Student interns laud homeless shelter

Community Forum
This week’s writers are Middlebury College students
Carolyn Fox. class of 2011, and
Harriet Napier; class 0f 2012.5.
Addison Independent – Oct. 29, 2009

Fall is here, and classes are back in session at Middlebury College. As students, we are happy to be back on campus, but the faces of the children we met this summer at the John Graham Shelter in Vergennes are often with us. How are they doing in school? When will their families find stable housing? Will they be safe and warm this winter?

Reflecting on our summer internship working with homeless families, we can’t seem to remember a time when we weren’t aware of the John Graham Shelter and the wonderful services it provides. Although we study poverty and humanitarian theories in class, we were ignorant to the poverty realities right next door. It was this realization that sparked our interested in the Middlebury College Poverty Internship at the John Graham Shelter through the college’s Alliance for Civic Engagement.

We entered the internship with high hopes and more than a few assumptions about shelter life and social work. One of our biggest misconceptions, one we are sure many have, was the number of homeless children and families in Vermont. Fully 40 percent of the nation’s homeless population is made up of families. the fastest growing homeless demographic. Given the recent economic climate, the number of homeless children is steadily increasing. Although parents often try their best to create a structured and supportive family atmosphere, homelessness takes its toll on the lives of small children in tenns of health, education and sodal development The benefits of creating positive structure in a healthy environment became clear to us, and we decided to begin a weekly playgroup on Wednesdays. Some of the most rewarding experiences and poignant memories of the summer stem from the time we spent with the kids.

The fundamental goal of the playgroup was simple: to provide all John Graham Shelter and related transitional housing children with a positive and cooperative environment each week. The playgroup would allow the parents valuable time to focus on their needs and continue the often slow search for housing, employment and related services. We were shocked by the immediate and positive response of the children,their parents, and the community to the playgroup. Before long our weekly adventures to the Vergennes Union Elementary, School became much more frequent.

Thanks to the generosity of the Rev. Gary Lewis, the playroom at the Vergennes Congregational Church became the playgroup’s home base. The children were amazed by the veritable wonderland of toys and games, and choruses of “Can we go to the church today?” were heard throughout the summer at the shelter. We used the space to throw a birthday party, make paperbag puppets, play hide-and-go-seek. and teach the value of sharing and the responsibility of cleaning up.

With a little initiative. it became clear that support for the playgroup ran deep in the community. Local vendors generously provided discounted or free entry to their facilities and allowed the kids to explore Vermont’s environment and cultural offerings. These field trips were the pinnacle of the playgroup experience, and we are incredibly grateful to the local organizations that opened their doors. We were also able to invite other members of the shelter on some of these adventures and ended up bringing groups of enthusiastic residents to Shelburne Farms; the Charlotte Berry Farm, the Vergennes Community Garden, the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center, Addison County Fair and Field Days and to a Lake Monsters baseball game.

Although we both spent as much time as we could with the children, we eagerly embraced the multi-faceted nature of the internship. Shelter Director Elizabeth Ready encouraged us to explore grant writing, administrative management, case managernent, residential care and office assistance, and brought us to a board meeting where we both made presentations regarding current shelter reports. As student-interns, we had the opportunity to take on supervised case management, where we found ourselves on the phone advocating for homeless families with organizations and services around the county and state. Through the case management experiences we gained valuable insight into working with different people, all of whom were working through some of the most difficult times in their lives.

It was an eye-opening experience, one in which we learned as much about ourselves and our capabilities as we did homelessness and housing resources. It was a true reality check, one that we are not likely to forget or move past. In fact, the playgroups continue each week and dozens of Middlebury students just signed up to make dinners in the coming year for the all the families who, for a time in their lives, must call tbe shelter home. As winter sets in we will remember a shy girl’s smile, a two-year-old eating his fresh-picked strawberries, and how, in this Addison County community, we have a chance to touch each other’s lives.