This is the first of two features on Operation Hope, the Fairfield nonprofit that provides a range of programs to help the homeless, the hungry and people in various states of need. The agency is marking its 25th anniversary, and the following article looks at its beginnings and how its services evolved over the last quarter-century. Next Wednesday, the feature will focus on how Operation Hope plans to make a permanent impact on homelessness by focusing on transitional housing and support services.

When the Rev. David Spollett inadvertently tripped over a man sleeping in the vestibule of First Church Congregational one night in December 1985, he never imagined that one misstep would direct Fairfield's moral compass.

Spollett, the pastor of First Church, remembered, "I came over to the church late one night, it was pouring rain, all the lights were out. I came running across the parking lot and stepped into the outer vestibule. The outer doors were unlocked, the inner doors were locked. I stepped in, it was pitch black, and stepped on someone, who yelled. It scared the daylights out of me. I jumped back and this fellow stood up, and I recognized him as a fellow who I had seen walking up and down the Post Road during the daytime, looking like, if I had seen him in any place other than Fairfield, as a person who was homeless. But because we were in Fairfield, I thought to myself, `that was really an eccentric guy.'

"It never occurred to me that he didn't have a place to sleep until that night when I discovered he, in fact, didn't have a place to sleep. And he was sleeping there to get out of the rain."

Spollett, who was associate pastor at the time, adds, "And it was one of those moments that really rocked my world."

In the beginning

The December night happenstance launched Operation Hope, which is celebrating 25 years of providing help to the homeless and hungry in Fairfield so they can regain their lives.

The organization will mark its anniversary with a gala Saturday at the Patterson Club.

"What I never anticipated or could have foreseen," he says, "is the degree to which Operation Hope would become woven into the fabric of the community. So now it is just an integral part of who Fairfield is and what Fairfield is. It is not something that is separate and outside the orbit of Fairfield life. It is an important institution and widely recognized."

Operation Hope opened inside First Church and gave shelter to homeless men. Over the next 25 years, an 18-bed men's shelter was established at 50 Nichols St., a town-owned building that once was police headquarters. and was joined by a five-bed shelter for women, a three-unit shelter for families and a community kitchen. The organization has added a food pantry, supportive housing and a host of services to provide its clients a chance at rehabilitation, employment, permanent housing and navigation through the social services world. As an example of the growth and the need, the food pantry in 2010 provided 112,000 meals to 471 unique households, the majority of whom are Fairfield residents.

While Spollett was contemplating his church's mission, Rabbi Leon Waldman of Congregation Beth El had a similar experience with a homeless man. A longtime Fairfield resident had alerted Waldman that a man was sleeping under a tree on the grounds of Fairfield University.

"We had these shared experiences within a week of each other, so we started talking to the clergy association about what can we do about this," Spollett recalls. "And I went to talk to members of the church and trustees and I said, `I think we need to unlock the church at night so that people who don't have a place to sleep can come in and get out of the cold and the rain and be safe.' "

His church leaders and members agreed. "It was amazingly easy," he recalls. "The sentiment was, if we believe what it says in the Bible, then we have to do this.

Spollett and Waldman invited other clergy in town, including the Rev. Henry Morris, pastor of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church, to an informal working group to develop a response to the needs of the people who are homeless and hungry. In the meantime, Spollett tracked down the man from the vestibule and told him that the church would be opening its doors so he could have a place to sleep. The man's response, says Spollett, was a disbelieving, "What?"

At the height of the shelter provided by the church, 18 men slept there. When the men went to the church to sleep, Spollett then started to recognize others from around town. "Once the blinders are off, you can't not see what's around you."

The next steps

In spring 1986, the clergymen were ready to approach First Selectman Jacquelyn Durrell with their idea to establish a town shelter. "In the conference room of the first selectmen's office, she said, `I understand you came here to talk about the homeless ... `Well, thank God you've come. I have been waiting for someone to say they wanted to do something about this,' " Spollett recounts.

He admits he expected a little resistance, but Durrell, who died in 2009, turned out to be the clergymen's greatest ally, including offering the use of the second floor of the old police station on Nichols Street. While the space was being retrofitted for use as a men's shelter, a director and a name for the organization were needed.

Pam Hyman, a licensed clinical social worker working in Danbury at the time, was chosen after a series of interviews. "Pam was head and shoulders above the rest," Spollett says, because she already had been working with marginal people. "She was a godsend."

Spollett uses biblical references to describe the early relationship. "Rabbi Waldman was our Moses. Pam Hyman was our Joshua. He was the one who had the moral stature and the gravitas in the community to communicate the moral imperative of what we were doing. I was young enough and brash enough and eager enough to do anything we had to do."

Hyman's involvement was integral to the success of helping the homeless regain self-worth. "What Pam helped us to understand was that we have to help people rebuild their lives," says Spollett, who served twice as president of the Operation Hope board and now is on the advisory council. "So what Operation Hope really is, technically, is an emergency shelter and affordable housing program. What it is, is a holistic, social rehabilitation, drug rehabilitation, mental health service provider so that when somebody comes, we deal with the whole person."

Spollett says that giving the clients "hope" for the future was the objective, thus the name of the organization. In an early meeting at the church, it was evident during the conversation, he says, "We are not just talking about food and shelter, but we really are talking about helping people get hope again, to be hopeful again."

About a year before, there had been "Operation Moses," the airlifting of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. "So I had this `operation' idea in my head. I said, `Why don't we call it Operation Hope?' It just happened. I liked the idea of `operation' because of the movement, of actually doing something."

