Story of the Week 2014 – 2015
Story of the Week 8/10/2015
Enigmatic Ethan Allen
Mary Kelsey Trumps, Volunteer & Outreach Coordinator at the Ethan Allen Homestead Museum
Ethan Allen Parkway. Ethan Allen Shopping Center. Ethan Allen Park. Ethan Allen everything. Upon entering the state of Vermont, it becomes exceedingly clear that Ethan Allen is a legacy. But who is Ethan Allen?
This is a question few can answer. Even fewer are aware that just outside of Burlington rests the site where he lived the last years of his life, in addition to a museum dedicated to educating the public about his life and times.
So back to the original question, who is Ethan Allen? The majority of people believe, before visiting the museum, that like Joseph, he was a carpenter (thank you Ethan Allen Furniture Company for perpetrating this fallacy.) Ethan Allen was not a carpenter, and here, at the museum, our mission is to educate the public about who he really was – a leader, a fighter, a simple farmer, and an entrepreneur, among other roles. He is best known for being the elected leader of the Green Mountain Boys militia. He played a major role in the Revolutionary War by leading the taking of Fort Ticonderoga alongside Benedict Arnold. He was later captured and wrote a recount of his time in captivity, which has continually been in print since published in the late 1700’s. Upon his return to Vermont, he wrote Reason, the Only Oracle of Man, and alongside his brother formed the Onion River Land Company. His many historical roles coupled with his simplistic lifestyle made him the Vermont legend that he is today.
In order to educate visitors about this extraordinary yet simplistic man, we rely on trained volunteers who greet visitors and provide tours of the Homestead, engaging and immersing museum guests into traditional life in colonial times. Sometimes, this involves dressing in authentic 18th century costumes. Often, it involves anecdotes. These are easy to offer, as Ethan Allen was quite rebellious, as far as the conservative colonists were concerned.
The museum brings to life his legacy to individuals young and old through general tours, reenactment events, and educational programs. However, this would not be possible without volunteers, and this is where I come in.
I am responsible for recruiting and managing volunteers of all ages who wish to gain practical experience, who are interested in museum operations, or who simply wish to be involved and give back to the community. In addition, I get to witness and be a part of educating visitors, creating active and engaged citizens who have a sense of our past and the trials and tribulations faced by our forefathers. It is a wonderful place to serve and a rewarding role to be in. There is always something new to learn about our past and Ethan Allen – the man, the myth, the legend. Come on in and see for yourself.
Story of the Week 8/3/2015
An Inspiring Story of Community Collaboration
A client of mine came in to do an intake with the Housing Resource Center. I had heard rumblings all week of an unfortunate situation that a family of ten from Africa would be coming in practically needing a miracle from us. What I hadn’t known is that all the financial work had practically been done. Owing nearly $10,000 wasn’t the hard part, but ensuring future sustainability was the golden ticket to staying in their home, a place that is more important to them than I could have ever imagined. This case is a profound example of the importance of prevention in this work to avoid homelessness.
This client came to the U.S. many years ago. Their family reunited with them four years ago in an amazing effort on behalf of their community and public officials in Vermont. I met with my client, a radiant individual, and a family friend at the COTS Housing Resource Center. Full of positivity, energy, and appreciation, I could hardly tell they were sick. Their diagnosis of terminal cancer gave them 6 months to live, 3 years ago. This client defied all odds and stayed strong, remaining the family’s primary financial supporter, until it wasn’t possible anymore. That is when they fell behind on their rent, their bills, and were quickly on track to losing their housing at such a vulnerable time.
The family’s community rose to the occasion. During a time this past winter when their heat stopped working and their pipes froze, a flood resulted. A local firefighter saw the state they were living in and organized the community, advocating for thousands of dollars from community members to help with rent.
This was a wonderful plan on behalf of the community, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough money to pay their back rent from any other source for the most part other than these community funds. This meant that there would be no money for their rent moving forward and the family would be right back in the same place needing help in a matter of months. This was where I came in as the COTS Housing Resource Specialist.
I worked along with a family case manager at COTS, Christina Thompson, to figure out a plan. The case was so significant that there was no alternative other than to defy the odds and try to do the impossible, which was to get this family a voucher and then use the funds to pay off their astronomical arrears. We also needed to bring significantly more income into the household as all eight children were still in the K-12 school system. How did we do it? We worked extra hours, communicated often and transparently to their landlord, and collaborated with all necessary organizations and agencies to build a powerful team of support that couldn’t be ignored.
To our amazement, upon a home visit with Housing Retention Specialist Mike Ohler and me, Burlington Housing Authority offered this family a section 8 subsidy in one month’s time, something that usually takes 7-8 years. Feeding off of the inspiration he received during his visit to their home, Mike remained a powerful advocate for them. We came to realize that even this Burlington Housing voucher wasn’t enough to prevent homelessness for this family. In order to use the voucher, they would need to move to the Burlington area. One, finding 4-5 bedroom apartments in the Burlington area on the first floor is close to impossible. And two, given our client’s condition, even if an apartment could be found in time, moving was not a possibility. We needed a Vermont State Housing Authority Section 8 voucher (also takes many years) or a Vermont Rental Subsidy. The more we advocated the more we realized that the Vermont Rental Subsidy was our only option to keep them in their home.
In the meantime the family was approved for nearly $1000 in Reach Up benefits and $1300 in food stamps each month, making the world of difference for them. They could now put food on the table and live as normally as one could in the circumstances. I received word yesterday that the client and his family were approved for the Vermont Rental Subsidy, with the help of many people advocating in the state of Vermont for this family, and his back rent can now be paid out of the fund. They can now afford their apartment moving forward and will be on a special preference list for a permanent voucher that they can use in their current home.
They are using this opportunity to renovate an uninhabitable bedroom that the landlord has agreed to do with the help of a longtime friend of the Client’s. Two of the children just graduated high school and were the firsts to do so in the family. All 8 children were on honor roll this past semester. Multiple household members are getting their licenses and one has started to apply for jobs (two already work part time when they are not in school). The crazy part is that I know that they will not need this subsidy and the benefits for long. This is a family that has tremendous dreams and aspirations and will go incredibly far. I am happy to have been a part of their lives for this brief moment and to have worked along with many dedicated individuals to make this happen.
Story of the Week: 7/27/15
When I started writing this guide to navigating homelessness, I developed a paragraph or two about what my clients need and want… and quickly stopped myself after rereading my work because I realized that I don’t actually know what they need and want. I know it would be great if everyone had a home and a million dollars. It would also be nice to save 70% of your money and eat broccoli and peas, but that’s from my perspective. Who am I to write an article about the priorities of Burlington’s homeless population if I myself have never experienced homelessness? Well, given my role as the Peer Support Worker, I was able to casually interview a number of regular Daystation guests and discuss what is truly important in life to a handful of homeless individuals, thus creating something of a “light guide” to navigating certain aspects of homelessness.
Safety and Security: A home provides a natural feeling of safety and security. Without a home, one must find other ways to feel safe and secure.
Health: Almost every person interviewed uttered a sentence starting with, “If my health was better, then I…” It often goes unknown that health issues are one of the main causes of homelessness. We are fortunate enough to be stationed right across the street from the Homeless Healthcare Program where clients can access free medical, dental, and mental healthcare.
