It’s difficult to keep up with Liz Sayre. She walks, works and talks fast — a woman on a mission, armed with a ready smile, quick wit and a plain-speaking manner. She says what she means and means what she says. That’s what colleagues and friends say about her.
And there’s a reason for her alacrity; she’s got a lot on her plate assisting people facing the awesome, ever-expanding universe of problems, predicaments and just plain bad luck that are the stuff of the human condition.
Since 2005, Sayre has been manager of human services for the city of Keene, which at one time was known as the city welfare department. From her office on the second floor of City Hall, or out and about town, she may meet during a day with a handful of people who have come downtown looking for help and speak on the phone with a half-dozen more. Spliced into that are calls to other social services agencies in the area, coordinating resources that are available to clients. Then there are the meetings and constant keeping up with ever-changing city, state and federal rules and regulations.
“I’ve been called the Energizer Bunny, and there are difficult days, but it’s rewarding to go to a job every morning where you know you’re serving people in need,” she says.
Although there are few scenarios she hasn’t seen, heard about or handled, every day brings new clients to her door with novel situations — some heartbreaking, she says. Broken families, lost jobs, drug and alcohol addiction, poor health habits, evictions, bankruptcies, layoffs, firings, accidents, abusive spouses, a lifetime of bad decisions — all these people and their stories come before Sayre.
“It’s very difficult for people to come asking for help,” she says. “We recognize that, so we make it a priority to treat everyone with dignity and respect. The key is being able to build a rapport with clients. Relationships are built on trust.
“There’s a lot of tragedy in people’s lives, and some people are so overwhelmed dealing with all the crises in their lives,” she says. “They may have years of one poor decision after another. We’re here to help people turn that corner.”
Sayre explains that hers is not a “welfare” office in the sense some might think. It doesn’t distribute monthly benefits like the state and federal government; its purpose instead is to provide short-term emergency assistance and to help people make changes to improve their lot.
“The city does not support a lifestyle, it supports people’s basic needs — a roof, food, utilities, diapers, no oil in their tank, no electricity, no money for prescription drugs — those things. Our mission to the community is to make sure they’re not sick, cold, hungry or homeless.”
And any monetary assistance from the city is a loan, payable when the clients get back on their feet, she notes. A significant portion of Sayre’s job is to make sure clients are referred to appropriate nonprofit agencies and governmental services and that they are made aware of the resources available to them.
Another key function is to help people begin making more prudent decisions. “I advocate for people to take baby steps at first, to do one thing a day they can point to as an accomplishment, to get them on the road to self-sufficiency. In many ways, I’m a cheerleader for them. We need to do a better job to make sure people are educated, and trained, to incorporate life skills into their lives — how to pay bills, how to be a good parent, how to be a responsible tenant.
“You have to put your energies toward people who want to make positive changes in their life,” she said. “It comes down to whether a person is enabled versus empowered. Empowerment takes more time and effort, but people can change, absolutely. Unfortunately, I don’t think our society has a lot of time and patience, and the resources are being stretched too thin. If you just keep putting Band-Aids on problems, nothing changes.”
The office is funded by Keene’s real estate tax, with a current yearly budget of $492,000. She estimates that about 4,000 people take advantage of its services yearly. Sayre is assisted by a case worker, Natalie Darcy.
New Hampshire law dictates that every town and city in the state have a municipally funded welfare program to help people in dire straits. That law’s roots hearken back to Colonial days when needy residents of a town were supplied basic necessities in what were called “poor houses.”
The modern law, considered sacrosanct, is RSA 165 and is a complex matrix of rules, regulations and conditions under which towns are expected to take care of those in unfortunate circumstances, she explains.
Those applying for help must be residents of the respective town, she says. “For example, if someone from Swanzey comes here looking for help, we refer them to that town’s welfare officer.”
People must also complete a written application, schedule an appointment and undergo a financial review.
Sayre’s early-morning hours are reserved for emergency walk-ins, and then the remainder of the day is taken up with scheduled appointments. An example of a walk-in might be someone who has just been released from the emergency room but has no money to buy a prescription drug. Other examples could be someone who’s run out of heating oil and can’t afford any more, or whose electricity has been shut off for nonpayment.
Sayre has a lengthy history in the social services sector in Keene, having served as the executive director of the Women’s Crisis Center from 1994 to 2004. (The agency is now known as the Monadnock Center for Violence Prevention in Keene). Before that, she worked with Keene Housing Authority from 1989 to 1993 as a tenant relations officer.
Growing up in Bergen County, N.J., Sayre says the inspiration for a career in helping others was sparked by her late father, William Patrick Byrne, who she calls one of her heroes, and a man who exemplified the best spirit of volunteerism and community service. “He was the ‘go-to-guy’ in the neighborhood for people who needed assistance.
“I remember that on Christmas and Thanksgiving we had to wait for him to come home because he was driving residents from the nursing homes to be with their families,” she says.
After graduating from St. Thomas Aquinas College in New York and marrying Walt Sayre, she and her husband moved to Keene in 1979. They knew of the city because her parents had a summer home in nearby Walpole. “We wanted to get away from the New York area; we wanted to raise a family away from the rat race,” she explains.
“I discovered that Keene is a very generous community, especially at the holidays. I’d place it as number one in the state in terms of commitment to serving those who are less fortunate,” she says, citing as evidence the many social services agencies here, as well as private charities and church efforts to help those in need.
One of those agencies is Southwestern Community Services, which offers people everything from affordable housing to help with substance use disorders.
“I talk with Liz almost every day, coordinating activities between the city and us,” says Beth Daniels, chief operating officer at Southwestern. “She is a great balance of someone who is a wonderful steward of taxpayers’ money while taking care of many people.
“With Liz, you know where you stand, and she’s a person who’d give you the shirt off her back,” Daniels says.
Sayre is also a longtime member and worker at the St. Vincent DePaul Society, which maintains a food pantry at the Parish of the Holy Spirit in Keene, housed in the basement of St. Bernard Church. She serves on the board of Dental Health Works of Keene, which provides access to dental care for those unable to pay. And she’s also on the Allocations Committee of the Monadnock United Way.
“It’s important in life that you’re doing something for others rather than yourself,” she says.