School Food Workers Ensure Local Kids are Fed

“Food is nourishing,” said Craig Locarno, food service director for the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union, when asked why it’s so important that students continue to have access to school meals during the shutdown. “I always say this, and I’m gonna continue to say it until I stop working in school food service. Food is just as important as English and math and history. It’s part of our culture, and we need to provide them something great.” 

Last Friday, May 1st, was National School Lunch Hero Day. This year the name feels especially apt, as school food employees have continued to go to work so that local kids can stay safe and well fed at home. Vital Communities spoke to three local food service directors about the challenges of providing food during a pandemic. For all of them, the solutions came through collaboration between food employees, teachers, bus drivers, and volunteers.

When schools shut down in March, quick adaptations were needed to keep producing food in a safe way. “Both of our kitchens [in Bethel and Royalton] are older-style kitchens, so there’s not a lot of extra room,” said Willy Walker, food service manager for the White River Valley School District. “We had to take a real strong look at how to break that up, how to reschedule people, split up their times in the kitchen, times in our cafeteria, and set up separate prep stations outside of the kitchen.” 

Employee safety goes beyond maintaining physical distance. Gretchen Czaja, food service director for the Windsor Central Unified District, added that staying healthy is just as important. “Masks and gloves, that’s the easy stuff. The hard stuff is making sure that you’re sleeping and staying hydrated, and making sure we’re taking care of each other.” She ensures that her employees, who are currently all working together out of Woodstock Union High School, understand that by staying healthy themselves they are keeping students safe.

Once the food is prepared, the final hurdle is getting it to families. Every district is finding a unique solution. In Windsor, Hartland, and Weathersfield, meals are packaged centrally and then sent out to families on school buses. In Bethel and South Royalton, parents pick up the meals at the schools, which operate as “open sites,”  free for anyone under 18. For students in Woodstock, Killington, Barnard, and Reading, there is now an “open site” at the Woodstock Elementary School. Additionally, paraeducators have been using their own cars to deliver meals to students enrolled in free and reduced breakfast and lunch. “We put a big spreadsheet together and then they figured the routes out on Google Maps,” said Gretchen. “It’s just amazing, the massive team effort that went on to switch gears during this crisis and be able to get food out to our most vulnerable families. And it was the relationships between the special education department and the food service department that really allowed that to happen.” 

“It’s truly been a community effort,” echoed Willy, describing the process in Royalton and Bethel, where volunteers have been helping to package while his teams prepare the meals. “I’m always so moved by that. If it wasn’t for my staff and the volunteers and the teachers that come in to help out, none of this would have ever happened.” 

It’s not only physical nourishment they are supplying, either. By providing food, schools are also providing stability, an important and elusive commodity in the midst of a crisis. “When people get back to me, they’re thankful for the normalcy that we’re giving them,” Willy said. “The routines for the kids, even just of having the milk cartons, are so important.” 

Craig added that he thinks the work being done now will have a lasting effect. “It’s all about community. And I think this is a huge opportunity to build trust in our students and in our community that we’re here for them and we care for them. The struggle we always have in school food service is getting the buy-in that we have a quality product. So they’re gonna see that we’re serving them good quality and good tasting food, on a daily basis. And I think that’s gonna have an impact.”

For many families in the Upper Valley, the impact has already been felt. So although National School Lunch Hero Day has passed, keep thanking the folks who make sure Upper Valley kids have a daily meal, and a milk carton too.

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By Henry Allison. Photo of food prep at Woodstock High School courtesy of Gretchen Czaja. This and other similar stories can be followed at #communitiesfeedkids.

 

Dan & Whit’s Takes a Central Role in Norwich COVID-19 Response

Dan Fraser, owner of Dan and Whit’s general store in Norwich, is posting often on the Norwich Discussion List these days, usually opening with an inspirational quote. “‘Leaders never use the word failure. They look upon setbacks as learning experiences,’  (Brian Tracy).” “‘The true test of leadership is how you function in a crisis,’ (Brian Tracy).” “‘The three C’S of leadership are consideration, caring and courtesy. Be polite to everyone,’ (Brian Tracy).” Who is Brian Tracy? Dan says, “I have no idea who he is. He just has a lot of motivational quotes that seem to apply.”