Keep The Gears Moving: It’s easy to let the gears of your brain get rusty when you don’t have much to do. People crave different kinds of challenges. This is why the Daystation provides a Word of the Day, a positive Quote of the Day, and a Challenge of the Day. We also love playing games and getting caught up in discussions. Never stop working that brain; it’s hard to remove the rust.
A Positive Outlook: People without homes are forced to jump through a multitude of hoops to get essential life items. Need a pair of shoes? Please wait in line at JUMP (Joint Urban Ministry Project) starting at 7:00 am. I know they don’t open until 9:00, but folks start lining up early. They serve about two people per hour, so if you’re lucky and get there early enough, you might get a voucher for Goodwill. I know you don’t have any mode of transportation, so when you’re done, walk across town to Community Action and see if they have any bus vouchers (our case managers are depleted of vouchers for this month, sorry). If you can procure a bus voucher from them, then great! Head on out to Goodwill! If not, then we’ll take it from there. Good luck! Keeping a positive outlook is hard. Keeping a positive outlook is necessary.
Structure: What’s a person to do when they are without sturdy employment, trying to stay clean and sober, have no external support system, and no future plans? Create structure. Today I will: apply to five jobs, read my book, solve a puzzle, and help make lunch at the Daystation. Today I will not: do nothing. I will hold myself to this plan because no one else is going to.
Do What You Enjoy: Every person has a story, a history, an interest, maybe even a passion. When faced with homelessness, it is all too easy to lose sight of the things you love to do. One client used to be a professional painter and was the front man of his band, but how can you paint when you can’t afford art supplies? How can you play your music when there is nowhere to play? Thankfully, we were able to get him hooked up with art supplies and he played his harmonica for me in my office directly after looking through a photo album of his art and his life. Never lose sight of what you love.
Create Serenity: This includes but is not limited to: exercising, listening to music, dancing, laughing, crying, service work, and meditating. One client told me that she purposefully incorporates serenity into every single day because “How would I live without it?”
Making Others Happy: The homeless community is tightknit. They look out for each other and go so incredibly far out of their ways to assist their peers; from walking miles to help someone set up their tent in a safe area of the woods, to using their food stamps to buy a friend a bar of chocolate. Why? Just because.
Homelessness is not just about being without a home; it is a vicious monster and if you aren’t combative and prepared, it can strip you of everything. The folks who use the COTS Daystation have taught me more about life than I ever thought I would know. I’ve learned how to prioritize and discern; how to be strong and brave and how to be vulnerable. We’re all here to take care of ourselves, but we’re all in this together.
STORY OF THE WEEK: 7/21/15
Nature Park(ing): A Neighbor’s Generosity
Back in late March, my site supervisor asked me if I’d like to join her and a couple other staff members on a trip to a nearby preserve to assess the possibility for a new parking area. I wasn’t exactly sure what this would entail, but figured it would be an interesting trip nonetheless and a good opportunity to get out of the office after a long winter with limited field days. We grabbed a lengthy tape measure and a survey map and hopped into the trusty Subaru Baja, the Nature Conservancy’s vehicle of choice for stewardship activities.
On the way, we discussed the possibilities. The preserve is somewhat popular as it has a mile or so walking trail leading to a rich fen with pitcher plants, grass pink, sundew, blue flag iris, and a variety of other impressive plants. However, the biggest challenge in putting in a parking area was that the Nature Conservancy doesn’t own any road frontage at this natural area. Instead, we (and visitors) access the property via a 50 foot right-of-way (ROW) before reaching the boundary of the preserve. Once we arrived at the site and measured out 50 feet, it was clear that the ROW could not accommodate a parking area given the limited space and rocky terrain.
We quickly began to look around and determined that the best option might be to have a roadside pull-off. The current issue is that people pull off to the side of the road opposite the trailhead and cut a busy road down to one-way, increasing the risk of accidents. The road itself has little to no shoulder, so we determined that we would have to speak with the roads commissioner about building up a pull-off for 4-6 cars. We would also have to do our neighborly duties and call the surrounding homeowners to ask what they would think of a parking area next door. I volunteered to follow-up on these tasks as this seemed like a great experience in the art of regulations and diplomacy.
The next week, I called the town clerk to obtain the telephone number of the closest neighbor. I was a little nervous before I called her up. I had heard my fair share of horror stories about disgruntled neighbors whose properties abut our natural areas and I wasn’t sure what she would think of our proposed project. A woman picked up and I explained who I was and why I was calling.
“You know, I’ve been meaning to call you guys for some time now,” she said. “I was actually thinking that you could put a parking area across the road in my field.”
My nerves immediately subsided. Far from disgruntled, this woman was actually offering up her own land for our parking area, and only after a couple minutes of speaking to me on the phone! I realized that this was far from the usual way these conversations unfolded with neighbors and counted myself very lucky. I thanked her very much for her proposed generosity and set up a follow-up meeting. With the same contingency of staff as before, we met with this kind neighbor and discussed specifics.
“I’m rich in land,” she offered, “but not necessarily in money.” She explained how the current parking situation was dangerous and she was eager to offer what she could to help, which in this case was the space. The funds for the parking area had already been pledged by a donor and so the land was really the key piece for the project to go forward.
In the following months, I took it upon myself to follow-up with the town’s roads commissioner and zoning administrator, complete the required curb cut and zoning permits, attend the town’s Select board meetings, and maintain contact with the incredibly generous neighbor. At this time, near the end of my service term, I have seen the project through its infancy. The only steps left are for us to enter a legal agreement with the neighbor (likely a lease or easement – this is above me!) and to have contractors bid on the construction. The hope is that the parking area will be completed at some point this fall and able to safely accommodate visitors to the preserve.
The project was not only great practice in zoning regulations and patience, but also a true testament to the generosity of Vermonters. In my role, I had seen this generosity in the form of people volunteering their time to assist our stewardship of Vermont’s natural areas and had heard of donors pledging ample sums to the conservation cause. However, this act—offering up a small plot of land—to improve a community resource for no individual gain really just astounded and encouraged me. I’m looking forward to visiting the preserve in a few months and seeing this woman’s generosity and my work come to fruition.
STORY OF THE WEEK 7/16/15
New Trail, New Staff, and the Start to a New Year of Service
by Caitlin Miller, Group Outreach & Education Coordinator at the Green Mountain Club
When it comes to heavy trail work, I’ve always felt a bit in over my head. Even when I was caretaking for the Green Mountain Club (GMC), before I became their VHCB AmeriCorps member, trail work was never my forte. However, as the entirety of GMC staff – seasonals and office staff alike – gathered in the trailhead parking lot to complete our new Long Trail relocation, I was feeling excited to get my hands dirty. The relocation was the northern section of our new Winooski footbridge opening.
When I transitioned from seasonal to full time, I began to learn so much more than I expected about the GMC, land easements, the inner workings of a non-profit, and agency partnerships. My supervisors were always ready to include me in different projects so that I could gain a broad perspective on the organization. I was able to sit in on committees, board meetings, have a hand in partner projects, and more. While I was always very excited to have these opportunities (the level of responsibility I was given is a big part of why I’m signing up for a second term) I’m always overjoyed to get back to my first GMC passion – being on the trail.
The trail project we would be tackling that day was especially exciting because it was part of our Winooski bridge project and trail relocation. And to add to the excitement, some of our office staff would be joining the field staff for an “all hands on deck” work-palooza! After trekking up to the work site, we split into groups for a our work projects and the excitement really began. I swung a sledge hammer with field staff and our business manager. I dug drainages with our executive director. And I cut new trail with our field supervisor and membership coordinator.
