2-7-19 Denise Leighton retires 3

Retiring Vaughan Community Services Administrator Denise Leighton will step down at the end of the month. (JAMIE GEMMITI PHOTO)

'Denise Day' celebration planned for Sunday

CONWAY — After 30 years as the familiar face people see when they enter the Vaughan Community Services Center in North Conway, administrator Denise Leighton is retiring this month.

Her last day will be Feb. 28, shortly after her 68th birthday on Feb. 22.

“I figured 68 was long enough. It’s time to slow down,” Leighton said.

Assistant administrator Penelope Robinson will also be retiring at that time, and in the weeks leading up to her final day, Leighton will be training the interim Vaughan administrator Jennifer Perkins, Vaughan bookkeeper Merridith Larsen and church bookkeeper Bonnie Tryder.

This weekend, the board of Vaughan Community Services is inviting the public to come celebrate Leighton and her accomplishments with a reception and presentation on Sunday, Feb. 10, at the First Church of Christ, Congregational, United Church of Christ, at 2503 White Mountain Highway in North Conway.

“Denise Day” will include a receiving line in the vestry at 1 p.m., and a short presentation in the sanctuary from the trustees of the church and  board of Vaughan Community Services.

All are invited to stop by to join the celebration, thank Leighton for her years of service and wish her well on her retirement.

The board also is putting together a money tree (or, in this case, a “money berry,” in honor of the strawberry festival she founded) and are asking people who would like to contribute to donate any amount of money, by cash or a check, to be given to Leighton for her retirement.

Leighton’s office, off the first doorway on the left as you enter the center’s Reverence For Life Building, looks like the command center that it is, with one side of her desk facing the hall window, where she greets visitors, and the other covered by two large computer screens.

From there, Leighton has run all the various programs the center offers, as well as producing weekly bulletins and monthly newsletters, doing the bookkeeping and acting as receptionist, directing people who come through the door to the assistance that they need.

Vaughan Community Services is the outreach arm of the First Church of Christ, Congregational in North Conway, located in neighboring buildings at 2503 White Mountain Highway.

Vaughan Community Services is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, separate from the church. It runs the Vaughan Learning Center, which provides day care and early childhood education for children from 13 months to 12 years old; as well as a food pantry, clothing depot, and an assessment and referral program for those who need help with social services.

The food pantry and clothing depot are located off-campus, but the non-profit is conducting a $1.3 million capital campaign to build a new facility for those services along with renovating the learning center.

Leighton, who has had a hand in keeping all those programs going, says every day is different and that was part of what she has enjoyed about the job.

“You never know who comes to the window or into the office,” she says. “I like that energy.”

The Rev. Dr. Ruth Shaver, interim pastor for the church, says, “Denise multitasks better than just about anybody I’ve ever met.”

It’s a critical skill for Leighton, who has worn many hats and worked for many pastors in the three decades she has been at the Vaughan.

Leighton was originally from Connecticut, where she met her future husband Joseph, when they were in high school, getting engaged their senior year. After marrying in 1969, the couple moved to the Mount Washington Valley, where they raised their two sons, Timothy and Joshua.

Denise remembers starting out as church secretary before computers were on virtually every office desk, putting out her weekly bulletins on an electric typewriter.

The Rev. John Simpson was the pastor and Liz George was the administrator.

Leighton said she learned a great deal from George, eventually succeeding her in the job.

“It’s been the best job I could ever ask for, and I do believe it’s a calling in a way,” she said. “It’s rich in the sense of helping people. It’s been very rewarding for me.”

Though her official title is church and Vaughan Community Services administrator, Leighton jokes she is equally content with the title of “Girl Friday.”

“I don’t care what you call me. I got the work done,” she says.

Shaver agreed, adding that if someone promised to do something for the center, Leighton would hold their feet to the fire to make sure they got their work done, too. “Nobody said no to Denise,” she said.

“Denise is a driving force,” said Vaughan Learning Center director Heather Ouellette. “She’s been a mentor for me. We’re going to miss her.”

With an all-volunteer board, Shaver said, the administrator’s role is critical to getting the work done. “She’s the one that’s got to make all the parts run,” she said.

A big part of her job is assisting the pastor, and though not a lay minister, as the first person people see when they want to talk to the pastor, a sympathetic ear for people’s troubles is also important.

“She has a lot of responsibility,” Shaver said. “There’s an ethical and moral centeredness you need to do the job. The board has trusted her because she’s shown over and over again that she maintains that center.”

Over the years, Leighton has put her stamp on the work that Vaughan does, as new programs have been created and small ones blossomed under her watch. The food pantry has grown, for instance, with contributions from N.H. Food Pantry, Hannaford and Walmart augmenting local donations and the annual WMWV Radio Food Drive to fill not only its shelves but also supplying other food pantries in the region.

Even when talking about her retirement, Leighton is a tireless booster for the program.

Noting that more than 12 percent of the elderly go hungry, Leighton says: “I wish more of them would come. I’m sure more would qualify than come.”

Income limits are higher than many people realize, she says, and they do not have to be below the poverty line in order to qualify. For help or more information about getting assistance, call the office at (603) 356-2324.

Among the new programs Leighton established is the Survivors of Suicide Loss support group, which she started along with Ruth Ann Fabrizio, after her son Timothy died.

“I know there are a lot of people out there who can use the group,” she said, adding that the group and the community of the church helped her get through a very difficult time.

Leighton says she has particularly enjoyed the fundraising aspect of the job. She has helped run the annual golf tournament and the center’s booth at the Fryeburg Fair, with its famous secret-recipe blueberry crisp, in addition to her work with the strawberry festival.

Although leaving will be bittersweet, Leighton says it’s time to move on.

Leighton doesn’t know what her next journey will be, but she plans to find a bookkeeping job where she can work part-time. And she’d like to be able to take a vacation once a year to someplace warm.

She’ll also be continuing as a supervisor of the checklist for the town of Conway, and expects to continue to do service to the community.

“We never know where God’s going to take us,” she says.

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