Dan’s dry sense of humor is obvious on the phone as well as List posts. “I think it’s good to poke fun at ourselves, a little bit,” he told me, “to give some sense of normalcy to this time when there is no normalcy.” The List posts are more than motivational, though. They keep Norwich updated on the many projects Dan & Whit’s has undertaken for the community.

They’ve started a grocery delivery fund for folks who have lost their jobs, and a Feed the Front Lines fund through which people nominate medical professionals to receive free dinners. Another program allows community members to anonymously buy lunch for police officers, firefighters, and postal workers. Dan is collecting milk bottles for McNamara Dairy and Strafford Organic Creamery, and raising money for a Victory Gardens Fund, which will help community members establish gardens. More donations have been used to purchase groceries for the Haven. Dan & Whit’s is also encouraging Norwich residents to display unity by putting white ribbons up in their yards, and eggs in their windows for a local Easter egg hunt. For many, the crisis has only emphasized the importance of a town general store. “People are realizing that we are here for them, and that as much as they need us, we need them,” Dan said.

As for what folks can do to support their local businesses, Dan told me the most important thing is shopping locally and helping others if you are in a position to do so. “We’re all in this together, and sometimes you’re gonna need some help. And if you can help someone else, that’s great too. So it just depends which side of the coin you’re on at the time.” Step aside, Brian Tracy, because Dan’s sentiment would be a great motivational quote for a Community Discussion List post.

***

Vital Communities will be posting periodic updates on local businesses who have adapted to continue providing services for the Upper Valley. If you have a story for us to share, please email info@vitalcommunities.org.

Family Project: Write a Quest For Your House!

Over these past few weeks I have experienced waves of anxiety and sadness, and at the same time such gratitude. I can’t imagine going through this crisis in any other part of the world. The Upper Valley is an amazing place filled with amazing people and places. I have the ability to walk out my door and witness first-hand the coming of spring as the buds emerge and the mud slowly dries. We invite you to take this coming week as a chance to celebrate the Upper Valley and our bonds to it. As part of this celebration consider discovering a local Quest or creating a Quest on your own.

We may not be able to leave our property much and we may not be able to visit our favorite Quest, yet we can find our own special places on our property or in our neighborhoods. This past week my kids and I decided to create a Quest of all the places that are special to our family on our property. It took us a couple of hours and once we were done we sent my husband out to follow our newly formed Quest clues.

Developing the Quest was fairly easy. First, we each made a list of  our favorite spots on the property. We decided where the Quest would start and walked to each of our favorite spots, figuring out the best sequence to follow. Once we had the sequence, we headed back inside to write our clues. The clues made us practice lots of rhyming as well as decide if we wanted to teach a few things along the way. We also created a map with illustrations and directional arrows. Once it was pulled together, we sent my husband out to test it. The kids loved watching their dad read their Quest and discover their special places on our property. They are also excited for their cousins to try the Quest (when they are able to visit again).

Try this out with your own family. Even if you don’t have a few acres you can do the same thing around a neighborhood, or inside your apartment. We all have a spot or two that we find special and everyone loves a treasure hunt. Send along a picture of your maps, clues, or Questing, or tag @vitalcommunities. We would love to see how you are celebrating your special places.

Steps:

  1. List your special spots.
  2. Walk the route you would like to take.
  3. Write your rhyming clues. Try to add some teaching points along with directional clues.
  4. Draw a map of the area.
  5. Test out the Quest.
  6. Save your Quest to share with others who visit once social distancing is relaxed.

Also check out our website for step-by-step videos on how to create a Quest.

Collier Quest April 2020

Start your adventure on a seat that swings.
Don’t wait too long and head to a place that could sting.

Head out to the deck.
Hang a compass around your neck.

South you will head as you leave the house.
Cross a field that certainly has a mouse.

Stop at the place honey is made.
In the hive you could find workers and drones that she laid

With the bees at your back
Compass you should not lack.

Go 60 east till you come to a tree with trunks of six
This white pine has lots of sticks.

Go down the hill to the fourth apple in the row.
How many apples do you think it will grow?

Move 28 steps to walk on water.
Check in the pond. Do you see an otter?

With your back to the dock walk north to the water that runs.
Your kids visit here and come home with wet buns.

Move upstream till the house is near.
You are almost done. Do not shed a tear.

Stop at the newly fallen tree.
Up the hill to the compost you see.

