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Norfolk NET: A Conversation With the Rev. Erick Olsen

By Kelly Kandra Hughes

Norfolk NET (Networking Everyone Together) is a collaborative, grassroots effort to alleviate poverty and strengthen community relationships in Norfolk. One of the lead collaborators, the Rev. Erick Olsen, pastor of the Church of Christ Congregational (UCC), recently agreed to share with Norfolk Now his thoughts on this initiative and his hopes for its future.

NN: Why do you feel there’s a need for Norfolk NET in our community?
Olsen: One of the initial reasons or driving forces early on came from conversations with Sue Dyer of Town Hall, Father Iain at Immaculate Conception, and Mary Beth Iacobelli, whoís the superintendent of the Norfolk school system. We recognized that we were involved in similar initiatives, with occasional overlap. We wanted to have a clearer sense of who was doing what so we would know whose needs were being met by whom.
Also, there seems to be a harmony of factors right now with people who are in agreement that Norfolk has great disparity. It’s encouraging to find out there are a number of people who feel the same way. As a pastor of one of the churches, I’m excited about seeing new relationships begin, but also long-standing relationships grow stronger.

NN: Why are relationships so important to Norfolk NET?
Olsen: As a pastor, I’m aware it’s increasingly important in our society for people to understand that a significant tenet of the church is making the world a better place. We call it “Building the Kingdom of God,” but there’s a perception that churches exist solely to perpetuate the institution itself, and, in my opinion, this couldnít be further from the truth. The churches exist to serve their communities; this should be who we are and what weíre doing all the time. With Norfolk NET, I’ve become more excited about what I’m learning as an entrepreneurial and innovative approach to collaborate with politicians, community leaders, educators, elected or appointed officials, all of whom have a shared goal of wanting to make Norfolk a better place for everyone to live.

NN: Who are some of the resource partners currently involved with Norfolk NET?
Olsen: There are currently five access points or portals to receiving help: Town of Norfolk Selectmen’s Office, Church of Christ Congregational UCC, Immaculate Conception Church, Botelle Elementary, and Northwestern Regional 7 High School. Others at the table include representatives of the Norfolk Foundation, Connecticut Children’s Foundation, Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, Foundation for Norfolk Living and the William and Mary Greve Foundation.
One of our goals is to develop a master list of volunteers who can donate their time and skills. If someone has a crisis or situation and is forced to choose between a basic necessity, such as food, and making the decision of paying for medication or having a car or home repair, then their living condition becomes substandard or unsafe. When we have the types of resources and partners in this community that we do, it doesn’t make sense for people to have to make such stark choices. By having a master list of volunteers, we hope to build a culture where not only will people be more willing to share their needs, but people will be more willing to provide resources. We recognize this isn’t going to happen overnight, and we don’t know exactly how this sharing culture will work, but it’s exciting to think about how it might take shape.

NN: So Norfolk NET is not only for people in need?
Olsen: I think everyone wants to have some meaningful relationships. NET is yet another opportunity for people to become and participate in something larger than themselves, and I think that’s always a good thing.
By no means is NET a closed group. We are wide open. We are not connected to a town committee, nongovernmental organization, or any one organization. It may be the case that NET presents to people opportunities to meet individuals from other circles that they might not get to know otherwise. Everyone from people involved in the PTO to fire department and ambulance crew volunteers.
People may typically stay within their particular circles, whether it’s their church, the library, or the country club. The hope is to encourage an expanding concept of what it means to be a resident of Norfolk. If we can either facilitate relationships that are new or strengthen existing relationships while we are serving others to meet some basic needs, then I’ll consider NET to be successful.

Photo by Dawn Whalen.

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