Profiles of Compassion: 7 Activists Making a Difference in Central Vermont

Compiled by Mike Dunphy

Perhaps Montpelier’s greatest attribute is the dedicated cadre of activists and advocates who go above and beyond in their work—often as volunteers—for area nonprofits and organizations that make the state a better place. In this issue, The Bridge would like to pay tribute to just a few of these advocates and activists who do such great work for the community.

Diane Fitch of the Central Vermont Refugee Action Network

When the Syrian crisis peaked in 2015, Diane Fitch, a native Vermonter, visualized providing shelter.  “My elderly parents hoped to offer a home to Syrian refugees, so I began exploring whether that was possible. I visited the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program in Colchester and talked with Laurie Stavrand, their volunteer coordinator. We came up with ideas on how a group in Central Vermont could assist new Vermonters from a variety of countries and backgrounds.”  

Thus, Central Vermont Refugee Action Network (CVRAN), a group of committed volunteers, was born. During the past three years, the organization has hosted 10 visits of new Vermonters living in the Burlington area and state capital, including giving a tour of the State House and the Vermont History Museum, a visit with the governor, and a community lunch. Participants have included immigrants of all ages from Somalia, Sudan, Nepal, Bhutan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma, Iraq, Syria, and Morocco. There is a waiting list for those excited to visit the capital, most for the first time. 

The Network also welcomes all refugees settling in Vermont with gifts of kitchen knives and cutting boards.  Members also provide tutoring, conversation, and friendship to new Vermonter CCV students, migrant farm workers, and immigrants recently settled in Montpelier. This past year, CVRAN sponsored a panel to update the public on immigration challenges and hosted the performance of an original play, Que Nochebuena, portraying refugee experiences.

Diane Fitch, who lives in Calais, is also an artist whose paintings were recently shown at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery. She is professor emeritus of painting and drawing at Wright State University in Ohio, where she taught for 30 years. 

Mary Anne Owen of the Return House Program at the Washington County Youth Service Bureau

Return House is a residential program for young men aged 18–23 who are re-entering the community from periods of incarceration. Kreig Pinkham, the executive director of the WCYSB says, “The work of Return House is some of the most demanding work that we do at the WCYSB.  Not only do many of the residents have complicated histories, but incarceration itself is a traumatic event.”  

On top of that the residents are moving through a period of life that can be challenging in the best of circumstances. The residents come to the house not knowing what to expect or who to trust. Owen builds a sense of trust and a confidence that centers on their capacity to be the positive change in their own lives. For many of the residents, it’s the first time they’ve had someone truly believe in that capacity.

Owen works diligently to ensure that the residence is more than a program—it’s a temporary home for the young men who stay there, some for as long as a year.  Return House is an inviting, nurturing environment where residents can focus on personal and career goals as well as on learning how to be positive members of a community. It’s tireless work that can demand attention at any moment of the day or night. Owen commits to the work daily out of a conviction that the program is the best shot for altering the path of repeat criminal behavior for this vulnerable population.  For many of the residents, Owen’s direct involvement with them on a daily basis is an essential component of their personal journey away from the behaviors that led to incarceration.

Eliza Cain of Circle

Eliza Cain works part-time at Circle (formerly Battered Women’s Services and Shelter) as the Legal Services Coordinator. She first got involved in the domestic violence field as a volunteer in 1994. She’s since worked at domestic violence programs in Oregon and Vermont. Cain began work as a hotline and support group volunteer with Circle in 2000, becoming a part-time staff member as of 2011. 

She supports victims/survivors to navigate both the family and criminal court systems. This can include supporting victims/survivors as their (ex) partners face criminal charges to attending final abuse order hearings with them. Cain also facilitates support groups for community members and shelter residents and meets with community partners to encourage victim-centered responses to domestic violence. 

Her passion for the work shows in the level of support, compassion, and energy she shares with every single individual with whom she is working. It serves as inspiration and hope to the individuals she is working with as well as to the advocates who work alongside her.  

Circle is grateful to Eliza Cain for juggling family, friends, and a business so that she can find the time to be the amazing advocate that she is. 

Susan Erisman of Central Vermont Humane Society

It takes a village to run an animal shelter. At Central Vermont Humane Society (CVHS), the village includes a legion of dedicated volunteers, without whom CVHS could not save more than 1,000 animals a year. More than 40 people from the community regularly and generously donate countless hours to CVHS, walking dogs, fostering kittens, helping the office, providing transport, and supporting special events.

On any given day there are over 60 animals in the CVHS shelter. Each and every one needs to be fed, walked, and socialized every day. Most importantly, keeping everything clean keeps the animals, and people, happy and healthy. The Society appreciates its devoted volunteers who come in on a regular basis to do the hard work of cleaning and scrubbing pet dishes, litter boxes, and more.  

Susan Erisman is one such volunteer.  She has loyally been coming every Thursday for over a year. She takes care of the cat wing and works hard in the central cleaning area, which is the hub of the shelter.  At CVHS, every adoptable animal that comes through the doors is saved.  The Humane Society goes the extra mile for the animals in its care, and it is only able to do that because so many community members, such as Susan Erisman, go the extra mile for CVHS. 

