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Why Community Matters

They realize it has rarely, if ever, happened. But you, you here at the Howard Center, that’s what you do, and have done and continue to do. You are the listeners.

And if you do not?

“When they are not heard when they speak, they find a way to be heard. Their ways often are not pretty. They can be frightening, destructive.” Lynette Loges from your Safety Connection program told me that. She explained that Safety Connection supports people with developmental disabilities so they can live more independently.

I learned of a man we’ll call Sam. Now in his late forties, he was so aggressive that caseworkers shuddered when they learned he was now their responsibility: “People actually left the agency when he arrived on their caseload.”

“We were banging our heads against the wall,” Jim Hessler of Safety Connection said. “Then the team decided: You know what? We’ve been rewarding Sam for so long for his aggressive, unsocial behavior, what happens if we just walk away until he learns there’s another way to get things done?” He had been given his own apartment, and soon the Howard Center was called. He was on the porch with a broom handle, about to smash in the windows. “We said, ‘Sam, if you want something and can ask for it appropriately, we’ll be there. But you didn’t, so we’re leaving.’ His jaw fell open.

“But what happened next? He went from most-feared client in this agency to one of the nicest. He regained a quality of life. He became a wonderful advocate for himself. People like being around him. Now he’s living a life worth living. A lost member of the community here had been found.” When we help to restore dignity to a person’s life, Jim added, it’s like the attorney who frees someone who has been wrongfully sent to prison.

There are about 30 people like Sam being helped now by Safety Connection. How many lives are affected by those ripples? And those lives ripple out. You are not just working with Sam, but with countless others who will know him over the course of his life.

I spoke with Robin Pesci with First Call, and Catherine Simonson, your director of Child Youth and Family Services. From them I learned about a young man who for months had been in crisis; hurting himself, often suicidal. And the Howard Center was always there, making sure he was getting medical help, making sure emotional problems were being healed, as well as his own self-inflicted wounds. The Howard Center involved his family, helped them see it wasn’t just this young man’s crisis — it belonged to all of them.

At one point, everyone thought he’d need to be in residential care for years. But what happened? He became reintegrated into his community, into his family, and learned how to identify and cope with the pressures that almost ended his still-developing life. If you were not here, if you hadn’t entered his life, where might he have been? Everyone in this room, and beyond this room, is enriched by this boy’s having a chance for life.

Think about this: Last year there were 16,000 calls for help that came into First Call — more than 40 a day, every single day. Someone in trouble. Someone who needed someone to be there. To listen. And then to have options.

I spoke with Jon Coffin, National Guard colonel and a part of the Howard Center for 37 years. Today he devotes his time to soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. He gets calls from soldiers who can’t sleep when they come back to Vermont; soldiers whose family life is falling apart, due to constant arguing. He meets with soldiers when they first step off the plane that has brought them back from a war zone. Then he sits with them, one by one, for as long as it takes.

“I help them leave their hauntings behind,” he said.

Can there be more important work than this?

You, all of you here tonight, whether you work directly with clients, or whether by your financial support you keep the center alive and viable, you make sure that they are not forgotten. You listen, and by listening you give people a voice. And in return, when those voices are heard, communities grow together. You are the listeners. There may no harder or more vital task than being there to listen, and most of us simply aren’t up to it. You’ve chosen this work for the rest of us.

Thank you for that.

Updated Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

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