North East Community Center
Day of Dance moves all at NECC
Reprinted with permission from The Millerton News, copyright The Lakeville Journal Company, LLC, 2011.

NORTH EAST — “It’s the longest time I’ve been anywhere,” said Jenny Hansell about her tenure at the North East Community Center (NECC), where she’s executive director. Hansell started in February of 2001 and has been there ever since; those who helped found NECC, like Sam Busselle, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think the community center has blossomed under her direction,” he said. “It’s thrilling to see a small town such as ours being able to maintain a community resource of this nature during the length of her tenure.”

A Michigan native and Yale graduate, Hansell didn’t plan on being here, doing this. But it didn’t take her long after college to find her true calling.

“I had always worked in nonprofits,” she said, adding she moved to Brooklyn after graduating. “I worked with a couple of organizations, including the National Audubon Society and the Council on the Environment in New York City — they run the green markets — so that was one of the reasons I was able to jump on the farmers market so fast [when NECC initiated that program], because I have a background in that.”

She then spent many years working with Creative Arts Workshops for Kids, working with homeless children living in shelters and welfare hotels at the time; she stayed with the organization for nearly 10 years. While there Hansell climbed the ladder from volunteering to tutoring. She then became program director, development director and ultimately executive director.

“This was really my passion, this kind of work,” she said.

Then she met her husband, Fred Baumgarten (a frequent contributor to Compass, the arts section of The Lakeville Journal Company newspapers, as is Hansell); he worked for Audubon at the time and the pair moved to Sharon, Conn. At the time Hansell made the move to work for Sesame Street’s new website.

“It was very exciting, in the early days of the Internet,” she said. “But that was the boom, and then it went bust, around 2000.”

By then Hansell had her daughter, Abbey (now 12), and working full time wasn’t as appealing as it once was. (She and husband Baumgarten also have 8-year-old daughter, Ella.) It was while participating in a play group that she met a North East Community Center board member, from whom she learned about what was then a part-time position.

“It worked out perfectly,” Hansell said. “I took a number of courses in education and social work and nonprofit management from the time I started in that field and had a great deal of training.”

All of which was put to use. There were basically no programs when Hansell started at NECC. There was Care Car, which continues today, as well as the senior exercise program, but little else. There was also another unexpected challenge for Hansell to conquer — hostility.

“The place had gone through a fairly rough time when the previous director had left and there were some bad feelings,” she said. “There were some issues of conflict between her and the board at that time and some people in the community were pretty angry at the community center. So the first couple of months I was trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing while people were telling me how mad at the community center they were. I was trying not to get bogged down in that.”

One thing was clear, however, and that was that NECC wanted to focus on children.

“Our mission had always been working with kids,” Hansell said. “So I had to figure how to fulfill that mission.”

Music Together, the after-school program and summer camp were just a few solutions — ones that continue today. And there are others, like the Community Partnership with Schools and Business, which has been going strong for eight years. The program provides paid internship opportunities to teenage students who get mentored on the job. Next up, if all goes well, is the Youth Build Program, which will provide GED training and ultimately college courses while also teaching construction skills to young adults while they work on building affordable housing in their neighborhoods.

To provide such programs and services (along with countless others), the community center needs money and space. Grants help, but donations are also key. Hansell said the center has been extremely fortunate with “steady” funding.

In terms of space, the building on South Center Street at times seems to be bursting at its seams, which is why NECC rents space from the Webutuck Central School District. It houses some of its GED classes, as well as its summer camp, at the Millerton Elementary School building on Route 22, just a few blocks away from home base. That could all change, however, as the school district has announced it wants to sell that building and a new owner may not be willing to lease the space to the center.

All said, however, the community center is doing well and growing. As Busselle put it, “The growth has provided vital services to families throughout the town.”

It has also made a seasoned veteran out of Jenny Hansell in the world of social services. She’s grown into a rare and valuable leader who knows her community, understands its needs, appreciates its subtleties and can create practical solutions.

For all of that, it’s Hansell who is grateful.

“The wonderful thing about Millerton is how people come together to support and see good in the community,” she said. “I grew up in a big, cold city where you may not even know your next-door neighbor, let alone anyone in the community. I had no idea what small-town life could be like until I was here. I couldn’t even imagine it, and it’s just been wonderful beyond anything I could have imagined, and to live and work in a place like this where generosity is just baked into people — I just find there’s a sort of collective spirit here that I’ve never encountered. It’s what a community should be and being a part of it has just taught me a tremendous amount.”