my passion, and I'm grateful to give back."
Nathanial Yorden, president of the Norwalk Open Shelter's board of directors, said that committee members reviewed between 50 to 70 resumes. "Bill's resume really stood out," Yorden said. "Over the past few months we have been through an extensive search to find the right candidate, and we met many inspiring individuals. Bill stood out on the basis of his extraordinary background, professional credentials and certifications, and his passion and enthusiasm for helping others. He's exactly the kind of leader needed by both the shelter staff and the people we serve."
Board member David Wilson agreed. "Bill is the perfect person to not only lead the shelter, but to help us improve our counseling services and expand our new Hope Works program, which is key to a longterm reduction in both acute and chronic homelessness," he said.
Save the Date for The Open Door Shelter's spring gala. It will honor Stew Leonard Jr., CEO of Stew Leonard's, with a Corporate Leadership Award. The gala is scheduled to be held April 7 at the Inn at Longshore in Westport. The theme of the 2011 Spring Gala is "Homeless No More -- A Celebration of Hope Works." The proceeds will support Hope Works. Tickets are $150 ($100 is tax deductible) and includes dinner, open bar, music and entertainment. To purchase tickets for the 2011 Spring Gala, or donate an auction item please click on www.norwalkemergencyshelter.org or call 203-866-1057.
The Open Door Shelter, located at 4 Merritt Street, has 95 beds and provides meals through the Manna House of Hospitality soup kitchen for individuals and families. They also operate a food pantry, which is available to those living in the community. In addition, Open Door Shelter operates low-cost housing units for transitional and permanent use.