March 18, 2019
Women in Business Awards 2019

Castelli's nonprofit makes disenfranchised 'feel safe and respected'

Photo | J. Fiereck Photography
Photo | J. Fiereck Photography

Sharon L. Castelli

Chief Executive Officer

Chrysalis Center Inc.

Each day, Sharon Castelli takes a walk through the Chrysalis Center's main campus of operations in Hartford.

She passes through halls of the former Sealtest Factory to check in with staff and pops into the Social Innovation Hub that houses a commercial culinary-arts training kitchen as well as a client workout facility. She admires the creative work of members in the Green Door Art Gallery and speaks with the volunteers and families at the Freshplace food pantry.

It's all part of a vision more than 30 years in the making for Castelli, who started as a staff member and, for the last 19 years, serves as CEO of the nonprofit, which helps those living in poverty or returning from incarceration and homelessness, as well as people struggling with mental health, addiction and HIV/AIDS.

Services include job training, employment services, housing and community health care.

"I spend a lot of time listening to clients, understanding their needs," said Castelli. "I hear about how people treated them badly [because of their status]. … Some of these people have spent many years in institutions, so having a place where they feel safe and respected is really important."

Castelli raised $6.5 million from donors more than 12 years ago to acquire and remodel the old Sealtest building for a new main campus headquarters at 255 Homestead Ave.

"I had a vision," said Castelli. "I was taking our funders through here with no electricity, no heat, saying 'Wear a coat!.' "

What she had in mind, and saw through to fruition, was a bright and cheery, non-institutional facility where people could come for services that would help them move forward from places of homelessness, poverty, recovery, joblessness and food insecurity.

Castelli was on track to be a fourth-grade teacher in Providence, but took a job in the mental-health industry while attending graduate school. From there she moved into a programming role at Chrysalis and worked her way up to the top position.

"I didn't know I wanted to be a CEO, but I knew I wanted to work with people and leadership," Castelli explained. "And I had wonderful role models as parents. I've never had issues with confidence. They taught me you can be whatever you want to be and I just believed that. I was lucky to have that."

Never one to rest on her laurels, Castelli holds three master's degrees in social work, urban studies and counseling and psychological services. She also serves as president of the board for Advanced Behavioral Health Inc., and was appointed by Gov. M. Jodi Rell to be a member of Connecticut's Board of Mental Health and Addiction Services. For 15 years, she also shared her knowledge by teaching at the college level after a full-day at Chrysalis. Now Chrysalis brings in dozens of area college students for educational components of their programs.

Staff at the center are quick to point out Castelli's high level of energy.

"She's an incredibly dynamic leader and has a lot of foresight of where we can go within social services," said Lynda Waldron, executive assistant.

One of those ideas included building the Urban Roots Hydroponic Growing Center, which produces a variety of lettuces and microgreens year-round to support the foodshare and culinary programs. Castelli attended a hydroponics conference to learn how.

"When she comes to the team with an idea she is very plan-full about it and it has a purpose going back to the mission of the center," Waldron said.

Her creative ideas compliment her mind for business. She is constantly searching for ways the center can bring money back to serve its mission and show donors their money never goes to waste. She even brings clients to board meetings to share their stories.

"I treat this like a business and to be a good steward of the donations and the money given to us," Castelli said.

And she's not afraid to ask for help. More than 500 volunteers join the staff of 100 to keep the center humming.

"Sometimes the ask is so small. I recently put out a call for small shampoos for our domestic-violence program," Castelli said. "And it's not always cash, sometimes it's people's time. The center has got a lot of moving parts, and people, through the years, have been incredibly generous to us."

That support granted Castelli's wish to provide affordable housing for Chrysalis clients. By forming a real estate group, CCREC, Chrysalis provides housing throughout Connecticut by building new or restoring blighted properties. She has grown the real estate portion to $50 million in assets.

"Clients were saying, 'I need a safe and affordable place to live,' " Castelli said. "It's hard to focus on finding work without it. One of my favorite things is when people get keys to their apartments."

In her 30 years at Chrysalis, Castelli has learned a few things for sure. The first is that all people want a place to belong, a social connection, a roof over their head, food on the table, work to do and friends, family and a spiritual or community connection. The second is that "all of us are one illness, one paycheck, one incident away from becoming the people we serve."

And most important: Always do the right thing, not the easy thing.

Q&A

What legacy do you want to leave after your career is over?

I want to leave a legacy of 'hope' for those living with a mental illness, addiction disorder, HIV/AIDS and those returning from incarceration and homelessness. Hope can mean the difference between life and death. I have dedicated my career to giving hope to others when no one else believed in them; hope to see the light through the darkness of their lives and circumstances.

Hope costs nothing but can mean everything.

What are your keys to maintaining business success?

Be humble, compassionate and kind. Make time to celebrate even the smallest of victories. Manage by walking around. Ask customers and clients 'how can we do better.'

I have always found that diversity and different opinions make the final product better.

Stay true to your mission, especially during the most difficult times — you can never go wrong when you stick to your mission.

Be transparent. Walk the walk and most importantly, listen!

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