NEW BRITAIN – This is a story of personal and professional growth as it transcends to face unprecedented trials.
This is a story of how a bilingual, single mother living in poverty became Dr. Marlo Greponne, executive director of the Human Resources Agency (HRA) of New Britain.
The young city resident started volunteering at the non-profit organization’s Clinton Street headquarters when her daughter was enrolled in HRA’s Head Start preschool program.
“I was very low-income at the time and I needed a place for my baby girl to start learning,” she recalled. “This was a wonderful place to do that.”
While applying for energy assistance she learned of HRA’s need for a Spanish-English translator.
“I was 24-years-old with no experience,” she said. “They were seeking a bilingual parent aide to engage the Hispanic community and Latina families in their service area.”
It was 1997 and HRA barely had a computer in its facility, never mind an office and desk for its new part-time employee. She did have a folding table and chair, which were moved around as needed to meet with clients, connect them with the services they needed and serve as their liaison to staff.
“These were families trusting me with their situations,” Greponne recalled. “I learned so much about the needs of others in the process.”
About a year-and-a-half later another position for a family service worker opened up and her role evolved again.
“It was then I started discovering the barriers people had in their lives,” she said. “Many families were looking for jobs. They couldn’t find work because they didn’t have the education or know the language or maybe they had both but didn’t have experience.”
Greponne did that for the next five years and came to realize more about her own life through others’ examples.
“I started to understand how I actually had a host of opportunities at my disposal,” she said. “I just had to reach out and take them.”
She was 29 and enrolled in college for the first time. It would be another 20 years – and many more life experiences – before Greponne earned her PhD.
During that time she worked her way through the ranks at HRA, as parent involvement coordinator, executive assistant and then director of planning.
Then among the administration, it became clear to Greponne that each family needed a whole needs assessment and a comprehensive plan to achieve their goals. One program or service wasn’t going to cut it.
“The scope of everything the agency could do really broadened in my mind,” she said.
As director of planning she was responsible for securing HRA’s funding through grants and campaigns. This gave her the opportunity to engage with community partners like the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC) and the YWCA, on the ground level.
“The voice and perspective I could bring was different because I had personal experience in the problems I was trying to address,” she said, referencing poverty, single parenthood, domestic abuse, mobility…spending six months out of the year in Puerto Rico through childhood.
By 2020 it had been 13 years and the executive director role opened up. The covid-19 pandemic had also befallen the world and HRA was scrambling to meet the ever-changing needs of the communities it served.
“I started reading from the Bible with my mom and sister,” Greponne recalled. “It became something like air for me. I realized it was everything that was missing in my life.”
HRA raised $20 million that year to fund programs and services and expanded Head Start into Bristol.
“If it weren’t for the multitude of long-term staff we wouldn’t have made it,” she said. “They kept this place running.”
Now they’re dealing firsthand with challenges directly impacting the non-profit sector. HRA currently has 50 open positions and no guarantee grant funds will be there to incentivize long-term staff commitments.
“Those challenges are really getting in the way of us serving the community the way we want to,” she said.
But her faith and her fighting spirit carry HRA forward, into the future.
Erica Drzewiecki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.