Group builds community by offering meals, housing

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series that highlights the people and programs of the Charter House Coalition. Cate Costley, a junior at Middlebury College, worked this past summer with the coalition.
MIDDLEBURY — “There is nothing better for any of us than to give,” said Dottie Neuberger as she looked around at the checkered tablecloths and smiling people on a Friday evening at Community Supper in the Congregational Church of Middlebury. As Neuberger — the coordinator of Community Supper — said, this is a place “to give and get love.”
With her characteristic sincerity, she added, “It is a place to touch souls.”
It all began with a Christmas dinner. Starting in 2000, two Middlebury families — one of which was Neuberger’s — spent Christmas night at The Commons, a restricted-income housing development in Middlebury. Here, they shared a hot meal with any and all residents who wanted to join. In Neuberger’s mind, those Christmas meals were evidence of food’s power to bring people together. At the same time, they revealed that food insecurity, poverty and homelessness are prevalent issues in Addison County.
In response to these issues, the Community Supper program and its parent organization, the Charter House Coalition, were born in March of 2005. The coalition is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing basic food and housing to people in need in and around Middlebury. Doug Sinclair, one of the coalition’s founding members in 2005 and its current volunteer president, articulated its mission: “We are an organization committed to making life better for those who are food insecure or precariously housed — and doing it in a community-minded way.”
To this end, the coalition operates five distinct programs that house 45 individuals a year, serve 21,000 meals and draw on a network of more than 750 volunteers. With this manpower, the coalition performs over 23,500 hours of service every year.
The coalition’s programs foster relationships between people from all corners of the Middlebury area, while satisfying the need for community, shelter and food. Volunteer Jeff Rehbach emphasized the community building he has seen in action.
“We see … the growth of community, as we begin to understand our differences as well as our common humanity,” he said.
Another volunteer said community building works in both directions: “Most days after volunteering, my perspective is shifted a bit more away from myself and helps me to be more open-minded to people who think differently.”
Like these volunteers, I too was drawn to the coalition because it offered a chance to connect more deeply with a group of people beyond the sphere of my daily interactions. I first attended Community Supper during my freshman year at Middlebury College, in the fall of 2011. I arrived at the Congregational Church, put on an apron and awaited instruction. The man organizing that night’s supper turned to me and said simply, “Food is love. That’s all you need to know.” Two years and countless suppers later, that is still my guiding tenet. This past summer, I worked with the coalition for 10 weeks, getting to know its patrons and volunteers well. I will share the stories of a few of these individuals in the second installment of this series.
In its eight years of operation, the Charter House Coalition has grown and expanded greatly. In terms of the meals programs, on March 1, 2005, 22 people gathered at the Congregational Church of Middlebury for the first Community Supper. Eight years and over 100,000 meals later, Community Supper has grown into a weekly event on Friday evenings that provides hot, wholesome food to some 200 diners each week. In the past year, 37 different organizations volunteered their time, food and manpower. These organizations include Addison Central Teens, the Weybridge and Cornwall Congregational churches, the Swift House Inn, Havurah, the Middlebury College alpine ski team, Connor Homes and many more.
Likewise, the coalition’s housing programs have grown in scope and impact in eight years. In response to housing insecurity, the coalition runs an emergency winter housing facility at the Charter House across from the church on Pleasant Street. From November through April, the Charter House provides a home for up to five families or individuals at a time. In a note addressed to the members of the coalition, one former resident conveyed the impact of the Charter House: “My family would like to extend our warmest and strongest thank you for providing us with a place to establish stability during a very stressful, difficult and overwhelming time of transition.”
The Charter House staff works closely with other service organizations in the county to connect with families and individuals who would be a good fit for Charter House residency. After an application process, the individuals and families move into the house. Sinclair, Housing Programs coordinator Samantha Kachmar and other Charter House volunteers seek to connect residents with caseworkers from organizations such as Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects to assist these individuals and families move forward. Furthermore, volunteers staff the Charter House 24 hours a day. The volunteers range from retirees such as 82-year-old Paul Viko to Middlebury College students like junior James McMillan, with a wide range of different individuals in between.
To Viko, his charge as a volunteer is to “let (the residents) have their peace and their space,” while providing a quiet overseeing presence. MacMillan sees his role as one that is “more actively engaged with residents, especially children.”
Also in response to housing insecurity, the coalition owns five transitional housing apartments on North Pleasant Street that accommodate individuals and families for an average of six to 18 months. Like the Charter House, these apartments are places where residents have the time and space to make plans for the future.
In addition to Friday Community Supper, Community Lunch is served by the coalition four times a week, Monday through Thursday, throughout the year. On any given day, about 35 people will arrive at the lunch. The food is abundant, fresh and healthy. The lunches take place Mondays at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the green, and Tuesdays-Thursdays at the Charter House, from 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m.
One regular attendee summed it up: “It is so good. I cancelled an appointment just to be here today. I need this.”
Finally, one of the Charter House Coalition’s newest ventures is a farm-to-table project based at the Nash Farm in New Haven. Farm owners Peter and Muffin Carothers donated space on the farm for the coalition’s use. The goal of the project is to incorporate fresh produce into the organization’s meal programs. Molly Rose-Williams, a senior at Middlebury College this fall who served as the farm intern this past summer, sees the farm as a learning experience, as well as a source of food for the coalition.
“I’ve learned so much about how to grow food, about where food comes from,” she said. “And in preparing the meals, I had preconceived notions about how people would respond to food — to veggies, especially — and those notions have been broken. It’s been fascinating to see how people relate to food.”
With a host of different programs and a broad network of volunteers, the Charter House Coalition has identified needs in the Middlebury area and works every day to alleviate them. The sheer number of meals served and demand for space in the Charter House and the transitional housing apartments attest to the fact that housing and food insecurity are significant issues in Addison County.
But the coalition’s programs fulfill other needs as well — needs that are perhaps less concrete and statistical, but are equally important. They are the need for connection and laughter and not feeling alone and feeling part of something bigger. One woman’s words over lunch one day say a lot.
“I have never experienced such incredible love … as I have here,” she said.
In part 2 of this series some people who enjoy the Charter House Coalition meals tell their story.
Watch Cate Costley’s slideshow from the Community Lunch here.

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