Go up hill to the place where veggies are grown.
You are almost there, don’t start to moan.

Look for your treasure where the hose hangs.
End your quest with the Collier gang!

From Fashion to Face Masks

On March 4th, Fat Hat clothing in Quechee was on track for its most profitable quarter ever. The brand’s easy-to-wear designs were in catalogues, such as Artful Home, and over 200 stores. That day, a truck left Los Angeles loaded with fabric destined for Fat Hat’s factory in New York City. Shortly after, California declared a state of emergency, and by the time the truck arrived in New York, a state of emergency had been declared there, too.

“It got to New York to unload and there was nobody there,” says Joan Ecker, founder and designer at Fat Hat. “Nobody was allowed to be. The elevators were shut down and the guy’s in the truck with all the fabric, with no place to go.” She couldn’t send it back to California, so the cloth sat in the truck for four days before she found someone in Long Island who could hold it. It’s still there today, waiting for the economy to reopen. Unable to continue production, and with further shutdowns closing their sales outlets, Joan and the Fat Hat team found a new direction: using their existing fabric supply to sew and donate face masks to those in the Upper Valley who need them. 

The face mask project emphasizes the family in family business. Joan cuts and irons the fabric herself, which her daughter’s boyfriend Leon Guedel then sews. Her daughter Jen organizes mask delivery while her other daughter Sara comes in once a week to staff the phones. Fat Hat’s main sewer, Lak Vorachak, and her sister-in-law, Linda Louangkhoth, continue to work from home. Another employee, Erica O’Hara, cuts more fabric in the basement. Fat Hat has already produced over 1,300 masks, which have found their way to housing developments, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, the Veterans Administration Hospital, local grocery stores, the correctional system, and more.

Community members can support Fat Hat’s efforts and help keep them in business by purchasing gift certificates. Fat Hat is also gladly accepting phone orders for clothing that they have in stock. “We are sitting here waiting for those phone calls happily, and we love to hear from people,” Joan says. “We’re like personal shoppers.” Given their expert questions about fit preferences and custom alterations, Fat Hat has gotten almost no returns.

And really, what better way to help a local business than by having your style personally customized by your brand’s designer herself? A new outfit might be just the thing to bring a little brightness into some difficult days.

***

To order a Fat Hat Face Mask for pick up or delivery, call (802) 296-6646. You can also browse Fat Hat’s clothing collections at https://fathat.com/ and find them on Facebook. Orders must be made over the phone.

Vital Communities will be posting periodic updates on local businesses who have adapted to continue providing services for the Upper Valley. If you have a story for us to share, please email info@vitalcommunities.org.

Climate & Community Resilience Spring Series

Climate and Community Resilience: Lessons from the Soil

Spring Community Webinar Series to Unpack What Creating Our Future Looks Like

What is good for the soil is good for our communities. Deep healthy soil governs flood resilience, clean water, strong local economies, and a myriad of ecological functions. Lessons from the soil–such as interdependence, biodiversity, and resource cycling–can help us to understand the past and create the future for the Upper Valley. In these times of great ecological, social,  and economic transformation, this series of six programs will unpack the science of whole systems landscape function, explore how land and society change together, and offer practical ways to engage with the land around you for community resilience and social justice. This series aims to expand the base of active “doers” who work together to build a more livable, resilient region and planet. Find detailed information about content at Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition!

FREE and open to all. Registration encouraged.

REGISTER HERE

As a precaution to limit the spread of the Coronavirus and to safeguard the health and well-being of everyone, the series will be modified to a webinar format.

Strengthening community and providing space for people to connect and learn together has suddenly become a more urgent need. We need each other now more than ever. To increase accessibility and safety we will plan to host the entire series in webinar format using Zoom. When it becomes safe again to commune together publicly we will switch back to in-person gatherings. We will keep everyone informed to changes as the uncertain future unfolds. Please register to receive updates.

You will need to download Zoom in order to participate.

Earth’s Cycles: Foundations of Energy and Matter
Sunday, March 22, 3:30-6 pm

Framing the entire series, this event introduces cycles of energy and matter that create a livable planet. The soil health principles provide a lens to understand how systems work together and to identify points of intervention where changes have been – and can be – made to influence climate and ecology. 

