Jeanne Gattegno was 17, just having graduated from Hope High School when she got her first social service job at a neighborhood resource center. Just eight years later she became one of the youngest people to direct a social service agency and one of only a few women in the state to hold such a position.
On Friday, 48 years later, Gattegno retired as president and CEO of Westbay Community Action, a job she held for 32 years.
As she concluded an interview about her career, and working in a field that has given her an insider view of the development of anti-poverty agencies, she wondered aloud where the years went and how she arrived at this point so quickly.
It’s not that she didn’t plan on retirement. Gattegno and the Westbay board have worked on the transition. Paul Salera succeeds her as the director of an agency employing 75 and operating on an annual budget of $9 million serving 9,500 to 10,000 households.
Gattegno says Salera is well suited for the job. He’s capable. He knows the agency and in recent weeks, he’s been working alongside Gattegno. In fact, she moved out of her office and worked from the boardroom to ensure Salera had complete control. Gattegno has made a career of helping people find their strengths and progress.
Westbay, which provides services for Warwick, West Warwick and East Greenwich residents, is a reflection of that commitment. Under her leadership, the agency started the Westbay Marketplace across Buttonwoods Avenue from the agency’s home offices. The agency has long helped those in need with food donations and that’s what the marketplace does, but with dignity. Rather than being handed a bag of canned and dried goods, recipients can make their own selections from the shelves. In addition, the marketplace offers fresh produce, baked goods and other foods that aren’t customarily available at food pantries.
Another of Gattegno’s initiatives, the Westbay Farm, has been an ideal link to the marketplace and the community. The farm operates from the city-owned Barton Farm property on Centerville Road. Produce grown there is made available at the market and also sold at a stand at Kent Hospital, with the money raised flowing back to the agency. Staff members, who work with a cadre of volunteers, run both the marketplace and the farm. Under Gattegno’s direction, Westbay started the Working Wardrobe, which is part of the Westbay complex, where people can find suitable working attire. And she also started an adult education program run by Westbay. Gattegno views even her own retirement as providing opportunity.
“My leaving is an incredible boost,” she says.
Asked to explain, Gattegno said the board has worked on and adopted a strategic plan and that, along with Salera’s promotion to director from within the ranks, there have come three other internal promotions.
Talking about her career, Gattegno said she believed she was going to land a job with Old Stone Bank after graduating from high school in 1966. She was prepared to be a teller and thought she would take the job, until she realized she couldn’t see over the counter. She had second thoughts. Besides, she adds, “The money was a little bit better [at the resource center], so I took it.”
The decision made her a solider in the War on Poverty.
“It was a very exciting time,” she said. “It all started from nothing.”
Today, community action agencies administrate a number of programs, ranging from health and substance abuse services to food stamps, legal aid, childcare, help for senior citizens and low-income heating assistance programs.
Westbay started as Warwick Community Action in June 1966 under the direction of Leo Perrone. It has operated from a number of different locations until acquiring its current offices. Gattegno came to the agency in 1982 and succeeded Fred Skidmore as executive director.
In the intervening years, she said she has seen “the face of poverty change.” When she started, the poor were out of work and couldn’t find a job. Today, many of the people the agency assists are the “working poor,” who can’t make ends meet, even when their income is augmented by a second job and the wages of a spouse.
“Fix the economy and things would be wonderful,” she said. “There’s a growing need among people who work. There’s just not enough money for people who work … The face of poverty is changing. People are trying to take care of themselves and they just can’t do it,” she said.
She sees the role of the agency as helping people develop skills so they can get better paying jobs; and stepping in to deal with a crisis, such as not having the money to buy food or pay rent. Childcare, which enables parents to work, she sees as critical, and a service that should be expanded and free.
David Lauterbach, president and CEO of the Kent Center, calls Gattegno’s achievements “huge.”
“She has been a mainstay to the community for such a long time,” he said.
Lauterbach points to Gattegno’s role in founding the Warwick Coalition of Non-Profits, which went on to be known as the “Warwick 13.” The association of directors of non-profits continues to meet periodically to share information, identify gaps in the delivery of services and collaborate with state and city officials.
“Everything stands out about Jeanne,” said Lauterbach. “Her respect for fellow human beings, her laughter at even the darkest moment … Jeanne seemed to keep a focus on other people.
It wasn’t a job for Jeanne; it was a way of life.”
Another leader in the non-profit community, Roberta Merkle, likewise cited Gattegno's involvement with the Warwick 13 and dedication to helping people.
“She has long been a significant figure in changing the landscape for people without a lot of resources and a major player in advocating for people who need support on the local, state and national levels,” said Merkle.
Merkle was the president and CEO of Cornerstone Adult Services and went on to a director’s position with Saint Elizabeth Community when Cornerstone and Saint Elizabeth merged.
“It’s a cause for her,” Merkle said of Gattegno. “It’s not a job. She believes in the rights of people to live the best lives they can.”
Gattegno has faced challenges, most often of a financial nature as she looks to stretch federal grants to respond to community needs. It seems almost annually she is in the forefront of appeals for additional funding for low income heating assistance. What she notes is that even at times when resources were tight, her staff consistently delivered a high level of service.
She has also faced personal challenges. She is a breast cancer survivor, having successfully fought three different types of the disease over the last 17 years. It’s not a topic she dwells on.
Gattegno plans to do some volunteer work with the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, a Westbay agency, play some golf and do some painting.
“I’m looking to go with the flow,” she said laughing.