Magee Interviews: Joy Johannes, FISH of Greater New Haven

Joy Johannes is the Executive Director of FISH of Greater New Haven, whose primary mission is to provide nutritionally sound grocery assistance to the home-bound  in the New Haven area. 

Can you tell me what led you to FISH of Greater New Haven?

I’ve only lived in Connecticut for about three and a half years. Prior to that I was in Washington DC working on famine relief efforts for a non-profit based in Kenya and Somalia – I opened the DC office for them and worked directly with the U.S. State Department, collaborating on efforts to end the famine. I met my husband shortly afterwards and moved to Connecticut. Once I moved here and I continued to look for some kind of humanitarian work. After a couple of years I saw the position for Executive Director of FISH of Greater New Haven on on non-profits jobs and applied for it. I was very excited because it seemed like a perfect fit for my experience, previously I had an inner-city children’s ministry that was community based. We started with 40 kids in an After School Program and after twelve years we were meeting the needs of over 3,000 families weekly. We became the hub for the poor in the community. We partnered with government, business, and churches, to meet the needs of these families. That’s very similar to FISH – we are collaborative, we work with various community groups and stakeholders. We were started as neighbors reaching neighbors and we are still community based today. Other than that, I was very excited to work on something as specific to a great need as delivering groceries to the homebound.

 How has the organization changed over that time?

We used to just deliver groceries to anybody who would call our hotline, no matter whether they needed it or not. We now have an Intake Assessment Process, targeting the homebound or people who have difficulty getting to the grocery store. That includes the elderly, handicapped, those who have a disability that makes travel difficult, and anyone going through a major medical treatment.

 What are your current goals as an organization?

Our biggest goal is to reach more people. The elderly population alone presents a major challenge – there’s approximately 4,500 elderly people living in poverty and alone in New Haven, and we’re only reaching 125 of those. So there’s a massive need, especially for grocery delivery. When you’re by yourself and in a walker or wheelchair groceries are very difficult to get and transport back to your house especially in the winter months – even if you can get to a grocery store, many of them may not be able to carry them home.

The Food Assistants Working Group is also discussing the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP). It’s a national government program that has just been introduced to Connecticut. The state has a goal to meet this year in order to receive the same funding and food next year. The conversation has been around the big problem of delivering these CSFP boxes of groceries. Discussions have been around FISH becoming the conduit or distribution site for the entire city – this would allow for a more collaborative work between agencies.

 What are the challenges you currently face as an organization?

Drivers. It’s always the biggest need! Our delivery time is from noon to three: driving in the evening can get dangerous, and we try to do it before rush hour/school gets out, therefore it makes it difficult for many people to volunteer. The other big challenge is funding – we have more than one staff member for the first time in 48 years: an Executive Director, a Grocery Delivery Program Manager and a part-time Community Liaison. This year we’ve really increased our capacity, so now we’re ready to increase as far as client base. The other challenge is finding people to do intake on the phones.

What are the personal challenges you face?

Not enough time! This last year in implementing these changes I was working 70-80 hours a week for months on end, but we’re really at a fantastic place now. Other personal challenges for staff are around driving and delivery – at any point we might have to drop what we’re doing to go and do deliveries if the extra support is needed.

What do you wish you had known about social justice/ public service when you were 20?

That community and the grassroots movements usually have the answers, and to ask them first before moving forward on projects. I heard something recently that really epitomizes that view, and it was regarding the sex trade: when they began to look into why these girls were being sold off, they went to the local level and asked why this was happening. They were told it was because families couldn’t afford to feed them, the elephants were eating their crops. So a fence was erected around the crops, and didn’t have to sell their girls anymore. So it was something a simple as putting up a fence! From the outside we might have addressed that problem very differently without having gone to the roots of the issue.

And I’ve worked in city planning, so I’ve worked with quite a few governments around the world. When you have community vision meetings, the general population has, in my experience, always had the answers, but don’t have the power, the influence, or the money to make it happen. So if they can share their ideas with government or NGOs then we can truly help without doing something that isn’t needed and possibly threatening to businesses or local community.

Secondly, when asking for funding, remember that it’s not asking for money, it’s providing someone with the opportunity to make a difference!

 What do you still struggle to remember/still have to learn?

Delegation! I don’t have to do it all! It’s so easy to keep going and going instead of training and empowering somebody else or looking for a volunteer in that area. You have to delegate. When I had the non-profit in Illinois we actually raised up the kids in the program. When they were 12 years old, they could be junior workers, and when they were 14 they became teachers, and eventually they took over the program. That’s true delegation, release, and transitioning the project to that community. The same thing happened in Nigeria – I met a woman and asked her what she would do if she could do anything in the world, and she said that she wanted to own a children’s clothing store. I did some research and found out that for $200 we could set her up with full inventory for an entire year. So I came back to the U.S. and started up a micro-finance NGO in order to help her and other women like her. Within two years it was transitioned over to the locals. We closed the NGO in the US, and now the Nigerian government funds it with $20,000 a year for local businesses. That’s the ideal situation, but that takes delegation and listening to the locals.

 What motivates you to keep going? What are you hopeful about?

One, I know my gifts and skills and talents, and I’m using them. I’m empathetic, mercy-motivated, administrative, and I’m a leader. I want to be hands on. When you really figure out what your sweet spot is, what your gifts are, what excites you, that’s what keeps you going. That’s true success. In addition, we get phone calls every day from people who haven’t eaten. An elderly couple in their 70s called who told us they hadn’t eaten for three days – that’s what keeps me going. But I also have hope, because the city of New Haven is receptive and in communication about food insecurity, and some cities aren’t. NGOs are also willing to work together here, which doesn’t happen everywhere And I have a fantastic board, which is open to growth and change. If one of those supports were not present, it would be much more difficult.

Any final thoughts?

FISH was started by three different groups from three different churches, as neighbours helping neighbours. We want to take that same vision into the future: when neighbours reach neighbours, our communities will be transformed!

Want to find out more about FISH or how you can get involved? Visit their website.

For more stories, check out the Voices and Stories Archive page.