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Why Community Matters

by Mel Allen

 

Mel Allen

Mel Allen

When Yankee editor Mel Allen gave the keynote speech at the Howard Center’s Big Night fundraiser at Shelburne Farms in Shelburne, Vermont, he knew he had a receptive audience. The topic of the June 22 talk was “Why Community Matters,” and since 1873 the Howard Center has served the residents of Greater Burlington and Chittenden County with a vast array of social services. Today more than 15,000 Vermonters receive help, advice, and hands-on services from the Howard Center’s 1,000-plus employees. For details, go to: www.howardcenter.org

I want to thank the Howard Center for inviting me here tonight-not only because it gives me this chance to speak about how vital a role strong communities play in the lives of all of us, and how important the Howard Center is to the sense of community here in Vermont, but because it gives me the chance to learn about you. I’m honored to be a small part of your Big Night.

Awhile ago I spoke at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Maine and was asked to speak for up to an hour. Last spring I was a speaker at a convention in Massachusetts, and there I was asked to speak for 30 minutes. Tonight I was told: “15 minutes. Max. 15 minutes.” I wonder if there’s an underground network of speech organizers who spread the word: “Tell Mel Allen to keep it short.”

This September, Yankee marks 75 years. In the publishing world, that’s a pretty big deal. At the heart of what Yankee has written about has always been sense of place — always community.

There hasn’t been a more important story for Yankee over the years than this one: keeping place alive, keeping communities vibrant. And that doesn’t happen without people who care, and people who understand that all of our lives are better when we belong to a place that we care about.

The wonderful Vermont writer Bill McKibben wrote a story in a recent Yankee about the Front Porch Forum, which, as you know, has its roots right here in Burlington. We called it “Making Good Neighbors.” He told about how, through the vision of a few and the power of the Internet, so many of Burlington’s neighborhoods became linked, as if by a town crier who reached out to all. And we received a letter from a South Burlington woman that we published in our new summer issue.

“In my neighborhood,” she wrote, “it enabled us to rally around a young mother who was dying. Because of her illness, she and her husband hadn’t gotten to know many people. With Front Porch Forum, however, we were able to arrange for someone to prepare dinner for this family and deliver it every night for two months before she died, and for several weeks after the funeral. Through Front Porch Forum the family also received a steady stream of cards and notes, and practical help with dog walking, errands, and driving the kids to after-school activities.

“What struck me most,” the writer continued, “was the number of neighbors who expressed appreciation that Front Porch Forum had enabled them to participate in helping this family at a time of profound need. Most people want to be neighborly, but we no longer have the local institutions and the time to do it the way we used to. FPF is a modern community-building tool that has admirably filled the need in the fortunate neighborhoods that have access to it. Many thanks for running the story.”

Those of you whose lives are devoted to making lives better, to making communities stronger, know you reach out to people in a region that more than any other is known for its stubbornness, resistance to change, and a general “leave me alone, I’ll go it alone” ethic. You need a special empathy and determination to convince many New Englanders to reach out for support and necessary help.

There’s a story about two Maine fishermen who have been drifting for days, surviving on the blood of seabirds. Near death, they sight a distant ship. One fisherman waves his shirt wildly, screaming, pleading, for rescue. His companion says quietly, “Jed, don’t do anything to make you beholden to them.”

There’s also a doggedness here, a resiliency. An ethic not to whine, but to get through, to endure; the feeling that earlier New Englanders went through much more; we shouldn’t complain. I met a farmer not long ago, a man in his eighties who made his living delivering fresh eggs to more than 100 families using only his horse and buggy. He’d been doing that for 60 years. His house was old and worn, and a great black woodstove and a second wood furnace heated the drafty place. I asked him if he had backup heat, oil perhaps. He looked at me, surprised. “Son,” he said, “backup is me putting in more wood.”

For a pretty good chunk of Yankee‘s life — more than 30 years now — I’ve been an editor at Yankee. There are few places I haven’t seen in New England. The character of this region is not abstract to me — it’s alive in all the voices I’ve heard, voices whose words I’ve written down in notebooks that fill closets and file cabinets. At the heart of every story, I can tell you, have been people and place.

I’ve seen communities form in so many ways. Recently I spent time with Lela Anderson in Prospect Harbor, Maine. She’s been packing sardines for 54 years — her hands full of nicks and as knobby as the bark of an old oak from snipping heads and tails off herring for more than 25 years before machines took over the cutting. The sardine plant, the last one in the United States, was about to close. You’d think she’d be happy that she could finally get some rest and sit back, sleep in, and enjoy being 80. But no, this was her community: the women on her line — they stood shoulder to shoulder day after day — and always women, because, as the plant manager told me, “It takes a woman with a strong back to pack fish.” And, he added, “Men can’t do it.” She was losing her friends — the people she talked to every day — the people she listened to, because she was the communal mother and grandmother. And when that last day came, Lela cried her eyes out.

