Monkton wood bank delivers more than heat

MONKTON — For close to a decade, participants in the Monkton Wood Bank have been putting their shoulders to the ax — splitting, hauling, delivering, stacking — to warm homes and hearts.
Now in its second year of partnering with the Middlebury-based Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (known as HOPE), the citizen collaborative got its start in 2007, when a group of Monkton and nearby residents came together to purchase 115 acres of woodland. Those 115 acres became the Little Hogback Community Forest, the goal of which is to cooperatively conserve and manage a chunk of working forest.
Harvesting firewood for Little Hogback’s co-owners is part of the management plan. And the neighborliness of sharing extra wood was something that just came naturally.
“Several of us worked together to cut our firewood each year. And we started cutting an extra cord or two and just donating it to families in need,” said Little Hogback member and wood bank participant John McNerney.
The group made its first wood donation in the fall of 2008, and that first delivery says much about its approach and values.
Participants started by first asking around, trying to figure out who might need a little help to get through the winter.
Then, when a school staff member recommended a retiree who’d been a longtime school volunteer, they knew they had their man.
“He’d been very active in the Monkton community, volunteering his time at Monkton Central School for various programs. His home was facing foreclosure proceedings. He was running out of firewood, which was his primary heat source,” said McNerney.
Getting credit for a good deed, however, was not part of it.
Instead, the Monkton wood-meisters “found out a time that (the intended recipient) was not going to be there, and we came over and delivered the full cord of wood. He had a stack of wood in his driveway that was almost gone. So we just piled the wood on top of his stack — it was all seasoned and ready to burn — and pinned a little note to it thanking him for all he’d done for the Monkton community.
“Over the years, he never knew who it was,” McNerney said. “A lot of our donations are that way. We don’t like putting people on the spot.”
Other deliveries come with similar stories.
“We put out feelers, check in with school staff. All of us just kind of kept our ears open,” said McNerney.
One year, a posting on social media lead to the group’s finding the right recipient.
“Somebody called and said, ‘I know just the people. It’s a grandmother whose furnace is broken,’” McNerney said.
He and his cohorts learned that the woman’s grandchildren had just moved in with her; she worked full-time but didn’t have enough money for fuel. Her furnace had broken that night, and she lacked the financial resources to get it fixed.
“She was using her old wood stove to keep the house warm … but with very little wood to get through.”
McNerney said that when they pulled in they found the family had so little wood left it would have fit in the trunk of his car.
Another year, the community wanted to help support the widow and young child of a state trooper who had died unexpectedly during a training exercise. The young family still lived in Monkton, but the widow was contemplating a return to New York state, where she had more friends and family.
“We had no idea if there was financial need or not. We didn’t care. The community wanted to do something nice,” said McNerney. “We hauled two cords of wood and stacked it in her entryway for her with another row of pallets outside.”
Another time, wood bank stalwart Lee Kauppila, also a Little Hogback co-owner, drove to Lincoln in a blizzard with an emergency stack of wood in the back of his truck.
Over the years, the group wanted to expand.
It also wanted to separate itself from the process of vetting prospective recipients’ financial need.
Spearheaded by Kauppila, who’s also on the Monkton Energy Committee, the group reached out to the Willowell Foundation and to HOPE to set up a more formal process. Willowell agreed to provide storage for the wood bank. It also offered additional peoplepower through its yearly AmeriCorps volunteer.
HOPE took over responsibility for vetting financial need starting last year.
With HOPE’s participation, the Monkton Wood Bank has been able to deliver more wood to more families, McNerney said. They’ve also been able to better expand their service area to the rest of the five towns — Starksboro, New Haven, Bristol and Lincoln. Though based in Monkton, McNerney said the group’s ethos has always been to get the wood where it’s most needed.
“We were set up to serve Monkton, but if we can help somebody (in a nearby town) we don’t say no.”
McNerney emphasized that the wood bank is a true community effort. Word goes out, and Monkton townspeople come together for a work party to saw, stack and haul. A local Boy Scout troop pitches in on delivery.
The group doesn’t fell trees, he mentioned, because of the liability involved. Trees to be turned into firewood can turn up in felicitous ways.
One year, it was someone who wanted to expand his pasture. Another time, there was a downed tree near the Monkton Central School playground. Just a few weeks ago, a Monkton resident had a tree service take down a black locust in his front yard. The tree was so huge the trunk measured three feet in diameter. Once cut the tree yielded “pretty close to two cords.”
It also brought people together.
“We’re not the most efficient. It’s a good thing none of us are trying to make a living at this. But it’s a fun event,” McNerney said.
“A lot of people just love an excuse to get together. It’s nice to be doing something for somebody. We don’t necessarily know who the somebody is yet. But we know there’s people out there who are having a really tough time.”
McNerney exemplified the wood bank’s resourceful neighborliness by noting that many trees downed in the recent windstorm could be put to good use.
“Right now, there’s a whole bunch of people with a whole lot of trees down. There’s a lot of that that’s got to get used somehow. So we’re putting it in people’s minds that if you don’t want it, there’s a place for it to go. Whether it’s Monkton or Starksboro or Ripton or Lincoln or wherever — there’s people who can make use of it.”
To learn more about the Monkton Wood Bank call HOPE at 388-3608 or Lee Kauppila at 989-3563.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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