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Charter House needs help feeding and housing our neighbors

MIDDLEBURY — The Charter House Coalition could use a few more cogs to power its formidable engine that delivers food, clothing and shelter to Middlebury-area folks in need of a boost.
Established in 2005, the coalition is a nonprofit association of local religious groups and individuals who each year donate hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of dollars to make sure the less fortunate in our midst have access to the basic necessities.
Inspired by the Charter House Coalition’s tireless provision of shelter, free meals and other services, more than 950 people last year pitched in at least once to make sure all of the programs keep rolling. Included on that roster are many Middlebury College students who supply invaluable energy and commitment to the tasks at hand. Unfortunately, we are approaching that time of year when the college breaks for the summer, temporarily scattering the approximately 2,500 students to all corners of the globe. So the coalition needs to compensate for that loss with some new recruits, noted Doug Sinclair, executive director of the organization.
“Middlebury College students make up around 30 percent of our help for the warming shelter,” Sinclair explained.
The emergency warming shelter is based in the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s Charter House at 27 North Pleasant St. It provides a warm place for the homeless to stay overnight between Oct. 16 and April 15. The Charter House can accommodate around 15 individuals and up to four families during the cold season, Sinclair explained.
While this past winter has been described as one of the mildest ever, demand for the warming shelter has remained consistently strong this year, according to Sinclair.
“We have been over capacity every night since mid-January,” Sinclair said in mid-March, noting demand reached 28 on one particular evening.
And the term “mild” is quite subjective when one has nowhere to stay, Sinclair added.
“If it’s a wet night and 35 degrees, it’s not much fun to be outside,” he said.
Once the warming center has taken in a total of 24, it must send any additional folks elsewhere — including to the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes. The state of Vermont provides motel vouchers to homeless people during the coldest nights, if those folks have no other housing options.
Each volunteer at the warming shelter, which was due to stay open until April 15, is typically asked to serve a three-hour shift at the shelter, which is staffed 24/7.
As the warming shelter winds down, Charter House Coalition is looking for volunteers with green thumbs.
The coalition manages two produce gardens that yield vegetables to help feed the homeless and fill out the plates at the hundreds of free community lunches and suppers the organization sponsors each year in Middlebury. The gardens are located at the Nash Farm off the River Road in New Haven, and at the Porter Medical Center campus in Middlebury. Those gardens yield more than 25 different crops, including potatoes, squash, carrots, lettuce, beans and beets.
“We have a big summer ahead,” said community garden coordinator Vicky Wideman, through an email. “Last summer, we had fewer community volunteers than in past years. We are hoping to encourage more members of this important group to join us in the gardens this summer.”
Wideman and her helpers will soon begin tilling the soil in both gardens. Volunteers are needed to put up deer and rodent fences, spread fertilizer, plant seeds, weed and then harvest and process the crops as they come in.
“If we had 30 volunteers (for the gardens), that would be great,” Sinclair said, adding volunteers are asked to spend a couple of hours each week at one or both gardens.
Members of the Middlebury Rotary Club are scheduled to help at the Porter garden on April 16. Middlebury College students have also been great about helping, Sinclair and Wideman said. Last spring, the college’s rugby team spent upward of four hours spreading manure at the Porter garden on a Sunday afternoon. But the rugby team will soon be on summer break, so Sinclair is hoping other folks step in to fill in the ranks.
College students have also helped perpetuate a new tradition at the Charter House: Sunday afternoon cookouts from mid-May through mid-September, featuring grilled hotdogs and hamburgers. Prep starts at noon, with the meal served between 2 and 3 p.m. As with all of the Charter House Coalition meals, the food is free and available to everyone, regardless of income. The coalition, college students and other folks have pitched in to buy the food for cookouts, which have been drawing 45 to 50 people, according to Sinclair.
“If we had a core group of around 20 volunteers (for the Sunday cook-outs) that could do rotations, that would be great,” Sinclair said.
And additional hands are always welcome to help the Charter House Coalition’s community lunch and supper programs.
The free lunch program provides meals to about 55 people every Monday through Thursday, according to the Charter House website. 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 Episcopal Church on Mondays, and at Charter House Tuesday through Thursday. During the summer, community lunches are served Monday through Thursday at Charter House. As always, the lunches are open to everyone, and provide a comfortable setting for people from many different parts of the community to get to know one another.
ALTHOUGH THIS PAST winter was one of the mildest ever, demand for the warming shelter at the Charter House was consistently strong, according to Doug Sinclair, executive director of the Charter House Coalition.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Also offered through the Charter House Coalition: Friday night community suppers at the Congregational Church of Middlebury, served between 5 and 6:15 p.m.; and Saturday community breakfasts served from 8:30 to 9:15 a.m. at the Charter House.
Anyone available to help with the aforementioned events should contact Doug Sinclair at jdsinclair@ripton-coop.net. Those particularly interested in helping with the gardens can also contact Vicky Wideman at (802) 425-7706, beginning in May.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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