Helping Neighbors in Need
By Anita Rafael
Since 2009, the team at Neighborhood Connections, the Center for Health and Social Services, has been ready, willing, and able to help their neighbors in need.
If you gave the staff at Neighborhood Connections in Londonderry a magic wand and asked them to wave it around to change one thing about their interactions with the people in the towns and villages they serve, this is what they’d change: “I’d take away all the stigma that some people feel when asking our agency for help,” says Trisha Paradis, executive director since March 2018. “Our goal is to support quality-of-life measures for all the townspeople in the communities around us. We’re not going to think less of anyone for being in a tough situation with their housing, finances, or health, or of those who seek to make changes in their lives. We’re not just here for those with lower incomes or for those with substance abuse issues or family emergencies.”
Thanks to private foundations, town allocations, grants, and generous donors who fund the agency at the grassroots level, last year alone Neighborhood Connections was able to provide health or social services assistance of some kind—long-term counseling or single sessions with some 2,000 individuals in the communities they serve. The agency is not bound by the same constraints of eligibility and time limits for assistance that some state and federal social service agencies work under, so it is able to serve anyone in their area who asks for help.
Paradis’s office, where she works with two full-time and three part-time staff members, is just around the corner from Clark’s IGA and Londonderry Hardware at the Mountain Marketplace shopping plaza, one door down from the People’s Bank drive-thru, and just a few steps across from the Londonderry Post Office. It occupies a modest, inconspicuous storefront. The white café curtains in the wide windows are printed with colorful caricatures of all sorts of people. All day long, many different people—men, women, and families—who may have found themselves between a rock and a hard place in their lives, or who are just ready to make a change in their daily routines for their own well-being, open the door and walk in. And, there it is—a dream team of professionals ready, willing, and able to help sort out things for them, in strict confidence and without judgment: social workers, a nurse, and an assortment of qualified volunteers all with an amazing talent for advising, teaching, calming, reorganizing, and, most of all, connecting people with personal needs to people with solid solutions.
Gloria Dawson and Delores Barbeau
Courtesy Neighborhood Connections
What does a dream team of community caregivers look like? There’s Noreen Lenilko, a social worker, who puts participants back on the right track when things such as their housing, their jobs, their transportation, or their family situations are derailed. Regina Downer, a clinical nurse in her former career, now does community nursing. She carries a caseload of 30 or more participants whom she helps with their medical needs, or coaches to make changes in their health or self-care. Mary Claire Schwartz is the volunteer coordinator, and she also organizes programs and activities that last year brought more than 450 people to The Meeting Place, the organization’s event room. Schwartz and Jackie Borella, the nonprofit’s finance director and operations manager, help the board of directors plan and coordinate the organization’s fundraisers. Three months ago, Elizabeth Peets joined the team to expand its community outreach.
The way Neighborhood Connections began reads a bit like a “Once upon a Time” fairy tale. There must have been something supernatural about its inception, factors that led to a decade of success and growth. In 2009, Delores Barbeau, who is a medical doctor, and Gloria Dawson, a social worker, said, “Let’s join forces and figure out a way to help vulnerable people in our area.”
Their idea was to make it a “one-stop” place where people could simply walk in to seek assistance with their basic needs. Barbeau and Dawson asked their friends and neighbors to help, who, in turn, asked their friends and neighbors to help, and the fledgling idea took off as a local, nongovernmental, nonprofit social services agency, open for business, so to speak in the Londonderry shopping plaza.
The Jobs Board at Neighborhood Connections posts many current openings at local businesses.
Courtesy Neighborhood Connections
Today, the agency, still in the same location, continues to respond, in “feet-on-the- ground” fashion, to community-identified needs with a range of social services and health-related programs, working closely with public and private resources at federal, state, and local levels. Dawson served as executive director for approximately 8 years, having retired and then unretired more than once; both founders currently sit on the board of directors.
“Some people find Neighborhood Connections on their own. Many are referred by a doctor, or a friend, or family member,” says Paradis. A native Vermonter, she came to the organization with a strong background in social services. During the past 16 years, she has had experience working in both medical and human services fields. Paradis says that she, Lenilko, and Downer are trained to meet people where they are at that moment in their lives—and they work hard to establish trust in each other from that point forward. Lenilko says, “I can walk with someone for as long as it takes to help them resolve their issues. I don’t have to cut them off after a set number of visits. I have participants who I have been helping for as long as two years to become financially stable.”
Schwartz adds this: “Today we might see these people with those needs, but we always are aware that tomorrow that could be you or me in the same situation. You just never know.” For the past 10 years, the conversations and consultations with the staff and volunteers at Neighborhood Connections have always and persistently turned in the same direction, as if they know no other course. Every action they take to help someone, to teach someone, to send someone to professionals who know which resources to tap, it is all anchored in one thing: kindness. As the board president Bob Wells put it in his recent newsletter, “Neighborhood Connections keeps its doors open to make sure no one is forgotten.”