I told the story of Brendan Loughlin. I don’t know of any person more tied to community than Brendan, now nearly 70. His community is Guilford, Connecticut, and if you go there, you can’t miss him or his work. He gives painting classes in a downtown parking lot, and people come from all over to take them. When you walk the streets, you see his art everywhere — along sidewalks, murals on walls, canvasses hanging in shops. Brendan is Guilford.

And not so long ago, he was homeless here: living on food-bank canned food; sleeping in his daughter’s car, or sometimes in strangers’ sheds. After 9/11 he started painting bold sunflowers, bursting with color — his way of expressing, well, determination, hope, resistance to despair and fury. He’d paint, and people driving by would honk, and he’d smile — and then people started buying them, and people started coming up from the city and paying him enough to get him a neat little studio apartment near the green. And there’s barely room in it to squeeze a bed in — it’s coated with paintings and paint and brushes and blank canvasses waiting to be filled.

Guilford gave to Brendan and Brendan gave back. See, many of the people who own his paintings, who study with him, knew him when. He shows them every day that you can make your life a breathing canvas, and sometimes if the will is strong, you can wake up one day, paint a sunflower bursting with hope, and start over.

We have an annual feature we call “Angels Among Us.” Readers tell us about the unsung heroes who live in their communities, who work behind the scenes to make the lives of others better. The missions of these angels vary, but their goals are the same: Start small, think big. Follow the need wherever it leads.

Our readers have come to know Nancy Schwoyer of the Wellspring House in West Gloucester, Massachusetts. Wellspring was once one of the first family shelters in the state. “But we quickly realized that shelters are dead ends, and so we began investing in solutions,” Nancy said. So Wellspring grew to offer not just housing, but education — now with more than a dozen programs to help people lift themselves out of poverty. “We realized the system was broken,” Nancy told us. “So instead of just trying to fix it, we created something that worked better.”
We told the story of Deborah DeScenza, who created Farmsteads of New England, where developmentally disabled young people and adults could cast aside loneliness, where they could live and work in safety and beauty, supported by mentors. “When parents see their child flourish here,” she said, “they can finally just breathe.”
There are many others, of course. We tell about projects large and small, because they all spring from the same place: a need in a community and the desire to help fill it.
Which brings me to all of you in front of me tonight. For 30 years I’ve found stories in New England. And I’ve never found such a powerful place as I find myself in right now — here, surrounded by the people who make the Howard Center work, and the people who support it with your generosity.

You know this because you live here, but there’s no more beautiful and dynamic place in all of New England than the Burlington region. Especially now: the flowers in bloom, the lake warming, the walkers, the bicyclists, the dogs all trotting alongside; people strolling, cafés full, street performers filling the air with music. From the outside, it could be so easy to think there can be no trouble here in paradise, not here in early summer.

But you know better.

Every day we cannot escape the image of oil gushing into our seas, threatening the well-being of all of us. A rupture that seemingly cannot be stopped. Every day we see oil-covered birds and mammals; we see distraught residents of the Gulf weeping because their entire way of life is coming undone before their eyes. And we all know that for every pelican or dolphin that’s rescued, there must be hundreds, thousands, that slip away unseen. For every fisherman or shopkeeper or hotel worker we see interviewed, we know there are tens of thousands who are suffering with no one to hear them. As their lives unravel, we can only wonder what the effect will be for years ahead.

So I think of what you do here. You see the fractured families, the ruptured lives, the danger when that anger and helplessness spill onto the shores of your beautiful towns. You see the costs when kids are in trouble with seemingly no way out. You see what can happen when a family implodes, when alcohol or drugs invade lives, when an unwanted pregnancy throws a life into a tailspin, when people become prisoners inside their own demons. And yet you’re drawn to this hard, hard work. Why? Because you’ve seen what can happen when the hopeless gain hope; you’ve seen what can happen when you stop the rupture and start the mending. You’ve seen what can happen when you give voice to those who cannot articulate.

And somewhere you learned this truth: If you do not do this work, then who? You know more often than not that you’re giving a last chance to many.

You provide that rare and special glue, the unbreakable thread that mends people and, by extension, community. I should have known about you years ago, and I did not.

This small city, this county, this state, and our whole region is so fortunate to have all of you who give so many hours, so many sleepless nights. Because I know firsthand about the ripples: I know that when you change one person’s life for the good, it changes so many others. And when one life slips through, the damage can also spread through generations.

How do you do this? Work, yes; dedication, yes; sacrifice, yes. But I know your secret, too.

For 10 years I’ve taught magazine writing at the University of Massachusetts. The students come into the room that first evening, and they open their notebooks and think, I suppose, that I can teach them some magic way to become writers. I tell them I do have a secret. But it’s not what they think; it has nothing to do with writing strong leads or using verbs.

I hold up a notebook. I say it begins here: with what goes into those pages. And it begins with listening. I tell them to take a minute — to be silent and to think about the last time anyone ever truly and absolutely listened only to them. Not with background music, not with getting up and shifting around and interrupting. Just complete listening.

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.

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