WILTON — A familiar face who played a key role in creating a strong mental health safety net for children and families in Wilton has decided to say goodbye.

Colleen Fawcett, Wilton Youth Services coordinator and clinical social worker with the town’s Social Services department, has retired after 26 years of service.

A fixture in the community, Fawcett has provided counseling and crisis intervention services for Wilton’s young people for nearly three decades.

“It was hard to leave, very bittersweet. I loved my position and the community, but I need to exhale for a while and catch my breath. I look forward to resurfacing as a citizen,” Fawcett said.

She made the decision to retire this January but won’t be giving up counseling completely. She plans to continue to run a private clinical therapy practice in Georgetown, which she has been doing on a part-time basis.

“The first opportunity I had to work with Colleen was when I joined the Parent Education Committee for the Wilton Youth Council in 2015. I quickly found her to be a calm and steady leader,” said Genevieve Eason, the youth council’s executive director.

Eason called Fawcett “quick to make connections,” and said she was someone who has never sought the spotlight. “So many people probably don’t realize the impact that she has had in Wilton,” Eason said.

Before coming to Wilton, Fawcett earned an MSW at Columbia University in 1996 while working at Kids in Crisis.

She used that experience to work alongside Wilton school officials to develop and enhance programs that promoted wellness and addressed children’s social and emotional needs.

Fawcett also worked closely with volunteers and staff of the Wilton Youth Council to develop parent education programs and extracurricular programs for youth.

In 2017, Fawcett served as chair of the Wilton Youth Council’s Free Play Matters Task Force. The group advocates for children to participate in free play, without adult supervision, in order to gain skill-building independence.

As head of the task force, Fawcett testified in 2019 at a hearing before the state legislature in support of SB 806, a bill proposed by the group and co-sponsored by all three of Wilton’s state legislators. The bill supported free play and prohibited finding adults guilty of neglect based solely on a child’s participation in independent activities.

In Fawcett’s testimony, she said, “I am witness to a dramatic increase in anxiety and depression among children and adolescents ... As children grow older, and if their disorders are not treated effectively, many turn to self-medication which can lead to addiction. Prevention and early intervention works; free play is both. Play is how children learn. Unsupervised play allows children to be self-confident, responsible, independent and empathetic.”

The task force’s work was featured in an episode of the PBS NewsHour.

Eason commended Fawcett for establishing the GoZen! anxiety management program for children. “Colleen was adept at seeing what was coming down the road, working on early prevention programs in order to prevent clinical intervention,” she said.

Fawcett also played a role surveying Wilton students on a number of hot button topics.

As co-chair of the Wilton Task Force to Reduce Substance Abuse, her group collaborated with Positive Directions of Westport to survey youth and parents about underage drinking and substance abuse.

The survey results were followed with a community conversation about susbstance abuse with offers of help and support for families to recognize and deal with those issues.

In 2017, Fawcett supported a survey of Wilton High School students by Dr. Suniya Luther to see how affected they were by stress and anxiety amid pressures to succeed in a high-achieving school.

The survey revealed that nearly 30 percent of Wilton students at that time experienced above average levels of anxious-depressed symptoms, such as unexplained headaches or stomachaches.

A three-part series of community conversations followed, examining some of the challenges families and schools face in preparing children for healthy, successful futures.

Fawcett’s departure leaves big shoes to fill in Wilton Youth Services.

“Colleen has been a huge asset to our community,” said Eason. “She’s really created something special, and I’d hate for our town to lose it. The current pandemic will likely lead to increased financial hardships for many families, as well as an increased need for mental health services for children and youth. At this difficult time, I hope we can maintain the supports Wilton residents rely on.”

As for Fawcett, she’s getting ready to settle into her new life and private practice, and spending more time with her husband Gavin Scott Fawcett.

She’s also interested in becoming a certified mental health integrated medical provider. “I can now deal with the vegetable garden on my property and focus on healthy living and connections with the land. I’ve always been interested in nutrition and how it connects to mental health and lifestyle,” she said.

pgay@wiltonbulletin.com