For me, the day was a nostalgic blend of old and new: trail work and office colleagues, old friends and first season co-workers, good old Long Trail trail work and a new relocation. I felt that the whole day really summed up my service at the GMC as a combination of people and skills I’ve come to love, mixed with new learning opportunities and a new position to navigate. The whole day left me even more excited to start a new year of service with the GMC. Another year to watch myself, my connections with co-workers, and the trail itself evolve and grow.
STORY OF THE WEEK 7/8/15
Outside Looking In
by Brent Hatley, Community Engagement Specialist with NeighborWorks of Western Vermont
I recall the drive from the airport into my new home of Poultney, Vermont. It was January 10th, 2015. My breath was visible in the car and the sleepy farm houses that dotted the white hills enthralled me- so remarkably different from the warm green sights and smells of my home state. I have a few friends in Vermont that I’ve visited on a rainy week in October. It was a pleasant visit and I dug the charm and history of Poultney. One of my friends pointed me to an AmeriCorps Position that was open in West Rutland, Vermont. Since I was a fresh graduate out of college, I figured this was a great time to make some worthwhile (and possibly not very well thought out) impulse decisions.
“Want to move to Vermont where you hardly know anyone, never experienced a winter, and work with AmeriCorps in the middle of January?”
“Why the heck not?”
Three months later I had my own desk and business cards for NeighborWorks of Western Vermont. NeighborWorks is a lovely homeownership center that works with virtually every homeowner need. They also play a big hand in community development. It would be my role to help in community engagement and spreading the word about all the help NeighborWorks can offer. AmeriCorps is all about getting things done for America, and helping communities wherever it may be needed. I wouldn’t have been able to find Rutland on a map a month ago, and now it was my responsibility to help this town no matter how little I knew of it. I was needed here, so let’s do it.
As months have gone by I’ve slowly adjusted to my new Vermont home, and survived my first Vermont winter. (Which by the way, how on Earth do you Vermonters deal with it?) I can count on my hands each time I’ve spotted the sun in those cold months!
During this time we served tirelessly in efforts to bring people into homes, preventing foreclosure, and improving the quality of life for those who resided in Rutland- particularly in the northwest neighborhood. I’ve never spent so much time in a city in my life, nor have I seen as much community engagement as I have here minus on a college campus. I distinctly recall wondering if these engagement events actually improve the resident’s lives. It seemed like you just couldn’t make people care despite your efforts. No matter how many block parties, clean up days, or free education events- no one paid heed.
One day, I found myself putting up posters in the northwest neighborhood; I walked into local store fronts, visited every street corner, and wandered miles through what many considered, “That shady part of town.” I’ve spotted gardeners, school children riding bikes, people cleaning their cars, and an occasional loud argument. Yet each one of them nodded seriously at me when I passed by.
Whenever I was lucky enough to overhear a conversation, it was littered with gossip, salty humor, and a remarkable familiarity of street names.
“We were thinking of meeting on 17 Maple this evening. Up for a game?”
Or “Have you have heard about Hugo? The stupid man broke his arm falling out of the tree on the corner of Baxter and Library St.”
Or even, “There’s a porch cleanup thing happening at 27 Pine Street. We can finally get rid of that damn couch!”
I suppose that sort of familiarity is expected out of a city neighborhood, but it was fascinating and so human. The people in the community gave meaning to their white streets and aged homes. Just because the northwest neighborhood was frequently overlooked didn’t mean it wasn’t worth shaking hands with.
This ideal was confirmed with a project that later took place called the “Photo Voice Project”. The idea was hatched by members of “Project Vision” (A group of over 100 community minded Rutland area residents), Neighborworks of Western Vermont, and the local Dream Center (A helpful community space). Together they applied for a grant with NeighborWorks America to help push the project forward.
The idea was simple: let residents share their story of the neighborhood through photography. Nine chosen residents received cameras and took countless photos. The resulting shots were raw, honest, and even breathtaking. It forced each participant to go out and meet their community, find the beauty, find the dark, and see the real northwest neighborhood.
On its opening display day at the Chaffee Art Center in downtown Rutland, members from the community came bubbling with unusual excitement. The locals would point to pictures and say, “That’s my house!” or, “I know that place!” I don’t think the volunteers realized how profound the experience would be for everyone. During all the hoopla, one thing became very apparent.
They cared because they came together to share their stories, and they took pride in their neighborhood. I was curious. How does one create such a healthy and caring community? Through my service with AmeriCorps and NeighborWorks… the answer was simple: a healthy community is in the people and the relationships between them. Including the relationships between myself and those I meet on the street.
Rutland was no longer a strange place to me. Vermont wasn’t just a crotchety ice block. And my home was no longer just a house.
My home was a community.
STORY OF THE WEEK 6/29/15
GETTING THINGS DONE IN THE SUN: VHCB AMERICORPS SPRING SERVICE DAY
by Sarah L’Homme, VHCB AmeriCorps Leader
On a warm, sunny June morning, car after car pulled into the Vermont Youth & Conservation Corps (VYCC) Farm parking lot in Richmond. One by one, VHCB staff and AmeriCorps members gathered around the farm’s picnic tables, sunglasses on and work gloves in hand, ready for a day of hands-on community service.
Part of VHCB AmeriCorps’ mission is “to bring Vermonters together, incite a spirit of active citizenship and build a healthy future for Vermont.” This mission is very apparent on VHCB AmeriCorps’ annual Spring Service Day. Every spring, VHCB staff and AmeriCorps members join together for a day of serving the community. As the VHCB AmeriCorps Leader, it was my role to find meaningful projects for 55 people. At first this seemed daunting, but everything fell into place when I reached out to the Farm at VYCC and Cathedral Square. The Farm at VYCC is part of the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps program. The food grown on the farm helps to combat food-insecurity in Vermont. Through their Health Care Share program, the farm provides fresh food to about 300 families every week. Our second project site, Cathedral Square, is a non-profit organization that helps to house and support independent living for seniors and people with disabilities. Both organizations were seeking volunteers for some outdoor projects.
On the morning of our service day, staff and AmeriCorps members met at the VYCC farm for breakfast and introductions before setting off to their respective service projects. Volunteers who stayed at the farm helped to prepare the fields and to plant crops. The rest of the volunteers travelled to Williston to work at two of Cathedral Square’s properties: Whitney Hill Homestead and Williston Woods Cooperative Housing. Whitney Hill volunteers beautified the grounds by staining outdoor furniture. Williston Woods volunteers supported the SASH (Support And Services at Home) program by doing yard work for the residents. Residents of Williston Woods signed up to have volunteers come to their home to lend a hand with outdoor chores. Most of the residents were on hand to direct volunteers and some of them worked side by side with the volunteers.
The spirit of service, sense of community, and active citizenship was evident throughout the day. The service projects were all hard work, but the beautiful weather made it a pleasure to be outside. It was a good opportunity for VHCB staff and AmeriCorps members to get to know each other and work together. Learning more about how the Farm at VYCC and Cathedral Square are serving Vermonters was inspiring. It was fulfilling to support their missions and get to know staff and residents through direct service. Most importantly, we got a lot done. At the farm, our group planted over 2,000 feet of peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and basil. According to the farm’s volunteer manager, we were one of the most accomplished groups of volunteers so far this year! At Whitney Hill, volunteers stained a large gazebo, three picnic tables and two benches. Williston Woods volunteers helped residents remain independent in their homes by performing yard maintenance such as pulling weeds, trimming trees and shrubs, and raking for eight participating residents. Apparently we did a fine job because the residents and their neighbors were eager for VHCB volunteers to return in the future. As the projects wrapped up, volunteers headed home, feeling tired, but content in all that they had accomplished.
