Local organization manages 750 volunteers

MIDDLEBURY — It was in 2005 that a handful of volunteers, largely from Middlebury’s religious community, formed the Charter House Coalition to tend to the needs of the area’s hungry and homeless.
Nine years later, the coalition’s volunteer ranks have swelled to 750 — a larger population than exists in a half-dozen Addison County towns. That army of helpers, hailing from all corners of the county, now provides a combined total of 2,300 hours of service annually to manage a homeless shelter, provide transitional housing and serve up more than 21,000 meals each year to people in need of sustenance.
“It’s amazing to all of us,” Charter House Coalition board President Doug Sinclair said on Monday about the organization’s steady growth and success in helping others. “It happened the way it did because the community was ready for it. That’s all you can say.
“There’s just a spirit of wanting to be part of a community and to support your neighbors that exists in Vermont, but especially here. We are just the avenue by which people have been able to do what they want to do.”
The coalition’s home base is, appropriately enough, the Charter House, an 18th-century white house across Pleasant Street from the Congregational Church of Middlebury, which owns the building. Once the headquarters of Elderly Services Inc., the Charter House now provides winter housing to up to five homeless families from Nov. 1 through April. It is staffed around the clock by trained volunteers who make sure the resident families enjoy a secure, healthy and enriching stay. The Coalition also works closely with Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects, the Parent-Child Center of Addison County, Mary Johnson Children’s Center, WomenSafe and the Counseling Service of Addison County to assist residents in finding appropriate jobs, housing, counseling, educational opportunities and childcare.
Volunteers also play a key role in running the coalition’s five, fully furnished transitional housing apartments, located at 39 North Pleasant St. These apartments are available, for up to 18 months, to families looking to get back on their feet and into more permanent accommodations.
Other programs offered by the coalition include:
•  A Farm-to-Table collaboration with the Nash Farm in New Haven, through which volunteers toil on donated land to grow fresh produce. After harvest, the produce is used in the coalition’s food programs, donated to local food shelves, and made available to those who attend the coalition’s free meals.
•  Community suppers, lunches and breakfasts. Approximately 200 people avail themselves every Friday of a free supper that is hosted by a different community organization on a rotating basis. During the past year, 37 different organizations hosted a supper, held from 5 to 6:15 p.m. The suppers are open to everyone.
The free lunch program provides meals for 40 people every Monday through Thursday. Volunteers prepare and serve the lunches from 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. From September through May, community lunches are served at St. Stephen’s on Mondays and at the Charter House Tuesday through Thursday. During the summer, the lunches are provided Monday through Thursday at the Charter House. The meals are open to everyone.
And the coalition recently added “Saturday family breakfasts” to its offerings, offered year-round to anyone from 9 to 10 a.m. at the Charter House. That free weekly meal typically feeds around 25 people each Saturday. Volunteers also engage with families and offer to engage children through word games, math activities and language learning.
•  A new warming shelter that was offered this past winter at the Memorial Baptist Church of Middlebury. The shelter provided critically needed shelter and food to the homeless during record cold snaps. The facility was staffed by a combination of paid and volunteer helpers.
“It was a very good experience,” Sinclair said of the warming shelter program. “Was it challenging at times? Sure. But everyone was cooperative and it always worked out well.”
Volunteers help make the programs run smoothly, and one can imagine that it must take some doing to corral and direct 750 helpers. The coalition does this with the help of a full-time, paid volunteer and a cadre of project teams that oversee each of the programs the organization offers. Each project team has its own list of helpers at their disposal.
“Each activity has to have at least one volunteer who is really committed,” Sinclair said. “But we also realized that when our volunteers hit the 300 to 400 level that we had to have one full-time person to oversee that.”
Sinclair noted the coalition’s volunteer ranks include people of all ages with different abilities. Some are affiliated with local places of worship; others are not. Some are current or former human services professionals who have the knowledge to refer people to the services they need. And some of the volunteers were at one time recipients of the coalition’s aid.
“It’s kind of like, ‘Here’s the job,’ and eight or nine volunteers show up, and you say, ‘This is what we have to get done,’ and (the volunteers) naturally go to the place where they are most comfortable,” Sinclair said. “People see where the hole is and they go to it. They want to get the job done. It just works.”
Sue Prager is the former director of the Addison County branch of the Vermont Department of Children and Families. She retired a few years ago and has found great satisfaction as a coalition volunteer and leader. She works regular shifts at the Charter House, tending to the needs of the resident families. Her background in human services makes her a natural in guiding folks to various state programs. She is also well versed in grant writing and helps with the coalition with its applications.
“Since I retired, I still want to be useful and this was an opportunity for me to hang out with people who are in circumstances that they don’t want to be in and they are trying to move forward to find permanent housing,” Prager said. “It’s been a joy for me to get to know them and to do what I can to support them, refer them to services if that’s needed.”
James McMillan is one of around 120 Middlebury College students who help out with coalition programs each year. McMillan, a senior, has been a coalition volunteer for all four years of his college career. He does it to help others and in recognition of similar services he received when he was a child.
“I actually spent a few years growing up in an environment similar to the Charter House, so as soon as I learned about the program, I knew I had found something special, something I’d be able to contribute to in a meaningful way,” McMillan said.
“What I didn’t realize at the time was just how much the Charter House would give back to me.”
He said the coalition work has helped college students gain a new perspective on the community in which they live, and has also allowed area residents to see the philanthropic side of the students.
“I think there will always be a certain stigma attached to Middlebury College, being a Middlebury College student there,” McMillan said. “We’re the college on the hill, above and away from the rest of town; our Land Rovers and Mercedes and BMWs line College Street; and in crossing the street, we don’t stop for cars, they stop for us.
“There’s no denying there’s a lot of wealth and privilege at Middlebury,” he added. “It’s a place that sometimes feels like the 1 percent are the 99 percent. But even that is a misconception, a misguided assumption.”
McMillan noted a community project like the Charter House, which brings students and community members together, helps break down many town-gown stereotypes.
“For many students, working amongst some of the community’s less fortunate, those most in need, can be a bit of a wake-up call,” he said. “It can pop the ‘Middlebury bubble,’ so to speak. Although living in Middlebury College and the town of Middlebury may feel like living in a postcard at times, working with the Charter House reminds us all that there’s always homelessness just down the street.”
McMillan, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, said the Charter House Coalition is part of the glue that binds Middlebury and its college.
“It’s my belief that, as the Charter House Coalition continues to expand and grow, the bond between the college and community will continue to grow, too,” McMillan said.
Anyone wanting to learn more about the coalition’s programs can log on to charterhousecoalition.org.
Volunteers have organized a fundraiser for the Charter House Coalition — a night of good food, music and community at Two Brothers Tavern, starting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 24. A $10 suggested donation will help to raise money to support the programs of the coalition. The night will include a raffle, with contributions from Sama’s Café, Otter Creek Bakery, Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, Sweet Cecily, The Rainbow Room and Vermont Book Shop, as well as a presentation by Sinclair and the sharing of the some of the residents’ reflections on their experience at the Charter House.
“I don’t know of another community in the state that has something going to this extent,” Sinclair said of the coalition. “Maybe it’s because Middlebury is a little unique … It’s a college town with a lot of people thinking about their neighbors. It’s a natural fit that it would work out the way it did here. Everybody brings good will to this, so it works.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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