2020 Volunteers of the Year: The Upper Valley’s Mutual Aid Groups

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the Upper Valley, it brought an ever-lengthening list of questions and concerns. Would supplies of food and other essentials hold out? Where would those suddenly without income get help? Who would support those at greatest risk from the coronavirus so they could stay home and stay safe? Where could people get the best information about testing, public health measures, and social assistance programs?

Seemingly overnight, an answer sprang up: the “mutual aid groups,” an interconnected array of community-based volunteer groups that reached out to residents and shared information with each other. Those Upper Valley mutual aid groups, numbering close to two dozen, have been chosen as Vital Communities’ collective 2020 Volunteers of the Year.

“We usually choose an individual for this honor, but this year it seemed fitting to shine a light on the incredible network of people who stepped up for their neighbors with such ingenuity and resourcefulness,” said Sarah Jackson, Vital Communities Executive Director. “The mutual aid groups have been a great demonstration of how to be resilient in the face of challenges. They used online tools like surveys, meetings, spreadsheets and community listservs to reach those in need and to share information among other groups. The volunteers are people from within each community, who understand their town’s people and their needs.  The networks represent a true grassroots effort.”

Mutual aid groups constitute an ever-changing and not sharply defined list, but below is a representative list of some of the Upper Valley mutual aid groups, with contact information in the links:

Much help has also been provided by the Central Vt Council on Aging and local “aging in place” groups as well as through various communities’ boards of selectmen, town clerk’s offices, churches, village stores, schools, food shelves, and libraries.

Upper Valley Everyone Eats and Vermont Everyone Eats is Put on Pause

The following is a press release from Vermont Everyone Eats, for which Vital Communities is the Upper Valley hub, operating as Upper Valley Everyone Eats.

SPRINGFIELD, December 29, 2020 —The innovative Vermont Everyone Eats program that has provided free restaurant to-go meals to COVID-impacted Vermonters since August is being put on hold as of December 31. Everyone Eats has engaged over 170 Vermont farms and food producers, played a key role in keeping over 150 restaurants in business, and provided over 500,000 meals to members of communities in all 14 Vermont counties. This creative program was made possible in 2020 with CARES Act funding through a grant from VT Agency of Commerce and Community Development to Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA) and partnerships with 14 Community Hubs around Vermont. All program partners would like to continue and are working to identify new sources of funding to continue in 2021.  

As we continue to live with this health pandemic and economic crisis, the need in Vermont is significant. From one recipient: “Everyone Eats has been a lifeline. In addition to providing us with amazing food, it has also given us a much-needed break. We are living in difficult times and every little bit of connection with our community is invaluable.” From another: “The quality, time, and care that has been put into these meals is nothing short of outstanding. Finding a way to be resourceful and still feeding us as if we were eating in a restaurant means so much.”

Vermont Everyone Eats is on pause starting December 31st while the partners work tirelessly to explore funding options through various channels. Given the ongoing nature of the pandemic and its impact upon our local economies, there is effort and great hope that funding will be available to restart the program.  As Jean Hamilton, Everyone Eats Statewide Coordinator, says: “This program was born through a collaboration of lawmakers, state agencies, non-profits, and grassroots organizers. Our partnerships continue to be strong and we are optimistic about relaunching Everyone Eats with a new funding source ASAP.” 

Hamilton adds, “It has been an honor to work on Everyone Eats with so many caring partners across the state and heartening to see our community weave closer together, supporting one another through this difficult time. We will do everything we can to keep supporting Vermont restaurants, farms, and our vulnerable neighbors. If you need help right now, please dial 2-1-1 to learn about numerous programs that are available to support you. And if you have help to give, please support your neighbors in need, including local restaurants. Remember, if you want them to be here tomorrow, please buy local today.”  

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Vermont Everyone Eats provides nutritious meals to Vermonters in need of food assistance as well as a stabilizing source of income for Vermont restaurants, farmers, and food producers. Vermont Everyone Eats is funded by the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund and made possible through a grant provided by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development to Southeastern Vermont Community Action 

For more information visit www.vteveryoneeats.org or email vee@sevca.org 

Video Excerpts: “Buy Local to Feed Local: Upper Valley Everyone Eats,” Nov. 24

At a virtual gathering on November 24, people from social service agencies and restaurants across the Upper Valley gave powerful testimony about the beneficial impact Upper Valley Everyone Eats has had on local farms, restaurants, and people in need.