With Hyman at the helm as executive director, Operation Hope officially opened in February 1988. Hyman, who served until 1996 and now has a private practice in Milford, also established a day program, which included lunch, because, she says, some people needed to be inside. "The clients needed a place to go other than the library." Activities were built into the day program. She instituted a case management system that helped the clients wade through social services. "There were people there who understood what they needed," she says. And a hot evening meal through the community kitchen always was part of the initiative; breakfast was later added.

In 1990, the women's shelter opened. In the early days, she says, there were very few women who needed assistance. But once the food pantry was more heavily used, she says, the women needing help became evident. The shelter for families was added in 1994.

Controversy and cooperation

The road to success was not always smooth. Hyman weathered many storms of controversy during her tenure, fielding the community's questions and criticisms, but forging ahead. Some people, however, were never persuaded that Operation Hope was needed to help a segment of the Fairfield community. Some, she says, were afraid of the unknown and she understood their fears, but she added the skeptics were in the minority.

Much of Fairfield braced the mission of Operation Hope, and she cites how the community provides meals for the shelter guests as a prime example. "That was when it really began to involve families. It became a family activity," she says.

Spollett concurs. "One of the secrets for the ways that Operation Hope has become thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the town was the decision early on to have the evening meal produced by church, synagogue and civic groups so that people are personally involved with, invested in and connected to it."

He contemplates the impact that Operation Hope has had on children, including his own.

But he doesn't overlook the rough patches. "About six months into it, somebody called up ranting and raving about how we were ruining the town of Fairfield and why don't these people get a job?" When he challenged the caller to give one of the shelter clients a job, the caller refused.

Meghan Lowney, who had a 16-year career at Operation Hope -- six as part of the shift and case management team and 10 as executive director -- also remembers overcoming a few highly charged times when some town residents refused to see the good Operation Hope was doing. At the time Operation Hope was considering establishing a transitional family living program on Penfield Road, she went to a town public hearing to give testimony about the use of the site. "I was going to support and say my piece that I work with these folks every day and it is going to be OK and they just need a place to be and having a little longer would be great to help them get on their feet.

"But I was horrified that night because someone said that they opposed putting this transitional living program on Penfield because then those kids might be riding their bikes on the street. And I thought, `exactly, exactly,' " emphasizing those last two words. " `They will be riding their bikes on the street.' That is exactly what we want, but it was so upsetting for those people to think about." The transitional living program on Penfield Road was abandoned and focus was centered on supportive housing instead.

Both Hyman and Lowney, who worked together for several years, are quick to point out that none of Operation Hope's success or how it functions would be possible without the volunteers. The organization now has hundreds of volunteers who occasionally or regularly donate their time and talents -- from making and serving meals, helping stock the pantry, answering phones and event planning. Schools, places of worship, civic groups, individuals and businesses frequently host food drives.

When she looks back on Operation Hope's 25-year history, Lowney says, "The most important thing to me is the people. The community of Operation Hope is most important -- the folks who come to the organization every day in need and succeed despite tremendous odds against them and the people who show up every day wanting to be of help -- whether that be staff or volunteers, donors. I always felt very privileged to be at the point of exchange and to, in part, manage that exchange between those who were in need and those who wanted to help. And I am very proud that my community has such a place of help."

And Carla Miklos, who has been the executive director since 2007, echoes the sentiment about the people of Fairfield. "I love this community for allowing us to do this work. We are so fortunate to be able to do this here and that the community allows us to do this here and feels like they are our partner. It's remarkable, nothing short of remarkable."

The future

One of the other challenges for Operation Hope is wiping out a budget deficit. In addition to other cost-saving measures, the staff of full-, part- and per-diem employees has been trimmed to 44 people.

The community has been generous with its emotional and financial support, but, Miklos says, it "alone can't sustain us. In some ways, we need to be able to recognize the appeal of regionalism without losing the beautiful, local quality that the organization has. It is really a challenge for us. While the work we do is very local, it is also essential to the region. Somehow without damaging any of the ownership that the community feels, we have to explore how we can attract dollars outside of our neighborhood."

With the downturn in the economy, corporations becoming more global in nature and charitable foundations feeling strapped, large donations coming into Operation Hope have slowed. "The dollars become more competitive and the pool of dollars doesn't necessarily grow."

In her office in the former Fairfield Historical Society building at 636 Old Post Road, adjacent to First Church Congregational, Miklos adds, "I think it's amazing what has occurred in a relatively short period of time -- in 25 years -- where we were able to go from the floor of the church next door to all that we are now, and the growth was necessary to serve our population. But I think we're entering a period where we really have to resolve the sustainability piece, where we have to take a good look at how we sustain the organization that has become vital to our community and be ready for the next 25 years."

One of the ways, she says, is through a "social enterprise." She explains, "The idea is to create a business-like environment that doesn't creep far away from your mission, that allows you to basically further your mission while providing a good or service that the community needs and, in return, creates a revenue stream that at least allows it to pay for the program, if not add money to the bottom line.

"Our clients can only go so far if they're not part of the economic system, and to help those who want to work and are ready to work, we need to help them develop skills, test their skills and when there is no employment, we've got to create our own."

Miklos has a couple of ideas that she is not ready to divulge, but she has done the legwork to determine their feasibility. Creating more revenue for Operation Hope's bottom line and working toward preparing its clients for employment -- which opens other doors -- are her goals.

While she pursues the next steps to further Operation Hope's mission, she is grateful to the small donors and the larger contributors, who continue to support the cause, and she is optimistic. "I really do believe Operation Hope has a place in this community and will be able to sustain that place in the community. I think we have huge challenges and we should not trivialize them, but if we put our heads together, I think we have a smart board and we have a strong group of supporters who will help us navigate through these tough times."

In the interest of full disclosure, the writer occasionally volunteers at Operation Hope.