The Luckiest People of All
Throughout the folklore of Vermont there are two recurrent themes: Vermonters are standoffish and keep to themselves. And, Vermonters will always go the extra mile, and then some, to help their neighbors. We’re pretty sure the second part is far truer than the first.
Three more nonprofits in our area are ever ready to assist people in need. Because of the way these agencies often collaborate, no one needs to be cold, hungry, ill, alone, or without a place to turn. These are privately funded organizations, so the need to follow strict government eligibility rules does not apply, which means that anyone can ask for the help they need. If these organizations are unable to assist someone directly, then they can certainly refer them right away to those who can.
The Stratton Foundation began in 1996 when a small group of community minded individuals shared a common love for the Stratton Mountain community and joined together with a goal to enhance the quality of life of their friends, neighbors, and visitors. The organization directly and indirectly supports individuals and families by working closely with schools, administrators, and nurses, health and social services, and state organizations. In addition to its broader grant-giving for food, health, and education, The Stratton Foundation is a ready source for “emergency gifts” for basic necessities in situations of critical need. 802-297-2096 or strattonfoundation.org
Founded in 2004, Neighbor to Neighbor is a community-supported nonprofit based in Manchester, Vermont and serves individuals and families in Arlington, Bondville, Danby, Dorset, Manchester, Pawlet, and Rupert. Their all-volunteer services are free and include friendly visits to people at home, transportation to important appointments, running errands, and doing small jobs around the house and garden. N2N, as they call themselves, has a fun calendar of community events, lunches, and short trips, and they send out free newsletters to keep everyone informed, connected, and up to date. 802-367-7787 or neighbortoneighborvt.org
Just Neighbors, based in Weston, Vermont, is another all-volunteer organization dedicated to no-cost crisis assistance for individuals and families. They can help in emergencies with providing firewood or fuel for heating, transportation to medical appointments, or urgent shopping. They can also provide small grants to help with catastrophic life events. They support people throughout Andover, Bondville, Landgrove, Londonderry, South Londonderry, Peru, Weston, Winhall, and Windham. They, too, host social hours and gatherings so that they are always in touch with the folks in their area. 802-787-1225 or justneighborsvt.org
Meet Me at The Meeting Place
See for yourself what the true meaning of “connections” is at Neighborhood Connections, by dropping in on any Wednesday morning. Instead of turning left into the administrative offices inside the front door, turn right into the large, bright room known as The Meeting Place. At 9:30 a.m., people start dropping in. That’s it. They drop in. People, mostly retirees and seniors, chat and have coffee together. While nothing actually happens, a lot is happening—everyone there is connecting on some level. None of them may be a participant in any of the services provided on the other side of the office, but all of them know what’s there when and if they need it.
In addition to the Wednesday drop-ins, week after week Program Director Mary Claire Schwartz schedules dozens of other gatherings, talks, classes, demonstrations, movies, and well, great parties, again with pretty much the same intention, which is keeping in touch with people and keeping people in touch with what’s happening in the world around them. Sometimes The Meeting Place is a classroom, and other times it’s a coffee klatch, an indoor farm, a mini-art studio, an orchid hothouse, a darkened theater, or a you-name-it. From AARP help with taxes to Tai Chi classes, from gardening and composting tips to diet and meal-planning advice, from book signings to slide shows, there is a smorgasbord of reasons to connect with The Meeting Place. Learn how to weatherize your home, or seek support to quit smoking. Find out about living with beavers in your pond, or learn about senior driver safety classes that might make you eligible for auto insurance discounts.
All the Details
Neighborhood Connections, The Center for Health and Social Services, is a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization offering preventative health care, health education, social services, and programs and events at no charge to the townspeople of Andover, Bondvillle, Chester, Jamaica, Landgrove, Londonderry, South Londonderry, Peru, Weston, and Winhall. There are no eligibility requirements to request help or to participate. The programs and events at The Meeting Place are free and open to all.
Sign up for the free Neighborhood Connections newsletter:
Make a contribution online at their “Donate” webpage or by mail to Neighborhood Connections, PO Box 207, Londonderry, VT 05148
Neighborhood Connections and The Meeting Place
The Meeting Place is part of the office space at Neighborhood Connections in Londonderry. Parking for programs and events is free.
5700 Mountain Marketplace (At the plaza with Clark’s Quality Foods, Jct. Rts. 100 and 11.)
Call to sign up for programs and events 802-824-4343 or neighborhoodconnectionsvt.org.