Published July 1, 2021
By Claire Bessette

Norwich — The COVID-19 pandemic might be waning, but Norwich Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes cannot retire just yet from her role of coordinating a big part of the city’s effort to help people in need, whether COVID-related or not.

Gomes, 56, who has worked for the city Human Services Department for the past 36 years, first had planned to retire at the end of June 2020. But when the pandemic slammed into Norwich and the region in mid-March, throwing thousands out of work and students into remote learning, Gomes canceled that plan.

With vaccines spreading rapidly this spring, students back in school and businesses reopening, she told city officials this spring that she would try again to retire at the end of June. But with a successor not yet named, and with the city set to roll out its plan to spend the $21 million in federal American Rescue Plan grants, Gomes has agreed to stay on for another six months to a year. Even after her final last day, she is expected to remain active in helping the city coordinate its American Rescue Plan funding.

“I’m happy to stay,” Gomes said Thursday. “I’m not disappointed about that at all. I think we’re in a recovery phase. I’m really excited about the ARP. It’s a way to recovery. There are a lot of exciting things we can do with that money.”

City Manager John Salomone will present his plan for spending the city’s ARP grants to the City Council on Tuesday during the regular 7:30 p.m. council meeting. Salmone said Thursday he has asked Gomes to continue working on the ARP rollout once she retires. “I’m glad he trusts my judgment,” Gomes said of Salomone’s request.

Salomone has another request of Gomes over the next several months. Salamone has a candidate in mind to succeed Gomes, but the person, who works in the city Human Services Department, needs additional management training, the city manager said. Salomone would like the person to serve as an apprentice to Gomes over the next several months to get the person “up to the director level.”

“We’d like to promote from within,” Salomone said. “We think it’s a good program to try. We’ve never done anything like this before.”

Salomone said he expects to name the candidate later this month.

Salomone joked that he has been looking for ways to extend Gomes’ tenure with the city any way he could. He and Mayor Peter Nystrom both said there’s no replacing Gomes’ knowledge, years of experience and self-sacrifice.

“She is extremely talented and dedicated,” Nystrom said. “And she sacrificed the past year and a half of what would have been her private life to serve the city.”

Salomone thanked Gomes for her continued service and called her one of the best employees he has worked with in his career. He said her portion of the ARP is critical.

“She’s going to be a phasing in the ARP,” Salomone said. “Her component of it is a key component of it. The social services component is really the rescue part. Rent issues, food issues will be administered. That will possibly continue beyond her retirement.”

The city Human Services Department includes the Rose City Senior Center, Youth and Family Services, adult services and the city Recreation Department. In response to the pandemic, the four divisions helped with food distributions, applied for grants to help residents with rental and utility bills, scrambled to secure internet connections for adults working at home and students in remote school and provided childcare for teachers’ children when schools reopened.

The department works closely with many community partners, including the school district, St. Vincent de Paul Place, Reliance Health, United Community and Family Services and the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut. Gomes cited community foundation President and CEO Maryam Elahi for helping to coordinate ARP spending to ensure the one-time grants are used for lasting improvements to the region.

“It takes all of us, all of our partners in the community," Gomes said. "No one person does it alone.”