Thanks to all of the VHCB staff and AmeriCorps members for all of their hard work!
STORY OF THE WEEK 6/1/15
TEACHING WITH NONVIOLENT COMMUNICATION, STARTING WITH MY LIFE, REACHING TO THE WORLD
by Scott Hurley, Environmental Educator with Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center
For the past 6 months of my Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (VHCB) Americorps service with Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center I’ve been in charge of leading numerous after-school programs, camps, and other kids’ programs. Throughout this time I have grown tremendously in taking my personal practice of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) into my professional role as a teacher. I used the VHCB Americorps book club to help me in this by reading Life-Enriching Communication: Nonviolent Communication Helps Schools Improve Performance, Reduce Conflict and Enhance Relationships’ by Marshall Rosenberg. VHCB Americorps members may be familiar with Nonviolent Communication from the introductory workshop at our statewide AmeriCorps conference in Stowe, VT. Briefly, the purpose of NVC is to help us respond to life from our heart by promoting empathy for our universal human needs. I would now like to share how I came to be interested in teaching with NVC, a few successes using it during my term, and the passion that I have for using it to create a better world.
I first became interested in peace-conscious teaching during my first environmental education job. While trying to follow the principle of nonviolence, I recognized strategies commonly used in classroom management as violent and noticed that I felt agitated for the rest of the day after using them. So I made an effort to stay nonviolent, but that principle wasn’t enough alone to guide me through a complex world. It’s been a shaky path over the last five years of trying to be a nonviolent teacher without having enough nonviolent classroom management strategies, but Nonviolent Communication has proven to be adequate. I have attended five NVC retreats and two telecourses, participated in many groups, and have practiced consistently on my own and I am finally becoming capable of completely managing a classroom with NVC. I now use it consistently with students and regularly plan lessons with principles from Life-Enriching Education and have had many successes.
My two most memorable successes with NVC during my AmeriCorps term were with students who I recall being labeled as ‘difficult’ by other staff members. One student would speak against my planned activities with such high volume that any attention I had from other students was quickly lost. The other student would engage his peers in adventitious games during our focused activities. Unable to match his energy, counselors struggled to maintain students’ attention and classroom order. I’ve frequently seen teachers address similar situations by telling students to ‘sit still’, ‘be quiet’, and ‘listen’; I chose, however, to follow NVC principles by adapting classroom plans to students’ needs that kept them from sitting still. I created activities that could meet the requirements for learning while giving them their needed energy release. Sometimes I asked them for activity ideas using NVC and other times I planned activities based on what I knew of them. As a result, both students, who were previously thought of as acting like classroom villains, became classroom leaders. The high-volume student regularly served as a coordinator between me and his fellow students to help in the goal of finding activities that ensured learning along with enjoyment. The high-energy student put his energy into finding things in nature and drawing others’ attention to them. This student was one of few willing to do the tireless task of digging and cooking Jerusalem artichokes for the class. I was later asked by his mother to be a big brother to him.
Earlier I wrote of the agitation I would feel at the end of the day when I first started teaching. Now, after teaching with NVC, I feel ease because I haven’t been trying to control students against their will and satisfaction from making so many connections, all obvious motivation to use it the next day. But my main motivation for using NVC teaching has become my desire to support students’ development and to contribute to the world. I know from my personal experience that violence in classroom management can have huge effects on students’ psychological development and on society. Punishment, moralistic judgments, shame and guilt, and obligation are all types of violence regularly used in education cited by Rosenberg; well after school is over students continue to use them in the world and carry their burdens of anxiety, isolation, and low self-worth. Students who are routinely punished and given labels often carry those labels into adulthood, growing into less than model citizens or perhaps criminals, a pattern I’ve repeatedly seen. These common types of violence also discourage students from thinking or acting for themselves which prevents learning. On a social level the routine training to obey teachers and administration simply on the basis of their given authority promotes a society of passive citizens who not only hold back on their own dreams and personal happiness but also on responding to social and environmental injustices. Ironically, most teachers probably do care for their students and have chosen teaching for the opportunity to contribute to students’ lives and to society; Rosenberg attests to this and believes that teachers suffer just as much as students from the educational structure. But, to use a Buddhist quote, ‘it takes the work of the wise to undo the harm done by the merely good’.
If you are now seeing that you may have harmed students’ development or contributed to social problems through violent teaching strategies you may be feeling guilty or ashamed of yourself. But know that this self-incriminating response is itself a legacy of the very thinking that has normalized us to using violence. Violence is so basic to our culture that it has been embedded in our ‘book of rules’ without our even knowing it. And so much harm has been done to people and the environment around the world by this cultural consciousness. When I am teaching with Nonviolent Communication I think of all this: the students’ development, the effects on society, and counteracting violent conditioning. I do it for the tragic social and environmental problems around the world so interconnected to the violent tendencies that come all the way back to our everyday, personal lives. NVC teacher, Ike Lasater, suggested that the ages of 3-5 are the best time for addressing this so I know that I have an opportunity for influencing the world when I am teaching.
If you are further interested in learning Nonviolent Communication you can start by paying attention to four components of communication: observations, feelings, needs, and requests. 1) Observation is a specific thing that was observed, an objective event just as what would be seen in a video camera. 2) Feelings are personal and involuntarily felt in response to the objective event that was observed. 3) Needs can be both psychological and physical but are held in common by all people and are discovered with feelings telling us they are there and whether or not they are met. 4) Requests are specific, doable actions we ask of others or ourselves to meet a need. Violence often enters our communication when our observations are mixed with evaluative thoughts, when we perceive our feelings as being caused by another person and not our needs, when what we call our feelings are actually thoughts, when we mistake our needs with the strategies to meet them and subsequently think that things have to happen a certain way for us to be happy, and when our requests are not possible and come out as demands where we won’t accept a ‘no’. Clarifying the four components in our communication and listening for them in others’ messages facilitates empathic connections. And then…boundaries come down and conflicts become navigable…we can suddenly connect with people we thought were unreachable…difficult messages become opportunities…people jump for joy to help each other…classes willingly follow teachers’ plans…students have fun successfully guiding their own learning. For skeptical readers and further reference see Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life by Marshall Rosenberg and Choosing Peace by Jon Kinyon for a better explanation than I can give.
I have been grateful to Americorps for the opportunity to grow during my term. It has been the perfect opportunity to solidify my capacity to lead a nonviolent classroom with Nonviolent Communication. I am also grateful for the opportunity to share my experiences and passion, perhaps to contribute to less violence and greater happiness in the world. My time using NVC during my Americorps service has also influenced me to pursue certification as a Nonviolent Communication teacher after it is complete.
Lasater, Ike. “Resolving Internal Conflicts.” Mediate Your Life. The Quinnipiac Club, New Haven, CT. 18 April 2015. Question and answer session.
