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College interns join front lines in fight against poverty

ADDISON COUNTY — For Doug Wilson, a Middlebury College sophomore from Hershey, Penn., the Charter House in Middlebury is home for the summer. In exchange for room and board, Wilson is kept busy picking tomatoes, squash, berries and garlic.
He’s helping harvest the more than 5,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables that the Charter House Coalition uses to prepare and serve meals to the community seven days a week.
And he’s embracing every minute of it.
“Working from the gardens, using the ingredients that I harvest, getting them to the table, cooking with them and interacting with the guests is my absolute favorite part of the whole thing,” he said.
For 10 weeks this summer, Wilson and six other Middlebury College students are working as paid interns in six different organizations around Addison County focused on addressing local issues of poverty as part of the college’s Privilege and Poverty program.
Privilege and Poverty is a local spin off of the Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty, a national group of 18 colleges and universities that offer paid summer internships to students looking to learn more about the multiple dimensions of poverty throughout the country.
In Addison County, local organizations apply to host an intern and are chosen based on their ability to support and integrate students into their work, which must focus on poverty and community needs.
This year students are working at HOPE (Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects), the John Graham Emergency Homeless Shelter, WomenSafe, Open Door Clinic, Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes and the Charter House Coalition; that last organization is hosting two interns
In Addison County, 9.5 percent of people were considered to be in poverty in 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The six organizations named, among others, address the variety of needs that come along with economic distress in the community.
Vicky Wideman, associate director of Food Programs and Administration at the Charter House Coalition, graduated from Middlebury College in 1989 and began work at the Charter House in the fall of 2014. For the summer, she is the organization supervisor to Wilson and Ellie Carr, a Middlebury sophomore.
For Wideman, the internship is an opportunity for students to learn about Addison County beyond the college campus.
“It’s introducing Middlebury students who are in the college bubble to the community and giving them a chance to interact with the community,” she said. “They see a whole different slice of Middlebury they might otherwise not have seen, it’s phenomenal.”
But the interns give as much as they receive, bringing “a certain kind of energy,” according to Wideman.
“It’s wonderful, I think they contribute so much to our organization,” she said. “Not only in the physical work they do, but more importantly, in the relationships they build with our guests.”
Wilson and Carr are part of a troop of 970 volunteers at the Charter House preparing and serving meals to guests. Wilson, who first got involved with the Charter House this past spring, is learning how to use fresh ingredients to prepare as many as 200 meals at a time, which Friday night suppers often require.
“It’s pushed me in good ways to learn more about gardening and working with food from the ground,” he said.
After he’s done in the kitchen, Wilson always sits down with the guests.
“Being able to sit down and share a meal with someone is a really equalizing thing,” he said. “You’re all around the table together. It really gives you the opportunity to hear what people have to say, to hear what people have been through. And to learn from their experiences and to be able to appreciate what they have to contribute.”
AT THE OPEN DOOR CLINIC
When Middlebury senior J.J. Moser isn’t sitting down for meals with guests, he is meeting with a number of clients at the Open Door Clinic and using what he learned studying abroad for a semester in Logroño, Spain, to help Spanish-speaking clients get the medical care they need.
The Open Door Clinic provides free healthcare to more than 817 patients around Addison County who are uninsured or under-insured. A number of these patients are migrant workers.
After graduating next year, Moser is interested in working as an advocate for immigrants in the United States, and his experience at the Open Door Clinic has taught him about the vast migrant worker community in Addison County.
“I had no idea,” he said of this demographic.
In his position, Moser is learning about the problems many migrant workers face.
“I’m not only helping them directly with the issues in question but I’m also more aware of some of the bigger issues and am learning how to approach everything,” he said.
At WomenSafe, Middlebury junior Sarah Karerat is addressing gender issues and feminist advocacy, a path she also hopes to follow after college.
“There’s a very central feminist ideology to WomenSafe, which is something that I think makes it such a powerful organization,” she said. “They have very strong core beliefs that they share, and that I share too.”
Between July 2013 and June 2015, WomenSafe — with the help of 85 community volunteers — served 525 women, men and children during 4,311 phone calls and meetings. Karerat is specially trained as a direct service advocate, poised to help any clients who call the 24-hour hotline.
This summer, she is learning that combating physical, sexual and emotional violence is a complex task.
“My mind was blown by the number of things that they do,” she said. “For instance, yesterday I spent the day in court, providing emotional support for people.”
After completing her internship, Karerat will return to her family in India for the first time in two years. Born in Maryland and raised in Saudi Arabia and India, Karerat’s perception of poverty in America has been shaped by her time at WomenSafe.
“I feel like it’s definitely shifted my understanding of poverty and how to deal with it,” she said. “I feel like poverty has its own personality everywhere you go. I think the way Addison County deals with it is very individualized to the county and I feel like I’ve learned a lot about what it’s like in America.”
While the Privilege and Poverty program is designed to help students learn about community needs, it also demonstrates the range of issues facing the community and the programs in place to address them.
Tiffany Sargent, director of the Middlebury College Center for Community Engagement and internship director for the Privilege and Poverty program, first came to Middlebury in 1975 as a student. After graduating, she came back to work in 1985, and has been there since.
‘COORDINATED RESPONSE’
She has seen the impact that these organizations are making on the community develop over her many years here.
“I’ve witnessed, and heard from afar, that Addison County is truly a model county in how well our organizations collaborate with one another and weave this web that supports individuals,” she said. “In my 30 years, it’s been remarkable how well organizations have worked in services and as state funding and federal funding gets cut back, they’re responding and figuring out how to be creative and not leave people in need, and in the lurch.”
Karerat has also recognized the strength of Addison County’s “coordinated community of response,” as she called it.
“Not every community can say that they have these non-profits that work so hard together for them, and have people that care that much. I love it,” she said. “I’m so fortunate that this is where Middlebury is and that this is the kind of town and community that we have here.”
Although only six organizations could be supported to host interns this year, 11 submitted proposals.
“There’s just so much energy and potential, so it’s really exciting,” Sargent said of the program.
The Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty was started at Washington and Lee University by the late Thomas Shepherd, a Washington and Lee alumnus, and his wife, the Rev. Nancy Hamilton Shepherd, Middlebury College class of 1953.
The Shepherds are the leading benefactors in both the national program and Middlebury College’s local program. Since the program began at Middlebury in 2005, the Shepherds have supported 85 local and national Middlebury interns. Additional funds come from parents and alumni.
This year, 12 students applied to the local Privilege and Poverty internship program, and 21 students applied to the national program, a record high in applications. However, only seven students were accepted to each program due to budgetary restraints.
The Privilege and Poverty program also includes an academic component that allows students to apply their internship experience to the classroom.
The program is part of an “academic cluster” that can be complementary to any other area of study.
“It’s cool because if you’re a physics major you can still have a Privilege and Poverty academic cluster,” said Sargent. “Or if you’re a language major you can study within Privilege and Poverty. With just about every single major there are issues of poverty and the flip-side, privilege, that come to play.”
She added that during weekly reflections with the seven local interns, they’re becoming aware of how their internships can extend to the classroom.
“The students talk about how this opportunity to learn through doing is such an important part of their learning experience and their Middlebury education,” she said. “They’re responsible for some kind of contribution to the organization. It’s a really important way to learn.”

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