Historical Landscape: Learning from the Past
Sunday, April 5, 3:30-6 pm

Take a deep dive into the history of the Upper Valley to understand its watersheds, landscapes, climates, and inhabitants – and how they affect each other. Use the lessons of the past to envision a just future. 

Here and Now: Human Impacts
Monday, April 13, 5:30-8 pm

The world today has been shaped by human decisions to rearrange Earth’s systems. Learn about how and why the world exists in its current unstable state and explore possibilities to make better decisions in the future.

Systems Collapse: Climate and Ecological Crisis
Sunday, April 26, 3:30-6 pm

The environment is destabilizing, along with societies, economies, and cultures. Understand the collapse through various lenses to explore adaptation and avoid false solutions. 

Revolutionary Resilience: Creating a Different Future
Monday, May 4, 5:30-8 pm

With the understanding of the impacts of human decisions for the planet, explore the intersections of justice, land, and life. Work together to envision and create “what could be” in terms of a just future in the Upper Valley and beyond.

Fertile Ground: Reclaiming Power and Possibility
Sunday, May 17, 3:30-6 pm

This culminating event will bring us together on a local farm to reflect on the power of natural systems and community collaboration. Through discussion, activities and sharing with a team of change-makers and organizations from the region, explore what already exists and help realize next steps for the Upper Valley.

What is good for the soil is good for our communities. Deep healthy soil governs flood resilience, clean water, strong local economies, and a myriad of ecological functions. Lessons from the soil–such as interdependence, biodiversity, and resource cycling–can help us to understand the past and create the future for the Upper Valley. In these times of great ecological, social,  and economic transformation, this series of six programs will unpack the science of whole systems landscape function, explore how land and society change together, and offer practical ways to engage with the land around you for community resilience and social justice. 

This series will introduce the functions of Earth’s energy, water, carbon, and nutrient cycles. It will center lived experiences, sometimes difficult truths, and social and economic justice. Attendees will collaborate with various presenters and facilitators to explore information about the land and inhabitants in the Upper Valley at different periods throughout time – the past, present, and future. 

The format encourages an approach of thinking in whole systems rather than parts, of listening over speaking, of curiosity over knowing, and of participatory learning. A desired outcome is that people will take new ideas, new understandings, new questions, and new energies forward into the community to create positive change. This series aims to expand the base of active “doers” who work together toward a more livable, resilient region and planet.

Learn more at Vermont Healthy Soils Coalition!

Canaan Keeps FarmRaisers Alive

Kale. Carrots. Beets. Potatoes. Powerkraut!

These are just a few of the delightful local foods I’ve received from Root 5 Farm over the past few months as part of my fall FarmRaiser—a community-supported agriculture (CSA) fundraiser run by the Canaan Elementary School PTA that supports the school, the farm, and the idea of healthy, local eating in our community.

Vital Communities launched the FarmRaiser program in 2012 and coordinated it for several years before moving on to other projects. Canaan Elementary was among the first to adopt the program—and, according to Becka Warren at Vital Communities, who helped establish FarmRaisers in our region, it’s the very last school in the Upper Valley to keep the program going.

So why does Canaan bother?

It’s not a big fundraiser for the PTA—the school earned $600 for the 25 shares community members purchased this fall—but money isn’t the goal anyway, says PTA Secretary Hillary Gillies.

“The PTA loves it because it promotes local farms and foods and healthy eating,” says Canaan parent Kristen DeLeault, who for the past four years has coordinated the program. Kristen has worked hard to find partner farms—past partners Blue Ox Farm in Enfield and Autumn Harvest Farm in Grafton unfortunately went out of business. This year she coordinated a plan with Fairlee-based Root 5 Farm to personally pick up the FarmRaiser shares at their normal CSA pickup location in Lebanon and deliver them to Canaan Elementary. Her persistence and commitment have made the program possible.

“There aren’t many big farms nearby in New Hampshire that can sustain what we were hoping for,” Kristen says. “It’s not as local as we’d like, but it’s still in the Upper Valley.”

For Root 5 Farm, co-owner Danielle Allen says, the program just broke even financially. But it still made good business sense. “It was a great way to move product, especially in the fall when we have big harvests,” she said. “And we got exposure to a whole new set of customers without the farm having to do a lot of legwork.”

“It’s a lovely collaboration. It brings an awareness of farms and healthy food in our communities,” Danielle says. “It has all the good feels.”