Upper Valley Everyone Eats is the local hub of Vermont Everyone Eats, which pays hard-hit Vermont restaurants $10/meal to prepare free, nutritious meals for Vermonters in need. Vermont Everyone Eats is funded by the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund and made possible through a grant provided by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development to Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA). Upper Valley Everyone Eats will provide ~40,000 meals to patrons across 17 meal sites between September 8 and December 31.

Here are video excerpts from the event.

Special Sessions for VT & NH Legislators

Vital Communities is hosting four virtual meetings for legislators in the Upper Valley region, from both New Hampshire and Vermont, connecting them with key voices and resource people on critical issues.

Home Availability in Our Region
Wed, Nov 18 & Tues, Dec 1, 9 – 10 am
Via Zoom; email Mike Kiess (mike@vitalcommunities.org) to RSVP and receive link.

Upper Valley legislators are invited to attend either of these discussions about opportunities to meet our collective housing needs, with members of Vital Communities’ Corporate Council. The Council is a volunteer group of this region’s largest and best-known institutions, businesses, and nonprofits that collectively employ more than 16,000 people and reach well over half the households in the region. Council members are deeply committed to working across boundaries to meet shared challenges.

Each session includes:

  • Update on housing-related legislative actions and opportunities in Montpelier and Concord (brief presentations);
  • Update on Upper Valley actions and opportunities, including new homes data from 2019 and in pipeline (brief presentations);
  • Identification of collaboration opportunities (breakout group discussion followed by report to the large group).

 

Buy Local to Feed Locals: Upper Valley Everyone Eats
Tues, Nov 24 , 1-2 pm

Register here for the Zoom event.

Join us  at a virtual panel and discussion about Upper Valley Everyone Eats, our local hub of the statewide coronavirus relief program Vermont Everyone Eats. We’ll hear directly from participating restaurants, meal sites, farms, and project coordinators, as they share their experiences with Upper Valley Everyone Eats, and discuss its impacts. We’ll save plenty of time for questions, too.

Vermont Everyone Eats pays hard hit Vermont restaurants $10/meal to prepare free, nutritious meals for Vermonters in need. Upper Valley Everyone Eats will provide ~35,000 meals to patrons across 17 meal sites between September 8 and December 18. We also may continue to the end of December, and we may be able to freeze meals for later distribution.

Vermont Everyone Eats is funded by the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund and made possible through a grant provided by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development to Southeastern Vermont Community Action (SEVCA).

Our Vermont legislators were a part of making this program possible, so thank you! We particularly invite you to attend, to gain a clearer picture of UVEE’s impacts. However, we welcome all officials to attend to hear about the innovative program. We are also inviting members of the Upper Valley Hunger Council, and Upper Valley Strong, and interested members of the public.

 

From the State House to the Farm House
Wednesday, December 16, 10 am to noon
Via Zoom.  RSVP (required) here  

Farmers and legislators are invited to this third annual event, hosted by farms across Vermont and focusing on citizen advocacy at the intersection of the working lands, community members, and policymakers. This virtual event is about building relationships among farmers/farmworkers and the (recently!) elected legislators who represent them, through dialogue about how policy can support the transition to a resilient and equitable agriculture that benefits all of our people, communities, and landscapes. In the midst of a year where so much has changed on farms and within our greater food web, and so many structural inequities have been exacerbated, there is much to discuss.  We look forward to this conversation.

The event will include regional breakouts with dialogue between farmers/farmworkers and legislators. Luna Bleu Farm will “host” the Windsor County session and Orange County will be “hosted” by Cedar Circle Farm & Education Center.

Details here.

Housing Help in Vermont!

During these difficult times, new financial help programs are available to many Vermonters. The state does not want people to be struggling to pay bills, so please apply, even if you don’t usually get public help. Vermont Legal Aid has more information on these programs on its website: http://vtlawhelp.org.

NOTE: Application deadline for many programs is December 23, 2020. Please pass the word to anyone you can help!

Vermont Legal Aid is also able to help individual tenants and homeowners. Call them at 1-800-889-2047 or go to http://vtlawhelp.org. For the fastest response, leave a message explaining what you need in a sentence or two.

