Festive cocktails are on deck at a Greenwood Avenue restaurant. A jewelry seller announces paperclip bracelets adorned with gemstones. Someone mentions Bethel has a shoe repair shop. A news item tells about the town’s winter clothing drive. All of this content and more has a free home on a local Facebook group started by Genée West during the pandemic. Today, the Support Local - Bethel, CT group has accrued 11.4K members!

West started the group because she was worried the town’s businesses and restaurants would go under when people started staying home during the Covid pandemic. She said people started posting about local businesses and events very soon after she launched the group, with the dozens of initial members quickly growing to hundreds.

In the beginning, West, who grew up in Danbury and Queens, simply wanted to help her adopted hometown. Her family moved to Danbury, CT in 1984 and Bethel, CT in 1994.

Bethel’s downtown vibe reminds her of Flushing in some ways. Walking into Varano Bakery for instance, feels like shopping with her grandmother.

“We’d walk to the butcher, the baker, the produce market, and get all that stuff. When I walk into [Varano], I see that giant glass case of all those things I grew up with. They’re the real deal. Their bakery is phenomenal. We have a chocolatier, and people who roast their coffee. Bethel has it all,” West said.

While the Facebook group is intended to share information about Bethel, West, who moderates every post, will occasionally allow posts about businesses outside the town’s border that provide products or services not available in town. Otherwise, it is strictly for use by locals about local businesses.

Managing the page is a volunteer act for her. While Facebook has recommended doing so, West has not monetized the page and does not currently plan on  doing so. She also supports the Danbury Animal Welfare Society, helping put on their fundraising gala. Professionally, she is a project manager for a biotech company.

Genée West volunteers at the Danbury Animal Welfare Society fundraising Gala. Photo courtesy of Genée West.

West offers this advice to anyone running a community Facebook group: “You have to have your heart in it and the commitment to see it through and keep it going. It's a lot of work but it's worth it if you truly care. You've got to be contributing every day, encouraging others to engage and you have to make sure you stay on top of the content being shared. Don't allow spammers and scammers to take over or take advantage. Protecting your members and making the group a safe and welcoming space is key!”

“It all started because of the pandemic. I’d lived in Bethel post 9/11, post the real estate bubble bursting. Bethel didn’t fare well in all that. Downtown was depressed. Businesses were empty. Some were struggling. When the pandemic hit I kind of knew the world was going to get weird. I was panicked about the shutdown coming. Oh my goodness, all the businesses are going to go belly up. These families. I’m just a person,” West related.

The group feed allowed her to communicate ways to continue supporting the local business community. “Try to remember you can do takeout. Support 06801,” was her resounding message in the beginning and it has remained consistent.

“After I put up the group, I woke up the next morning and saw 110 (members). It just kept growing and growing.”

Typical items she posts include highlights about events or special offerings among the businesses in town. “If I shop somewhere, I share my experience and if I eat out. I repost local business content so it’s all in one place.”

One of the ways West keeps the feed organized is by adhering to strict rules.

“No politics. Kindness is key. If you have issues, I encourage you to talk to the owners. I know everybody. The reciprocation is wonderful. I adore the local business owners and they thank me for what I've done. I’m not the kind of person who goes chasing clout. I’m just happy to hear that. I don’t get paid for what I do. It’s turned into a full-time job. I have a full-time job. I’m constantly glued to my phone.”

Some people tell her, “You don’t have to do this anymore. The pandemic is over.”

West’s response to these comments is, “I want people to do well because I genuinely care about this town and the community. If Bethel does well economically it encourages other businesses to come in. There’s a huge trickle-down effect when you have a healthy economy. A depressed town, nobody wants to go there. I’m happy I live here.”

West was recognized for her contribution in 2021 by a proclamation from the First Selectman and Genee West Day (Jan. 3). At the same time she also received a citation from the Connecticut General Assembly.

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