“Canaan Elementary School continues to inspire us with its creative thinking about fundraising that is delicious, healthy, and local,” says Becka. “We love seeing the FarmRaiser continue all these years, and we hope other area schools consider whether it might work for their communities. It shows that eating local can take root at the earliest age (pun intended)!”

As a parent and FarmRaiser participant, I love that I can support my PTA and a local farm business all while getting something healthy and delicious for my family in exchange. My kids always look forward to FarmRaiser pickup day—and while they enjoy their fresh, local Kale Chips, I get to indulge in some delicious and simple Curried Carrot and Coconut Soup!

Want to start a FarmRaiser in your school? Get started with our online resources.

Celebrating our Volunteer of the Year

Ed. note: Vital Communities Executive Director Tom Roberts made the following remarks to honor 2019 Volunteer of the Year Bill Geraghty at our Open House on December 6.

We are delighted to celebrate Bill Geraghty as our Volunteer of the Year.

It is fitting that we honor Bill as we are celebrating our 25th.  As with many of the previous volunteers we’ve honored, their service to Vital Communities and the Upper Valley spans many years.

Bill has served on our board of directors for 11 of the last 13 years, coming back to serve again after his carefully laid out leadership succession plan fell apart due to a job change out across the country.

Bill has served twice as chair of the board, running prompt, efficient meetings and ably standing as our volunteer leader in the Upper Valley.

Jenny Levy, our outgoing board chair and VP of People, Community and the Environment at Hypertherm, said of Bill:

Bill’s calm, insightful, witty and wise character is a bedrock for the Vital Communities board. Like any real bedrock, it sticks around and allows others to grow around it – that’s Bill. He knows the history, knows the trials and errors and the successes, yet is eager for new ideas and to work with everyone. Like bedrock, you can always trust and count on Bill. He always does what he says he’s going to do, and signs up for way more than his fair share of work on behalf of our community.

Bill first got involved with Vital Communities 18 years ago when he was serving as the Vice President of Human Resources at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and joined our Upper Valley Transportation Management Association (TMA) as D-H’s representative. He was active in looking at alternatives to building more parking garages by improving transportation and housing options for D-H employees.

Over the years, Bill has served on nearly every committee we have here – with substantial service on our finance and nominating committees.

Because of his HR expertise, he was a key part of the search committee that hired both me and my predecessor, Mary Margaret Sloan; he was called upon for invaluable HR advice by both of us and has presented a set of trainings for the staff on HR matters.

Mary Margaret had this to say about Bill:

Bill was a lifeline for me. Often executive directors are isolated, but Bill wasn’t just the board chair, he was a true partner. If I needed advice — he was there. If I needed someone to share worries with — he was there. He is brilliant and kind, but my favorite thing about Bill is his sense of humor. We’d talk about something serious, and then he’d get a twinkle, and make me laugh. … Vital Communities… has been extraordinarily lucky to enjoy his leadership.

And Bill was on and chaired the Leadership Upper Valley Board of Governors and a key member of the Heroes & Leaders dinner planning committee, including serving as master of ceremonies for the event. Stacey Glazer, who ran LUV for many years used these words to describe Bill: “direct, super-helpful, wise, honest, caring, civic-minded, supportive and steady presence.” She summed it up well: “Bill was always there for Vital Communities when we needed him.”

And Bill did all this for Vital Communities while also serving as a member of the Hanover Selectboard, as well as being on other nonprofit boards.

I can echo Jenny’s, Mary Margaret’s, and Stacey’s sentiments and express my personal deep appreciation for Bill’s thoughtful, caring, and patient approach.

I am delighted to present Bill Geraghty our Volunteer of the Year Award for 2019.

Support TLC Campaigns Now!

Invest in your community and contribute to campaigns today!

Visit the TLC Upper Valley campaign page

The Local Crowd (TLC) Upper Valley is a community-based crowdfunding platform that empowers individuals to support the businesses, organizations, and initiatives that build community and economy. Learn about and contribute to one or more of the  exciting project below! Campaigns will be running through December 20.

     

Whaleback Base Lodge Energy Efficiency Updates, Enfield

You might not know this, but Whaleback is run by The Upper Valley Snow Sports Foundation (UVSSF), a nonprofit entity, with the mission to support and enhance an affordable, healthy, and sustainable snow sports experience in the Upper Valley of New Hampshire and Vermont. UVSSF members first came together in the spring of 2013 on the heels of Whaleback Mountain LLC shuttering operations. Like our fellow residents, we recognize the importance of Whaleback as a community asset.