Rosenberg, Ph.D Marshall B. Life-Enriching Education: Nonviolent Communication Helps Schools Improve Performance, Reduce Conflict, and Enhance Relationships. Encinitas: Puddledancer Press, 2003.
by Jon Hoover, Services and Volunteer Coordinator at Morningside Shelter
I work with homeless individuals and families at Morningside Shelter in Brattleboro, and I’ve had a hard time coming up with a story to share. The road to becoming homeless is a long one and while many individuals who find themselves homeless can point out incorrect decisions they made along the way, one can also see how a person’s family, community, and society also contributed to a situation of homelessness. With that in mind, the path to safe, sustainable and stable housing is also one most people do not walk alone. It is usually an intensively collaborative effort. When we have positive outcomes with our clients it is not because of any one person stepping up but because a whole community of people got involved. I’m proud of my contribution to that outcome, but my contribution is just one of many. Recently we helped move a family out of the shelter into a great housing situation. The most praise for this outcome goes, of course, to the parent in this family, without her full engagement we wouldn’t have gotten there. But look who else was involved: Her case manager at Morningside. All the rest of the staff and residents at Morningside who made her stay pleasant and effective. Her Reach Up Case Manager. Her Family. The community action agency that helped with funds for first and last months rent, and a deposit. The Vermont Rental Subsidy program and the housing authority that administers it. The state level agencies and legislators that helped design and implement the Vermont Rental Subsidy program. The donors and tax payers who are funding all this. I am happy with the thousand little direct and indirect things I did at Morningside to help get that family leased up, and thankful for all the countless people who also made it happen.
By: Ceire Lennox, Community Support Specialist at the Good Samaritan Haven
Imagine a scenario with me for a minute. Imagine that you have been seriously injured and you can no longer work. You have lost your job. You can no longer pay your bills and you lose your home. Maybe you don’t have any immediate family, no wife or children, and almost all of your friendships have deteriorated. You find yourself with nowhere to live and no way to gain any income. Now what do you do? Where do you go?
With no idea where to go you call 211, a community resource hotline, and are told to go to the Economic Services Division and apply for emergency housing. The Economic Services Division tells you that you need to reserve a bed at the local emergency overnight shelter. With no other option you choke down a hard lump of tears in your throat and step through the door of a homeless shelter. You have no idea what to expect and everything is uncomfortable. Your case manager helps you apply for Social Security Disability because you are unable to work. She tells you that the process can take up to a year and that most people are turned down on their first application. Then she informs you that the shelter where you are staying is a 4 month program. Basically, this means that you will not receive any income before you have to leave the shelter, and become literally homeless (like in a tent or something?). Now you are terrified that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Your case manager suggests that you find a job while you wait for your application determination for SSDI, because it is basically the only way out of your situation…but you cannot work!
The homeless shelter you are staying at is exhausting. Shelter rules dictate that you are out of the shelter from 7 in the morning until 7 in the evening, every day. Since you cannot work, you spend your days walking around town or at the library. These long days being “out in the community” are making you sicker and more tired than ever. The anxiety and stress of being homeless is already difficult enough, but now you are haunted by the thought of being turned down for the disability insurance you so desperately need to survive with the basics. You dread the possibility of finding yourself living between the homeless shelter and the hospital, wondering, “what if things never get better?” You feel hopeless.
This scenario is all too real for many of my clients, but for one individual at the Good Samaritan Haven hope has been restored! As the Community Support Specialist, I recently helped a man in a very similar scenario with completing his Social Security Disability Insurance Application. We worked together diligently, making sure we had all his ducks in a row. We made sure we didn’t miss anything! Together we were skeptical of his chances of success of being granted his benefit the first time around, let alone before he would have to leave our program, but HE WAS!!!! He was granted his SSDI Benefit and we are now be able to begin the apartment hunt for him. With all of the crises that I see it was a great reminder for me that sometimes good things happen too!
by Morgan Gray, Housing Assistant at Pathways Vermont
I first met Peter (*named changed for client confidentiality) at the housing office at Pathways Vermont. Pathways provides support to individuals who are experiencing homelessness. Peter was meeting with his service coordinator and sipping his coffee. He is a sweet older gentleman with a hearty laugh. Peter is a Vietnam veteran who has a job, but he didn’t make enough to be able to pay his expenses, and save up for a security deposit. He qualified for the SSVF (Supportive Services for Veterans and Families) program, which would pay his security deposit and five months rent, so that Peter could save money during that time, and afford to maintain the lease on his own.
Accompanied by my supervisor, I took Peter to several apartment showings. Some ended up being too far away from town, as he didn’t have a car, and needed to be able to take public transportation. Others, unfortunately, were owned by unresponsive landlords. I’d contact them the day before to confirm a showing, but the day of the showing they wouldn’t answer my calls. When my supervisor called from a different number, they picked up, only to inform him that the unit had already been rented. While Peter had initially been chatty and optimistic, as more and more showings either didn’t take place or didn’t yield results, I saw Peter stop smiling and talking. After a showing, he would take solace in having a cigarette alone outside.
He told me that he and his service coordinator went to the V.A. to explore other options, as things weren’t panning out. Peter was told by the V.A. that while they couldn’t put him up in a hotel, they could give him a tent and a sleeping bag, to which he replied, “I’m seventy years old!” It was shortly after that day that the snow began to fall. I, myself was discouraged for a while as well, imagining Peter having to struggle to set up a tent outside in the cold.
Soon after, I found a place for rent in St. Albans. By this time I was authorized to work alone, so Peter and I went for a drive to take a look. It was a small place, but clean and warm, and in walking distance to basic amenities. I saw Peter’s eyes light up as we admired the old fashioned windows of the Victorian style building. The landlord and Peter got on well, and we signed preliminary paperwork. Peter emphasized how excited he was to move in.
We Three Amigos
by Jonathan Tuthill, Project Assistant at the Twin Pines Housing Trust
On a cold gray September morning, a day so dreary that it was already tired of itself, I groggily stumbled down my front steps and flopped into the driver’s seat. I looked out into the 6am darkness pondering, “what I was thinking signing up for this AmeriCorps gig?” Of course, I was thinking I want to meet new and interesting people and do good, kind and meaningful work. So it was that I found myself wending my way through the dark and wild woods of North Pomfret in the pre-dawn of a day that would never see the sun, headed to meet up with a West African drummer that I was told spoke little to no English. I pulled into the dark predetermined parking lot and welcomed my musically gifted new friend. After a brief period of confusing babble, we quickly arrived at a common language of charades and broken English. Together we set off for the gritty once bustling rail town of White River Junction to connect with a witty tech-savvy teen who was taking a day off from revolutionizing the way the world listens to music to help move an elderly couple into their new home. Together, we three amigos squeezed onto the bench seat of a truck that was last used to move Methuselah and shuddered and shook our way down the road to greet the anxious new homeowners.
We rattled to a stop at the happy new homeowner’s old house and were greeted with gratitude and smiles. It turns out the couple – wife 80 and husband 84 – had lost their last home in a fire that claimed personal treasures and professional tools. The couple shared the agonies of trying to start over as renters and the difficulties associated with reestablishing themselves professionally. My cohorts and I could feel the relief and joy radiating from the kind older couple as we carefully loaded their belongings onto our modern day Rocinante.
We began loading the truck when I noticed the husband wearily eyeing us as we stacked boxes of carefully wrapped and packed two by fours and other various sized boards. When I asked about his apparent concern he sheepishly grinned and responded that he was told “we would take anything that was packed in a box” but he was also told that we would not be able to move all of his boards. So being a problem solver, he had gotten creative and was waiting for us to refuse to load the boxes. He was ecstatic when the boxes were all loaded with no hassle and we all had a good chuckle at his “problem solving” skills.
