BARRE â€” Vermonters do what they do best when it comes to helping and supporting fellow Vermonters in troubled times: They rally around and work together to reach out, provide a helping hand and celebrate community.
That was the message on Wednesday at Capstone Community Action, when nonprofit leaders gathered to pledge their support to furloughed federal workers and low-income people who have been hit hardest by the partial government shutdown, which was in its 32nd day, the longest in U.S. history, with no end in sight.
The word â€śtoxicâ€ť came up several times to describe the effect on people most affected by the shutdown and the halt to government paychecks and subsidies for housing, food and heating programs for Vermontâ€™s poor.
The nation is gripped by a paralyzing standoff between Democrats in Congress and President Donald Trump over his insistence on $5.7 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to reach agreement on a bill to fund federal government spending.
State officials and nonprofit leaders in central Vermont gathered at Capstone in Barre on Wednesday to send a message of help and hope to Vermontâ€™s most vulnerable citizens who risk losing benefits, such as ThreeSquares Vermont which feeds the poor and others who rely on Section 8 housing vouchers and home-heating assistance.
There were also pledges of continued support from Vermontâ€™s congressional delegation, through representatives present at the Capstone news conference.
Leading the charge at Wednesdayâ€™s event was Sue Minter, the new executive director of Capstone, who was barely a week in the job when the shutdown started. She made it clear that she felt an increasing sense of urgency about the shutdown stalemate.
â€śThis impact is real and the shutdown must end,â€ť she said. â€śSo many Vermonters, theyâ€™re already in crisis and the added stress and reality of the potential that theyâ€™re going to run out of food stamps, of the reality that day-by-day theyâ€™re making choices between paying for their fuel, their heat in these cold temps, paying for their housing, paying for their food, paying their medical bills; for many and a growing number, it is absolutely a crisis, exacerbated by frustration.â€ť
Minter started out by greeting representatives from the Vermont Foodbank, Green Mountain United Way, Central Vermont Council on Aging, Hunger Free Vermont, Washington County Mental Health, Downstreet Housing and Development, Vermont Department of Health and congressional delegation representatives.
Minter noted the celebration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday and quoted from him: â€śâ€™Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.â€ť
â€śIn these intense times that we are living in, we need to remember and honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King and carry his torch, and that really is what brings us together. At the core of Capstoneâ€™s mission is to help in moments of crises, and weâ€™ve already begun to hear more about the crises, on top of the daily challenges of the people we serve due to the partial government shutdown,â€ť she told the crowd.
As a result, Minter said Capstone would extend its emergency services programs to furloughed federal workers and contractors who were not being paid. Minter noted that Capstone could not use grant funding to do so and relied on philanthropic giving to meet the need. She cited credit union VSECU, which doubled its Member Emergency Loan fund to $3,000 to support federal furloughed employees, including military personnel; and National Life Insurance Group which made a $5,000 donation to fund Capstone programs. Minter also credited a collaboration of nonprofits that had rallied to the cause.
Faye Mack, advocacy director for Hunger Free Vermont, and John Sayles, CEO of Vermont Foodbank, spoke about the challenges of hunger for furloughed federal workers and poor people receiving food stamps.
Mack noted that federal benefits for food stamp recipients were released early to ensure people did not go hungry and there was also a contingency fund, and she urged recipients to continue to apply for benefits. But benefits were expected to stop in March, and she recommended families affected to apply for free school meals, she added.
Sayles praised the work of Hunger Free Vermont and the Agency of Human Services to ensure low-income people continue to receive benefits.
â€śI want to reiterate that just the uncertainty of ThreeSquares Vermont benefits ending in March causes toxic stress in families,â€ť Sayles said, adding that the Foodbank would spend $50,000 to provide 150,000 meals and furloughed federal workers were welcome at Foodbank.
Tawnya Kristin, executive director of Green Mountain Way, credited the collaboration among THRIVE partners, which include nonprofits and state human services agencies.
â€śTheyâ€™re definitely leaders in our community. Service providers are here to provide extra support when needed,â€ť she said, noting that calls for help had increased dramatically.
Beth Stern, executive director of Central Vermont Council on Aging, said it had been giving out grocery gift cards to seniors and people with disabilities.
There were also other lifelines available to other people in need.
Joan Marie Mistek, district director for the Agency of Human Services, said people could call 888-253-8786 to request assistance.
Kirk Postlewaite, of Washington County Mental Health Services, urged people in crisis to call 229-0591.
Editorâ€™s note: Steven Pappas, editor of the Times Argus and Rutland Herald, is the incoming chairman of the board of trustees for Capstone Community Action.