Whaleback needs to perform repairs on the base lodge and want to invest in energy conservation practices. Our energy efficiency goals will help us become more environmentally friendly, improve comfort within the lodge, and to save money!

Support Whaleback Here!

 

Closing the Food Waste Loop with Willow Tree Community Compost, White River Junction

Our mission is to build community while creating compost. Similar to how a willow branch, when stuck in the ground, will grow into a tree, I’m hoping that each Willow Tree Community Compost member will become more strongly rooted in the community and share in a more sustainable lifestyle. The positive environmental impact of diverting waste from the landfill, reducing CO2 emissions and creating a nutrient-rich soil amendment for gardens, will go hand in hand with creating connections in the community. I envision gatherings and events that will bring members together and building business partnerships that benefit all parties. As we grow, we will also be creating local, green jobs.

To expand our operation and be able to serve more of our community, we need to grow! We need buckets, infrastructure, and a trailer to deliver the food waste to Sunrise Farm!

Support Willow Tree Here!

Close the Loop with Compost at Sunrise Farm, White River Junction

Sunrise Farm in White River Junction is creating an on-farm compost system that will take in food waste from the community and transform it into compost that will be incorporated into the farm’s soil to grow more vegetables that further nourish the community. Sunrise is working to build the physical infrastructure needed to compost food scraps from the community to build healthy soil on the farm, divert food waste from the landfill, and strengthen the connections between the farm and community.

Support Sunrise Farm Here!

Food for Thought: The Growing Peace Project, Topsham

We are a peacemaking, social justice, and youth activism educational nonprofit in Topsham, Vermont. Our youth collaborate in cross school teams to develop and implement action plans that address community issues they care about including food insecurity. We have a free food teaching garden that has been serving our food insecure neighbors for the past nine years.

We’re raising funds to support our Food For Thought free food teaching garden and youth activism programs. Funds raised will allow us to purchase equipment, hire help, add more workshops, and partner with local farms.

Support The Growing Peace Project Here!

Mascoma Friends Feeding Friends Expansion, Canaan

The Friends of Mascoma Foundation is committed to combatting food insecurity in the Mascoma Valley Regional School District (MVRSD) through the Friends Feeding Friends program. The program operates two food pantries in Canaan and in Enfield, plus is the primary source of food and personal hygiene items for the pantry located inside Mascoma Valley Regional High School. Pantry shoppers can come once a week for a three-day supply of food. We have refrigeration, so we focus on fresh produce, meats and dairy products as well as non-perishables. We also supply food for snacks, backpacks, family food boxes as needed and other pantry items to the elementary and middle schools. 

For the past several years a generous private donor has allowed us to use their vehicles, including a van and trailer, for food distribution. Use of these vehicles is essential to our Friends Feeding Friends program and it’s time for us to get our own wheels!

Support Friends Feeding Foodie Here!

 

Puppy Junction, White River Junction


The Student Rescue Project, Inc. is a Vermont 501(c)(3) that focuses on providing hands-on experiences in dog rescue for students. We believe that, if we’re able to nurture the empathy that young people have for animals, we can to develop a life-long dedication to animal welfare. At this time, we’re in the process of creating an adoption, volunteer and education center in White River Junction called Puppy Junction. This will serve as a new home-base for our organization and be a community space for dog-lovers. 

This funding campaign will be launching soon—please check back!

 

Housing: Regional Challenge—Local Solutions

Housing: Regional Challenge—Local Solutions

We live, work, shop, and play across state and town lines, so it makes sense to work together to meet our shared housing challenge.

Here is what some towns are doing, and how you can be part of the change.

Tunbridge, Strafford, Sharon, and Royalton have launched a task group to work on creating more homes together. Contact Ken Wright to get involved.
Mt. Ascutney Hospital is sponsoring a work group to reduce barriers to housing in their service area—Barnard, Pomfret, Hartford, Killington, Bridgewater, Woodstock, Hartland, Plainfield, Plymouth, Reading, West Windsor, Windsor, Cornish, and Weathersfield. Contact Faye Grearson or Mike Kiess to be part of this effort.
The Lebanon Planning Board is hearing about ideas for hundreds of apartments near the DHMC campus and welcomes your participation to learn more and share your ideas. Find out about meeting dates and agendas, and let Jim Wasser or Billy Cioffredi know if you want updates.
The Woodstock Community Trust put a house into the market at a price targeting a resident working family. Bennington‘s Healthy Homes project is refurbishing abandoned houses for purchase at moderate prices. Contact Jill Davies or Kevin Dailey to see if these ideas could be adapted to your town.