We mounted Rocinante and began our twenty mile trek to the new house with a rattle and rhythm all our own. A cacophonous melody that announced our arrival and departure with all the fanfare three do-gooders could ever hope for and more than we deserved. After three calamity-free trips and nine exhausting hours, we three amigos bid farewell to the happy new homeowners, as they stood beaming with thanks and waving good-bye. As I parted ways with my new friends, the tech savvy teen and the musically gifted West African; I found myself reflecting on what a great day it was and how fortunate I have been in discovering AmeriCorps.
Fostering Hope and Building Community
Serving with COVER, one thing you learn quickly is how important it is to engage with the volunteers and homeowners on our weekly home repair and weatherization projects. The mission of the organization is to foster hope and build community. We aim to accomplish this by bringing people together from various backgrounds to work together towards a common goal. Through a typical day, we will invite the homeowners to join us in the work and talk with the volunteers, giving them a chance to connect with each other. Oftentimes, the highlight of the day comes at lunch, which is a time of lively conversation and good food prepared by the homeowner. Whether I’m sitting back and enjoying their stories or answering their questions about how different Wisconsin is from Vermont, I get something new out of each encounter. Every week offers a unique atmosphere, and you never know what you’ll learn or who you might meet.
The volunteers we work with come from all walks of life, and whether they’re an expert handy-man or have never touched a hammer in their life, everyone leaves at the end of the day with a sense of accomplishment. At the end of a long day, it’s really rewarding to look back at that new roof or ramp you just helped install. And when the volunteers have worked and talked with the homeowner all day, they really gain an appreciation for how much their work means on a personal level. These interactions and feelings can have a strong impact on people, and we’ll have many volunteers who come out whenever they can because they just love helping others. Whether it’s just a one time thing or as regular contribution, all of our volunteers come out of each project knowing they’ve put in a hard days work.
Among our regular group of volunteers, we have a couple of super volunteers who have dedicated themselves to helping us meet our mission. We have our small projects specialist who’s been out with us so many times in the past that we know we can send him out on his own now and expect great results. And over our weatherization season, we had a volunteer join us every weekend we were out, putting in over 100 hours of volunteer service in a two month period. Having the opportunity to work alongside volunteers with such a drive to help people has been a great experience and really shows you how much people care. When you combine the great work of these volunteers with our other regulars and all those first-timers, it’s not very hard to figure out how we’re able to get so much done.
One of the great things about serving with COVER is spending time every weekend with these volunteers and sharing in a learning experience with them. Sometimes you’ll have a teaching moment, but just as often you’re learning something from working alongside them. These exchanges might be small or profound, but each one contributes to the community building that happens every time we go out.
TRY ONCE, TRY TWICE – SUCCESS:
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF AN AMERICORPS MEMBER AT THE CENTRAL VERMONT COUNCIL ON AGING
According to the position description, the purpose of the VHCB AmeriCorps member at the Central Vermont Council on Aging is to “build community partnerships and volunteer capacity so as to provide direct services to elders in our community”. In everyday terms, I work to build up our bank of active volunteers, strengthen our partnerships with schools, community organizations and corporations in our service area and match available volunteers to the needs of our clients.
We receive requests for services either through a client’s caseworker, the statewide Senior Help Line, or from the seniors themselves. Requests range from stacking wood, help packing or unpacking for a move, transportation to doctor’s appointments or grocery shopping, to simple companionship once every one or two weeks. One of our most common requests is for help organizing papers or creating a filing system to help seniors keep on top of their mail, etc.
My job is to find a volunteer either from our stable of active volunteers or to go into the community and recruit someone to provide that particular service. This means matching the need of the senior and the talent and/or interest of the volunteer, their personalities, their schedules and the geographical area.
After a lifetime of independence, some clients have difficulty asking for help or do not want someone in their home. Others are suspicious that someone will try to control their lives or take advantage of them. They may deal with any one of a myriad of physical or memory, and sometimes, financial problems.
In mid-January, we received a request from a lady, we’ll call her “Phoebe”, who needed help setting up a filing system to keep track of her mail and deciding what she needed to keep or discard. I called Phoebe and asked her about her needs. She confirmed that she needed help and told me that she was interested in getting into a local assisted housing facility. She had started the application which required detailed financial and historical information, but had not been able to finish it. I had a particular volunteer in mind, a long-time volunteer. Coincidentally, I had worked with this woman in another context and knew that she had superior organizational skills and was a very kind, patient person. Because she works full time, she is only available on Saturdays or Sundays. I asked Phoebe if she had any preferences for a volunteer, if she wanted to work with a man or woman. She had no preference and was agreeable to having someone come on a weekend.
I called the volunteer and asked if she would be interested in helping Phoebe. Volunteers always have the option of accepting or declining a particular service. This volunteer was willing to give it a try and gave me some available dates. CVCOA’s policy is for the AmeriCorps member to go to the initial meeting to introduce the client and the volunteer to judge whether they “click”, so I must find a date that works for all three of us. After several calls back and forth, we settled on a Saturday just a few days off.
I called Phoebe the day before the scheduled meeting to remind her of our appointment. She told me she did not understand how this person was going to help, how she would know what to throw out, and why it would take two of us to do it. It was clear that she was very anxious and it would not be productive to go forward. We cancelled the meeting and I told Phoebe I would call her the following week. I spent the rest of the afternoon calling and e-mailing the volunteer to make sure she knew that the meeting was off.
About a week later, I called Phoebe and spoke to her again about her request. I told her that if she wanted to proceed, our first meeting would just be to get to know one another. She would not have to do anything or show the volunteer any of her papers. I assured her that the volunteer would not throw anything out without her permission and that she (the volunteer) had helped other people do this same thing. I told her my role would be just to introduce the two of them. Phoebe agreed to an initial meeting. I coordinated with the volunteer and we set up a meeting that Sunday, just two (2) days hence.
On the morning of that meeting, I called Phoebe to confirm. She was very cheerful and told me she was looking forward to our visit. I met the volunteer a few minutes early and we went together to Phoebe’s home. Phoebe welcomed us, took our coats and led us into her neat-as-a-pin living room. We chatted for a while. Phoebe told us about growing up in the area, about how much she liked her apartment and the kindness of her landlord. She also told us she had fallen once in her home and had to call an ambulance, and that she was concerned about what she would do when she could no longer drive. She told us that she often stayed up at night worrying about her papers. Phoebe wanted to go to a particular assisted living facility but had not filed an application, which she deemed her “fault”. There were no piles of paper around the house and I saw no evidence of clutter. I said my good-byes after half an hour and left Phoebe and the volunteer to get to know each other.
Later that evening, I received a call from the volunteer. She was very excited and told me the visit had gone well. After I left, Phoebe allowed her to look at some of her papers which included a partially completed application to the chosen facility. They reviewed the application and found they needed more up-to-date information. She and Phoebe had exchanged telephone numbers and made an appointment for more work the following Saturday.
I called Phoebe the next working day. She told me she liked the volunteer very much, and that they had worked on the application. However, she was worried about who would file the application with the facility. I assured her that the volunteer would take care of the application and we would get it filed.