  1. Help with past-due rent

For help with past-due rent, Vermonters should apply for the Rental Housing Stabilization Program through the Vermont State Housing Authority (VSHA). Tenants and landlords apply for this program at the same time. There are no income limits. VSHA pays landlords directly to bring the tenant’s rent account current. This program will last until December 30 or until the money runs out. You can get help now, and apply again if you still need help later. Learn more about this help for paying past-due rent on our website or reach us for help.

  1. Moving to a new home

Some people need to move because of life safety problems with their rental unit, the rent is too expensive, they have trouble with the landlord or other tenants, or the unit is too big or too small. If you need to move and have found a new landlord, apply together for the Money to Move program at vsha.org. The program can cover the money needed to move in, such as first and last month’s rent and security deposit. It also may cover rent payments through the end of this year. Learn more about this help on our website or reach us for help.

  1. Emergency housing for people who do not have a home

The Department of Children and Family’s (DCF) Economic Services Division is extending housing supports for homeless households. For more information or to apply, contact the Benefits Service Center at 1-800-479-6151.  Follow this link for the program rules.

If you stay in a shelter or motel, you need to participate in “coordinated entry.” Through coordinated entry, you will be assigned a housing case manager who will help you access subsidies and programs to help you get permanent housing. To learn more about coordinated entry, call 2-1-1. If you worked with your case manager to apply for a subsidy or other program and your application was denied, call Vermont Legal Aid at 1-800-889-2047.

  1. Past-Due Utility Bills

The Department of Public Services (DPS) can help pay past-due utility bills. The bills can be for electric, natural gas, landline telephone service or regulated private water bills (not municipal water). Homes and small businesses are eligible. There are no income limits, and you don’t have to have a disconnect notice. However, your difficulty paying the bill must be linked to COVID. The funding only covers arrearages after March 1, 2020. If you need help to fill out an application online, contact your local community action agency. Learn more on the Department of Public Service website.

  1. Mortgage Assistance Program (and maybe Property Tax Assistance)

This program can pay up to six past-due mortgage payments on your home. It is available to all Vermonters who:

  • are at least 1 month past due on mortgage payments
  • have a COVID-related hardship, and
  • meet the income requirements.

Even people who have mortgages in forbearance are eligible. If you have a mortgage and are behind on property taxes that you pay directly to the town, you may also be eligible for assistance. Vermont Housing Finance Agency (VHFA) is taking applications for the Vermont COVID Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program. (You do not need to have a VHFA mortgage to be eligible.) Learn more about the mortgage assistance on our website or reach us for help.

Questions? Email Mike Kiess at mike@vitalcommunities.org.

Why Bank Locally?

Where You Bank Makes a Difference!

When you use a bank or credit union rooted in our community, you’re making a conscious choice to support our local economy. Local First Champion member Mascoma Bank is a great example of why it’s important to move your money to a local institution. Mascoma Bank has been committed to investing in and lending in our region since 1894. They prioritize supporting Upper Valley communities, small businesses, and entrepreneurs – keeping our economy and community vital!

5 Reasons to Move Your Money and Bank Locally

1. Get the Same Services at Lower Cost
Most locally owned banks and credit unions offer the same array of services, from online bill paying to debit and credit cards, at a much lower cost than big banks. Average fees at small banks and credit unions are substantially lower than at big banks, according to national data. Studies show that small financial institutions also offer, on average, better interest rates on savings and better terms on credit cards and other loans.

2. Put Your Money to Work Growing Your Local Economy
Small businesses, which create the majority of new jobs, depend heavily on small, local banks for financing. Although small and mid-sized banks control less than one-quarter of all bank assets, they account for more than half of all small business lending. Big banks, meanwhile, allocate relatively little of their resources to small businesses. The largest 20 banks, which now control 57 percent of all bank assets, devote only 18 percent of their commercial loan portfolios to small business.

3. Keep Decision-Making Local
At local banks and credit unions, loan approvals and other key decisions are made locally by people who live in the community, have face-to-face relationships with their customers, and understand local needs. Because of this personal knowledge, local financial institutions are often able to approve small business and other loans that big banks would reject. In the case of credit unions, control ultimately rests with the customers, who are also member/owners.