Stand in Your Circle of Strength and Lead

Ed. Note: On May 30, Vital Communities honored 12 community leaders who’ve added immeasurably to the vitality of the Upper Valley at its annual Heroes & Leaders Celebration. The following are the event’s keynote remarks from Jenny Levy, the immediate past board chair of Vital Communities and Vice President of People, Community and Environment at Hypertherm.

Congratulations to Vital Communities for 25 years of cultivating positive change in our 69 towns of the Upper Valley. It has been my honor to be part of caring for and growing that impact during my 5 years on the board, just a short part of the long history of this incredible organization.

Congratulations to the honorees this evening. I am humbled to be a part of your celebration tonight. You are joining another seven “classes” of heroes and leaders. Prior honoree categories include Olympians, Veterans, Women Leaders, Visionaries of the Upper Valley, Mentors, Young Leaders, and Long-Standing Stewards – some of whom are here with us tonight. Thank you all for being a critical part of what makes the Upper Valley such a special place.

When you listen tonight, read about past leaders, or, like me, work alongside two of them, Barbara Couch, a Woman Leader, and Dick Couch, a Visionary of the Upper Valley, it is easy, and frankly appropriate, to be in awe. We are quick to put them all on a pedestal.

This very event makes us pause and look up to these heroes and leaders and the heights they have achieved. We sit here and look at THEM up THERE. I start to wonder HOW did they do it? WHERE does a hero or a leader come from? Maybe it was the Wheaties they ate for breakfast, or, as Warren Buffet might put it, they got a winning ticket in the ovarian lottery. So, knowing I was going to have the opportunity to speak tonight, I did some homework. I reached out to heroes and leaders from this year and prior years and asked them this simple question: “What was a moment that set you on the path to becoming a hero or a leader?” The answers they each gave were varied and inspiring, and, lucky for all of us, instructive.

Vital Communities grew out of what we can think of as the Rabbi Hillel category of leaders. He was a first-century Jewish scholar who wrote, now translated, “If not you, then who? If not now, when?” Reading a 1993 Valley News Sunday editorial is what sparked a prior honoree, Betty Porter, to start a conversation with the League of Women Voters, and then one meeting, and then another, and then a whole organization was founded that we all now benefit from greatly. Don’t forget it was one person reading one article that set this future in motion.

An honoree tonight, Stan Williams, was standing in his driveway years ago, watching his son bike down to the Norwich library to do his homework on their computers, which had internet speed the Williams family couldn’t get at home. His son had just asked him, “Dad, can’t you do something about this?” Stan’s neighbor, with whom he was chatting at the time, piled on, “Stan, don’t you know something about telecom? Maybe you could get us internet?” Lucky for all of us, Stan listened on that day. Now 3,000 rural customers are connected to ECFiber.

One of the Upper Valley Visionaries, Van Chesnut from Advance Transit, tells a similar story of being called to lead. Advance Transit had just completed a small pilot project for DHMC that found ridership significantly increased if their employees could get on the bus for free when they simply showed their badge. Seeing this positive result, Van wondered if he could figure out how to do that for all Upper Valley citizens. Lucky for all of us, our community now benefits from the largest, free, non-urban public transit system in Vermont and New Hampshire. Betty, Stan, and Van all answered Rabbi Hillel’s questions with “Yes, me” and “Yes, now.”

Next, there’s the ABBA category of leadership. The “Take a chance on me” set of stories. Julia Griffin, the town manager for Hanover and a Woman Leader honoree, describes when she was fresh out of grad school and was the assistant to the assistant of the City Manager in Santa Monica, California, John Jalili. Despite being low on the totem pole Julia describes John’s mentorship as critical to her future path. He took time to teach her some key principles: to wade in quietly, to not force things, to think of community as theater, and to be patient. Likely, many of us consider, “Where would Hanover be without Julia?” The real questions are, where would Hanover be if John hadn’t taken the time to teach these lessons to Julia? And where would Hanover be if Julia hadn’t stopped and listened and taken these lessons to heart?