This is just an example of the on-again/off-again pattern of work with our volunteer program at CVCOA. Each experience runs the full range of emotions –from concern about being able to meet a client’s needs, to frustration when the client changes his or her mind or the nature of the service he or she needs, and finally, satisfaction at making a truly working match.
Story of the Week 1/11/15-1/17/15
“THERE IS NO BAD WEATHER” AT FOREST PRESCHOOL BY ALTHEA BROWN OF THE NORTH BRANCH NATURE CENTER
When you teach a preschool program that is entirely outdoors, you think a lot about the weather. Is it supposed to pour all day? Be very warm? How will the kids do in a cold rain? Will they arrive prepared for the weather? We call weather “bad” without thinking about it, and we all know what “bad weather” is. This fall our aim in preschool was to challenge this belief. A commonly repeated phrase among programs similar to ours is, “there is no bad weather, only bad clothing.” Our early days of preschool were all about learning how to care for yourself outdoors and how to make good choices for your body based on the weather. The wide range of Vermont weather makes our program that much richer. Is it chilly with a steady rain? It’s a good day for exploring where animals go when it rains and for puddle jumping! Is it unseasonably warm? It’s probably a great time to go down to the river and make boats, experiment with safely throwing rocks, and watch how water moves.
One wet Wednesday proved a perfect day to venture across the river to an old beaver pond just off of our property. We had been experimenting with size and height, so, measuring sticks in hand, we embarked on our adventure. The rain had turned the edge of the pond into a large expanse of deep, sticky mud. And this small piece of the natural world became our “classroom” for the day. The range of things we learned and discovered was vast. Who lives here? What happens when my boots sink into the mud? (Lots of laughter, interesting noises, and a teacher might have to pull you out!) What things can be measured here? How does mud feel? Smell? Sound? Look like? How is this place different from Deer Camp, our base camp? One child noticed that the mud acted like paint, turning a once rainbow of boots into a matching brown on everyone. Another child used his measuring stick to discover that the mud got deeper the further from shore he ventured. The pictures of this day show overcast skies and very muddy children giggling and exploring their world. For us, our day was certainly not categorized by “bad weather”. Instead it was a perfect day for Forest Preschool, as most days are.
Story of the Week 1214/14-12/20/14
ROCKS IN A DITCH BY KATHERINE LORD OF THE FRANKLIN WATERSHED COMMITTEE
This past fall, I spent quite a bit of time in Franklin, Vermont, a small town in the northwestern part of the state. Franklin is home to Lake Carmi, the fourth largest natural lake in the state. With my AmeriCorps term beginning in the fall season, I was lucky enough to witness Carmi and its surrounding landscape undergo the revered autumn transformation. As the green of summer gave way to the pallet of colors for which New England is famous, I spent hours familiarizing myself with the rural landscape that would be the focus of my work for the year to come. As you drive from Franklin’s quiet center toward the lake, the pastures are freckled with holsteins and gambrel-roofed barns. Lake Carmi sits within this bucolic panorama as if posing for a postcard.
Despite the stunning landscape, Lake Carmi garners attention for another reason. It is one of only two lakes in the state that are subject to a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) analysis. This is a regulation created by the EPA that identifies the maximum amount of a pollutant that a body of water can receive while still meeting water quality standards. The TMDL is like a prescription for a sick patient. Lake Carmi is indeed, sick, polluted with extremely high levels of phosphorus, mobilized in runoff from its agriculture-dominated watershed. While all plants require nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen to survive, excessive amounts of nutrients in the water can offset the balance of the aquatic ecosystem. A history of toxic blue-green algae blooms, a result of this nutrient overloading, has plagued the lake for years. These putrid-smelling blooms form a green scum over the water, inhibiting recreational use of the lake for months at a time. Water samples taken every two weeks throughout the spring, summer, and fall reveal that the lake and its tributaries are far from reaching the healthy phosphorus levels called for by the TMDL.
It is in response to this that I find myself, along with fellow VHCB AmeriCorps member, Sarah L’Homme, and my supervisor at Franklin Watershed Committee, Alisha Sawyer, putting rocks in a ditch. With our gloved hands, we struggle to grasp a few oddly shaped pieces of limestone rip-rap at a time and place them in the two-foot wide channel, which runs from a culvert under the main road to the lake, passing between two seasonal camps on its way. The project takes all of three hours to complete, and on this mild, sunny day, is enjoyable work. Meanwhile, an independent filmmaker captures our laboring on film, for use in a documentary on water quality in Franklin County.
‘Why rocks in a ditch?’ you might ask. Local camp owners have complained of dirty, sediment-laden water flowing through this ditch on a fast-track to the lake. By placing rip-rap in the channel, we are creating physical barriers that slow the water on its trajectory, allowing it to seep into the earth before reaching the lake with nutrients and sediment pollution in tow. Weeks later, Alisha and I return to the site and observe water pooled between rocks, evidence that this simple method is working.
I wanted to share this story because I feel that it conveys an important lesson about problem solving and personal responsibility. Lake Carmi’s pollution problem is severe, and the damage will likely take decades to reverse. Like many problems facing the modern world, the solution seems out of reach. It can often be difficult to justify the value in small, isolated measures when the challenges we face are so vast, complex, and often deeply rooted in sensitive social, economic, or political issues.
At Lake Carmi, public response to the degradation of the once-clear lake has been one of indignation and finger-pointing. Unfortunately, efforts to place blame within the community often surpass efforts made to remediate the problem. I feel lucky to be working with an organization that is working to defuse this culture of blame, and replace it with one of personal responsibility. Although placing rocks in a ditch cannot solve the whole problem, it was an opportunity, and a valuable one, to fulfill our obligations as stewards of the natural world. Each and everyone of us has an opportunity such as this every day. When we capitalize on these opportunities and take personal responsibility for the problems we see around us, we will see great change in the world. It may be a cliche, but it’s true.
Story of the Week 11/2/14-11/8/14
“If you want to bake a cake, you can read the recipe, follow the directions, and you’ll be able to do it. Going to the moon is a lot harder. But if you know the science, have the materials necessary and are very precise, it can be done. Now, ending homelessness, that’s an extremely complex problem.” This was one of the first things we were told at the 100,000 Homes Campaign. The name reflects the campaign’s goal of number of people to house nationally (this number has been surpassed). The long-term goal is to end chronic homelessness (those who have been homeless for longer than six months, and those who have been homeless on and off for a longer period of time). Ideally, cities involved with 100,000 Homes will have no chronically homeless people, and will be able to house those who become homeless within a month’s time. Here is some of what I have learned and experienced while taking part with this campaign.
When you are in line to check out groceries, it is run on a first-come first-served basis. You have to wait your turn. An emergency room, however, is triaged. Whoever is at the most risk is attended to first, regardless of how long they, or others have been waiting. Sadly, in most housing programs, those in need are often treated like they are in line at the grocery store, rather than being triaged like in an ER. One of the main goals of this campaign is to change this practice. Some people are only homeless as a result of temporary circumstances, and with rapid intervention, can be rehoused quickly and without great effort. There are others who are chronically homeless, and they are the ones who should be given priority when it comes to dispersing community resources. This is because the longer you are out on the street, the more likely you are to die there. This is especially true if you have substance abuse issues, psychiatric problems or severe health problems (such as HIV/AIDS or liver disease). Having all three is classified as tri-morbidity, which greatly increases one’s risk of dying on the street.