4. Back Institutions that Share a Commitment to Your Community
The fortunes of local banks and credit unions are intimately tied to the fortunes of their local communities. The more the community prospers, the more the local bank benefits. This is why many local banks and credit unions are involved in their communities. Big banks, by contrast, are not tethered to the places where they operate. Indeed, they often use a community’s deposits to make investments in other regions or on Wall Street.

5. Support Productive Investment, Not Gambling
The primary activity of almost all small banks and credit unions is to turn deposits into loans and other productive investments. Meanwhile, big banks devote a sizeable share of their resources to speculative trading and other Wall Street bets that may generate big profits for the bank, but provide little economic or social value for the rest of us and can put the entirefinancial system at risk if they go bad.

Workshop: Converting Your Bike to an E-Bike

On Monday, November 9, 7 pm, a free Zoom workshop will teach you how to convert a regular bike to an e-bike!

Over summer and fall, the 2020 Upper Valley E-bike Library program gave a lot of Upper Valley residents the opportunity to discover how an electric-assist bike can be part of our regular transportation.

One of the least expensive options for obtaining an e-bike is to convert a regular bike, and here’s an online workshop to show us how!

Monday, 11/9, 7 pm

888 475 4499 US Toll-free   877 853 5257 US Toll-free    Meeting ID: 883 6192 9021

The workshop will feature a video of an actual conversion with lots of direct Q/A as we view it. A panel of experienced e-bike converters will share what they’ve learned from their trials and errors, insights on various makes and models of motors and batteries, and recommendations on the right materials and tools to have on hand before you dive in.

This workshop is organized by the Norwich Energy Committee, with funding from the Norwich Women’s Club and technical support from CATV.

Questions? Contact linda.c.gray@gmail.com.

Downtown vs. Out-of-Town: Community Conversations

Which uses of our land provide the best economic returns to our towns? The answers might surprise you.

Developing big parcels of land on the fringes of town as malls, big-box stores, or suburban tracts? No.

Building up existing downtowns with mixed uses – residential, commercial, social services, and more? Yes. Acre for acre, this type of development raises more property tax revenue and requires less new infrastructure for taxpayers to pay for. In addition, mixed-use downtown development can have positive implications for climate change, public health, historic preservation and community architectural “character,” and social equity.

This broad issue is explored in a series of engaging, accessible, virtual presentations featuring renowned planner Joe Minicozzi of the North Carolina-based firm Urban3, The series began with the session From the Outskirts to DowntownTaxes, Land Use & Land Value Analysis of 15 New Hampshire Communities, on Thursday, October 15, 10 am. Watch the video here. The first 20 minutes are a great introduction to why this information should affect our choices.

Minicozzi is following the statewide session with presentations focused on the communities that were studied, including a session focusing on Lebanon, Claremont, and Hanover, on Thursday, October 29, 11 am.  Register for this free LOCAL event.

Urban3 derived its findings by analyzing the property tax revenues of Berlin, Claremont, Concord, Dover, Exeter, Hanover, Hudson, Keene, Laconia, Lebanon, Nashua, Pelham, Peterborough, Portsmouth, and Rochester. Minicozzi, the principal of Urban3, is an urban planner who utilizes new ways to think about and visualize land use, urban design, and economics.

By using these data to create 3D visualizations, Urban3’s analysis reveals the potential for improving the fiscal health of each of these 15 communities. The visuals show what types of development create the greatest tax return for communities, and create a clear and data-driven understanding of the economics of place. Communities can use these findings as a tool to make public policy adjustments, with the goal of creating long-term financial resiliency.

The Lebanon-Claremont-Hanover conversation will drill down from the statewide picture presented on October 15. Analysis, charts, and observations of data for each of the three towns will be presented. A panel with planning officials from each of the towns and the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission will provide local context and answer questions in a facilitated discussion.

The series aims to give participants another way to look at how we use our land, and the implications for local health, prosperity, climate, and social equity. They should be able to use the information to make choices that enable and protect what they value in their local communities. Although the data was derived from studying particular New Hampshire communities, residents and officials of towns of all sizes can gain valuable insight from this discussion.
Questions to be explored include:
  • What are the financial implications of different land uses, and how can this knowledge help us make and implement good decisions for our homes, businesses, schools, and other needs?
  • Who really pays for infrastructure and its continued maintenance?
  • How can we preserve and replicate the homes and buildings we appreciate most, that give our communities character, and offer the greatest benefits to the public as a whole?