Rob Taylor described his father, Steve Taylor, an honored Long-Standing Steward, going to work at the Valley News in his 20s and being made the managing editor at that young age. Steve’s own capabilities helped him earn that position, but it was also someone else who took a chance on Steve to run and grow our region’s source of news and insights, in fact the very one which decades later inspired the creation of Vital Communities.

Julia and Steve and many others like them had people who saw something, some spark, some ray of potential, and those people took a chance on them. In turn, Julia and Steve took full advantage of that chance – they didn’t back away, they trusted themselves and the person on the other side of the table.

There’s another category of hero and leader, the “You can run but you can’t hide” type. This became apparent when I was talking with Elyse Crossman about her honor as a Young Leader as the executive director of the Greater Claremont Chamber of Commerce. She grew up feeling like she was just known as “Ray’s daughter” and she resented it. You see, her father, Ray Gagnon, was on the Claremont City Council, was the Mayor and a Representative to the New Hampshire Assembly. Elyse’s turning point was when she stopped trying to run away from the legacy she was so lucky to be a part of and started to embrace the lessons of leadership and making a positive difference her father had been demonstrating her whole life.

One of the honored Women Leaders, Sara Kobylenski, former executive director of the Haven and ongoing change maker, told me she was recently given a stuffed giraffe by her friend Jill Lord (a Long-Standing Steward honoree by the way). The card with it said, “Because you always stick your neck out for others.” It was at that moment that Sara realized this is exactly how she has lived her life, snapping her back to a memory of being a 4-year old on the playground and sticking up for another child there. Elyse and Sara have embraced their greatest sources of strength and use that to fuel their ongoing impact.

Finally, are the seed-sowing moments of heroes and leaders. Edie Thys Morgan was in the first class of Olympian honorees as an Alpine skier in the crazy speed events. She was on the World Cup circuit for 6 years and participated in two Olympics. When asked what her moment was, she described that the biggest impact came from small precious doses of encouragement she received from her mother every night she tucked young Edie into bed. These small moments knit together to form enormous inner security and confidence that later fueled Edie.

When I asked one of tonight’s honorees, and my friend, Pru Pease, she knew exactly the moment when she saw herself as somebody. It was when she walked through the doors of the Family Place, another honoree as a Long-Standing Steward, looking for guidance. Pru was pregnant with her second child and her first was perched on her hip with two broken legs. Christie Binzen, the ED at the time, came walking down the stairs, looked directly into Pru’s eyes with warmth and knowing and simply said, “Welcome.” It was in that one look, that one word, that Pru knew she was being seen for who she was and could be and that she was strong, deserving, and powerful—shall we say, truly heroic? Earlier, you heard for yourself what that small seed grew for Pru and the countless people Pru has likewise empowered.

Will we all be patient and diligent to sow seeds, like tonight’s honorees Pooh and Anne Sprague from Edgewater Farm, and the half dozen other farmers honored in prior years? These heroes know how to plant a seed at the right depth, in the right light, and with the right nutrients so that we may all in turn be nourished. What seeds in our community are we each planting and tending to?

Will we all raise our hands like Betty, Stan, and Van and answer the questions, “If not you, then who? If not now, when?” In what area of your life could you be answering these questions in the affirmative? When will you take up the call to stand in your circle of strength and lead?

When will you take up the call to stand in your circle of strength and lead?

Will we all take a chance on someone? Are we in a position to see something in someone else and have the guts to act on it? Or, has someone tried to take a chance on you? Like Julia and Steve, did you put your faith in them and yourself and did you take it? What additional greatness could occur if we each did so?

Will we all be brave enough like Elyse and Sara to realize our calling? Will we ask ourselves the same question: What are we running from, that if we stopped, turned around, and faced it, we would find our greatest source of strength?

As you now know, the heroes and leaders before us and in years past all come from where you and I sit tonight. They are not far above or away from us. The very future of the vitality of our community, our nation, even our world, rests on all of us learning these important lessons and taking them to heart. Look at yourself. Look around this room. Look around your community. Who and what will we be celebrating next year and at the 50th anniversary? You see, we are all creators of heroes and leaders, indeed, we are all heroes and leaders.

Thank you.

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