So, the question becomes how do we know who is the most vulnerable in our homeless population? Well, you ask them, of course. Over seventy volunteers over the course of three days went out to survey those living in shelters, on the street and in encampments over the course of three days, and in shifts that often started at 4:30 AM. I was one of the first groups out on Monday morning. Needless to say, it was sobering to find people sleeping out in the cold, on the hard ground. Volunteers surveyed everyone who was willing. We asked them a long list of very personal questions involving their health and history. If they were willing, we also took their picture to assist us in finding them if we found resources available for them to use. Upon returning to the volunteer headquarters, we analyzed their answers and gave them a corresponding score, which reflects their vulnerability. After many long hours, the data is in! There is now a comprehensive list of the homeless population in Burlington, ranked in order of vulnerability.
Now, the challenge is moving forward. All the organizations involved in housing the homeless (COTS, Pathways, etc.) have access to this master list. Now, we have to decide as a community to keep this tool up to date, so that everyone involved will know who is most in need. Even if this system is implemented, Burlington has a less than 1% vacancy rate. The goal set for Burlington is to house 2-3 of the people on that list. While there are certainly many challenges ahead, I have hope that we can reach these goals. After all, if you can get over 70 people up and out at 4:30 in the morning, people are clearly more willing to do the hard work.
Story of the Week: 11/2/14-11/8/14
ON THE HUNT FOR INVASIVE PLANTS
BY RUTH LARKIN, NATIVE PLANTS LAND MANAGER AT GREEN MOUNTAIN COLLEGE
I kill stuff. Yep, that’s what my service is all about. Taking green, growing things and killing them dead. I serve as the Native Plants Land Manager at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. Ironically, as such, I do very little with native plants. I do, however, focus a lot of energy on invasive plants; I spend my days hunting for them and killing them.
You see, invasive plants did not evolve in this ecosystem. Invasive plants are frequently introduced to ecosystems, as ornamental plants. In fact, this fall, one of my projects has been to remove the ornamental plantings on campus that are invasive species. The seeds from planted ornamentals disperse to natural areas. Without their predator species, they flourish. They become highly successful weeds. Without predation, they can easily out-compete our native species that do have to cope with their host of predatory species. And that can impact a lot more than just the greenery.
What are a plant’s predators? Well, generally, insects. So, if we have a lot of invasive plants, there isn’t much for the insects to eat. So, there aren’t as many insects around. That’s ok, right? I mean, who likes insects? Well, birds do for one. The birds eat the insects. Oh, and the insects eat the native plants; the insects transfer the sun’s energy up the trophic level from plants to other animals. So we find that a key to having a healthy ecosystem is to have native plants. When we have an area with primarily invasive plants, there isn’t much for the insects to eat, so their numbers dwindle. That means there isn’t much for birds to eat, so their numbers dwindle, and so on. Ultimately, these spaces stop functioning as healthy ecosystems.
And that is where I come in at: I take out invasive plants so that the native plants can thrive. I am, in essence, filling the role of the herbivorous insects that these invasive plants left behind when they were transported from their native ecosystems to this new one. It’s not glamorous; it’s often dirty, wet, and uncomfortable; but it’s important, and I love it. I’m getting things done for America.
Story of the Week: 10/26/14-11/1/14
As a VHCB AmeriCorps member with the Winooski Valley Park District, I am fortunate enough to provide field trips for local classrooms. These students have teachers that understand the value of hands on experiences, being out in nature, and seeing for themselves the plants and animals that they talk about in class. For example, the wetlands are a wonderful subject to learn in school. Students are extremely excited when they get to share with me how much they know, plants they can point out, and birds that could be out in the reeds.
Recently, I had four 3rd grade classrooms visit me in one week. I planned a whole day based around exploring the wetlands! The students were able to go on a Plant Identification Walk and were proud when they correctly identified a sensitive fern by the end of the day. Water quality testing was a big hit for the groups as well. We tested the water for phosphate and nitrate levels, dissolved oxygen saturation, pH, and turbidity. They learned that the water needs a certain pH range for plants to grow, that phosphate and nitrate are vital for a functioning wetland, and what the word ‘turbid’ means (how dirty the water is). At the end of the lesson, students were able to connect the importance of healthy water with maintaining a valuable habitat for the birds and mammals they love to talk about.
Students had the most fun tackling the large stand of Phragmites on the property. This non-native invasive reed takes over wetlands at a rapid pace. The students were very proud in knowing that they had helped us in this fight. Although some shoes got wet, the students jumped right in bundling the tall stalks. This makes it easier for staff to go in and cut the tops off of the reeds to drip herbicide into the stems. Despite the mud and hard work, teachers emailed me later saying that the students wouldn’t stop talking about it. They topped off their day by playing a version of ‘Shark and Minnows’ where those that were ‘it’ were Phragmites. At the end of each round, students saw how quickly two stalks of Phragmites turned into a field full!
Although keeping 40 3rd graders on track can be exhausting (especially with an abundance of sticks to be used as swords), it’s worth it to hear how happy the teachers are when they’re able to bring their students out of the classroom.
Story of the Week: October 6-October 13th
STEP OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE, By Rebecca Mitchell
On a recent sunny, fall day, I traveled to South Burlington to participate in a team building day with this year’s VHCB AmeriCorps members. While the first half of our day was centered around communication and team-building, that afternoon we had the opportunity to participate in a high ropes course. As someone who has a strong fear of heights, the idea of climbing over thirty feet up a tree was more terrifying than exciting. I watched as sets of my fellow AmeriCorps members ascended the catwalk activity. The catwalk involved two partners climbing up two different trees attached by a platform high in the air. The partners then walked from one tree to the other, crossing in the middle. It was an activity that required coordination, focus, clear communication, and courage.
I was comfortable participating in this activity from the ground- as a member of a belay team or stabilizing a ladder for another member. However, I wanted to push myself past my comfort zone. Internally, I rationalized what I would be able to accomplish knowing my level of fear and anxiety. If I was able to climb all the way up to the platform and belay down from the catwalk, I would be satisfied.
With the encouragement of my peers, I donned a helmet, clipped in my harness, and began my ascent. I tried not to think about how scary this situation felt as I climbed up to my platform. Before I knew it, I found myself up a tree, looking across the catwalk at Ashley, my partner for this activity. I was able to slowly but surely walk and meet her in the middle of the catwalk. This achievement surpassed what I had hoped to accomplish, but Ashley encouraged me to push myself even further, and gave me room to cross in front of her and reach the other tree. Both exhilarated and relieved, I belayed back to the ground. While I had originally intended just to climb to the top of the course, I surpassed my own expectations and conquered my fears.
This year, I’m serving with Green Mountain Farm to School, a non-profit located in the rural, northeastern corner of the state. As Nutrition and Agriculture Educator, my days can range from gardening with children, to promoting local foods in school cafeterias and educating the community on nutrition and cooking. Every day brings a new opportunity or challenge, and I enjoy the experience of growing as an educator while also seeing children and adults enjoying and learning from my programming. Many days are long and tiring, but feeling like I’ve made a positive impact in someone’s life makes it all worthwhile.
Serving with AmeriCorps is similar to participating in a ropes course: it takes determination, conviction, and enough courage to step out of your comfort zone. Through this program, I’ve experienced so much personal growth and discovered new passions and professional interests. I’ve found that often the most intimidating or unfamiliar risks reap the greatest sense of self-fulfillment. The next year is sure to be filled with these opportunities, and I’m excited to see where they lead.
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