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.