 

 

Community Discussion Lists: A Way Out of Partisanship?

In these contentious times, when civility, useful information, and real communication seems to be frequently missing from the big social media platforms, it is pretty wonderful to have a local resource where we can learn what is happening in our local towns.

The Community Discussion Lists are just that. Hosted by Vital Communities, they allow members of a community to post and respond to email messages about town events, notices about town government, questions for the school board, recycling announcements, items for sale, questions about lost or found pets, etc. They are a great way to keep up with what’s happening, and to see everyone in the community interacting in this local, non-partisan way that exemplifies small-town New England.

During the pandemic, the lists have also been a lifeline – a resource on how to find assistance and support for those in need as a result of health concerns or economic disruption.

In the 12-month period ending on June 30, 2020, there were over 43,000 subscribers to 42 lists in the Upper Valley. Subscribers posted over 115,000 messages over that period.

The intent is to keep the discussions about each town. A post that concerns more than one town should be posted on the Upper Valley Discussion List. The full guidelines are on the Vital Communities website and at the end of every morning’s “Digest,” but the big ones are: keep it local, keep it civil, and don’t post anonymously. 

The key here is that individual subscribers are responsible for their content. Vital Communities doesn’t control the content distributed through the list. Nor do town governments. The lists are moderated after the fact by community volunteers supported by VC. With the exception of one list, posts are not screened before they go to the digest. Accomplishing this across all lists would be an impossible task, given the number of lists, users and postings daily. We can only moderate after the fact, usually by restricting the offenders’ posting privileges or outright banning a particular party.

Of course, that gets messy sometimes. One person recently anonymously posted some inflammatory political views. The moderators took care of it pretty quickly, as they do. When you see posts like that, it’s best to forward it to the moderator, rather than post about it on the list – especially as one objective of “trolls” is to hijack list discussions.

The Community Discussion Lists are our own, volunteer driven, locally managed, nonprofit social media. They can be a terrific antidote to the impersonal partisan bickering that happens elsewhere on the internet. But they need care and tending by all of us to be the community resource we all want them to be.

Vital Communities is grateful for the many people who help defray the expense of administering the Lists by making an annual or monthly gift (you can restrict the gift to Communities Discussion Lists if you wish). People can support the Lists by contributing here [https://vitalcommunities.org/donate/waystogive/].

Rob Schultz, Coordinator, Community Discussion Lists, Vital Communities

 

Upper Valley Housing, 2010-2019: The Numbers Are In

How many and what kind of homes are we creating in our region? Vital Communities and Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Commission partnered with 29 towns to measure the numbers, types, and values of homes created since 2010, with a look ahead at the next few years.

Click these links for the summary of results, and the details by town.

The study will help planners and municipalities size up the kinds of partnerships needed to meet our region’s housing demands, and include more communities and residents in the effort – which encompasses everything from big-dollar multi-unit new development to individual homeowners adding accessory dwelling units.

Some of the chief findings are:

  • The number of new places to live created in 2019 was about the average rate for the last 10 years: 221 units in 2019 compared to an average rate of 248.
  • New places to live over the past 10 years are about evenly split between single-family and multi-family homes.
  • The majority of units added over the past 10 years were assessed at under $300,000.
  • Based on an analysis of building permits issued in some towns, about 6 percent of permits were for replacing or adding an additional dwelling unit to an existing structure.
  • Partnerships of employers, developers, finance, municipalities are making large projects possible.

Contact Mike Kiess Mike@VitalCommunities.org with questions, and learn more at https://vitalcommunities.org/workforce-housing/

The 29 towns that were studied (about three-fourths of Vital Communities’ service area) are:
In New Hampshire:
Charlestown
Claremont
Enfield
Grantham
Hanover
Haverhill
Lebanon
Lempster
Newbury
New London
Newport
Plainfield
Springfield
Sunapee
In Vermont:
Bethel
Bradford
Fairlee
Hartford
Hartland
Newbury
Norwich
Randolph
Rockingham
Royalton
Springfield
Thetford
Weathersfield
West Windsor

Windsor

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