Faye Longo of Vermont Foodbank

Faye Longo will help fill your belly by first winning your heart. You may have met her recently at a senior center, church meal, homeless shelter, food pantry, gas station, daycare, or even your own living room. In her role as 3SquaresVT Outreach Coordinator at the Vermont Foodbank, Faye travels around the state sharing information about 3SquaresVT, a federal nutrition program that currently helps about 70,000 Vermonters boost their monthly food budget. 

However, as many as 150,000 Vermonters may be eligible for 3SquaresVT. There may be obstacles that prevent people from accessing 3SquaresVT, but they are no match for Longo’s boundless enthusiasm, empathy, resourcefulness, and humor. Her joyful energy outshines the darkest Vermont winter days. 

Daily work in such close proximity to the issue of poverty can be challenging. But Longo responds with solutions and recognizes the worth in every person. After getting you signed up for 3SquaresVT, she might send you resources about mental health programs, affordable dentures, or suggestions for that cousin, grandparent, or neighbor you mentioned. She might also check in with you a year later just to see how things are going, because she cares. 

This year Longo has put special attention toward supporting older adults. According to Debbie Boyce, a SASH Coordinator and fellow champion who partners with Longo, “Faye’s positive attitude is a chain reaction. Her dedication and determination bring the best outcomes for all of her clientele.”

When not at work, Longo is busy raising her kids, building community, and engaging in personal advocacy work. Did you hear her recently on the radio talking about the importance of affordable high-quality childcare? Or maybe you heard her testifying in Montpelier about paid family leave? Or perhaps you attended her leadership workshop about overcoming adversity? In the description for that workshop, Longo wrote, “People from all walks of life have the power within them to change the world. Those who have overcome the most often carry a unique strength in this regard.” These lines are apt for the way Longo puts her whole self into all she does. Plus she’ll have you laughing before you know it.  

Pat Hoffman of Montpelier Community Justice Center

A victim outreach specialist at the Montpelier Community Justice Center (MCJC), Pat Hoffman was instrumental in launching MCJC’s Victim Outreach Program when she volunteered her time for the better part of a year to create protocols and strategies for reaching out to victims of crimes in the immediate aftermath of the event. 

The Victim Outreach Program, which has been operating in partnership with the Montpelier Police Department since 2015, offers victims of property crimes a sympathetic ear and resources in a timely manner, rather than being constrained by the workings of the criminal justice system. Hoffman calls people who have reported property crimes in Montpelier, listens to their stories, and helps them figure out how to take care of needs that were created as a result of the crime.

Because attention to the harm caused to a victim is at the heart of the restorative justice approach, making this program operational was the fulfillment of a long-held goal at the MCJC. Hoffman was critical to its inception and its continued successful operation. 

People have expressed their appreciation for this parallel justice initiative, in which community outreach and support is available for victims and does not depend on whether or not the person who offended is identified or prosecuted. People with whom Hoffman has made contact have reported that they feel like their community cares about them, something that all residents of Montpelier can appreciate. Through her excellent work, Pat Hoffman has strengthened the bonds residents feel with their city and with law enforcement. Since its inception, Hoffman’s work has been recognized as a vital part of the MCJC’s operation.

Sam Sanders of Vermont People with AIDS Coalition 

Montpelier resident Sam Sanders says, “I’m not an activist.  All I know is that as a gay man in the 1980s, so many of my friends and lovers were dying I had to be there for them.”  

Since then Sanders has spent 35 years as a volunteer serving the Vermont AIDS community. “I did hospice training to learn how to help people die. I was a ‘buddy’ to many folks who were sick and dying. That’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life and why, at age 77, I am still involved.”

Since the 1980s Sanders has been deeply involved in many Vermont AIDS service organizations. After attending many retreats, where volunteers and AIDS care-givers met to share information and experiences, it became obvious to them that AIDS-positive people needed their own gathering. “The stigma of having AIDS back then was huge. People were scared of touching an HIV-positive person, of sharing a water glass.  The trauma was overwhelming. HIV-positive people needed a place where they could relax and be themselves.” 

And so evolved “The Gathering of Friends,” the first of 29 retreats for AIDS-positive Vermonters and their partners that Sanders has helped organize, and the Vermont People with AIDS Coalition, of which Sanders has been board member and secretary for 29 years.  “I started working in the kitchen at the retreat because there was a lot of distrust in the HIV-positive community of HIV-negative people like me. I didn’t want to impose. But now my role is keeper of the flame, holding together the spiritual energy of the HIV community. That is the most important thing I do in my life.”

What’s next for Sanders?

“Even with the new meds, many people are still suffering from the virus and from the side effects of the medications.  Newly infected people need to learn the ropes. The perception that the AIDS epidemic is under control is not true. There’s still so much work to be done.”

That’s Sam Sanders, Montpelier resident, the man who for the past 35 years is “not an activist.”

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