“How do you measure a year?” In the musical, Rent, it is by daylights and sunsets and cups of coffee. As a reporter, it might be summed up in minutes spent in council and committee meetings, notebooks filled the number of papers sent to press … or cups of coffee. But, really, it’s so much more. It’s people met, stories shared, laughter, tears and hope. To tell the living history of a city is one of the greatest honors I could imagine. And one I certainly don’t take lightly. As the last punctuation mark falls on the last page of 2019, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the people I met, the places I went and the lessons I learned.
You’re never too old...
My hand slapped the snooze button as my cheery, green alarm clock jarred me from a deep sleep. I was suddenly regretting my gung-ho request to watch Rep. Maida Townsend (Chittenden 7-4) skate at 6 a.m. – with a half-an-hour-drive to the rink from my home.
It was October, there were still leaves on the trees, and the precipitation wasn’t frozen as it fell to the ground.
“Bring a hat, mittens and blanket,” she told me. “It gets cold by the rink.”
Though the mild temps outside made me cringe at donning such garb, I followed Townsend’s instructions.
Our cars were the only vehicles in the Leddy Arena parking lot. I don’t know why I was surprised – most of the city was still blissfully asleep. Entering the rink through the side door, I clambered up the stadium seats and folded my throw blanket under me. It was absolutely frigid near the rink. I pulled my fuzzy winter hat further down over my ears and placed my reporter’s notebook beside me.
Watching Townsend loop around the rink, I was immediately struck by her grace. She was just warming up, but each turn and maneuver flowed. It was hard to tell where the ice ended, and Townsend began.
She took care to tell me about each technique she employed. Her demonstrations were interspersed with comments about the song on her mix, memories of theater on ice and figure skating competitions gone by, as well as a preview of her latest routine. The time whizzed by and we were on our separate ways, me to the office and Townsend to meet with a constituent. But her joy stayed with me through the day.
I had met Townsend at the local Barnes and Noble the day before, but couldn’t have imagined how inspiring it would be to see her in action on the rink.
Townsend began ice skating at the age of 50 and won her division in the International Adult Figure Skating Competition this October at age 75.
What inspired me most was her dedication and courage. Townsend wasn’t scared of falling, rather her concern was being the “tallest” skater on the ice. But despite her trepidation she pursued lessons and never looked back.
“You’re not too old to do it. There’s no reason to be defined by a number,” she told me. “I really believe that.”
I was moved by the sentiment. What had I been holding myself back from? What could I accomplish? I hoped the article would make others feel the same way.
Opening up about tough topics...
I find that one of the best ways to explore an issue is to learn first-hand how it impacts community members. That said, I never cease to be amazed by the generosity and courage of those individuals who are willing to share their experience with the issue at hand.
This spring I met Carla Galaise, a single mother who struggled to find quality, affordable childcare for her infant son. It’s no secret Vermont has struggled to keep young families in-state. In my research this spring, I learned that an estimated 50% of Vermont’s infants and toddlers who need childcare do not have access to a regulated facility or early learning program.
And though Galaise did not have the means to get her son Eli into quality care, she was not going to give up without a fight. She searched high and low for a center that would fit her means and Eli’s needs. Her quest saw her turning down home care centers that stank of weed, dirty facilities and a long commute to a center several towns over.
Galaise showed me the power of perseverance. She told me she shared her story to impact statewide change and help other parents in her position.
“When the government is having difficulties deciding the importance of [childcare], we’re showing to parents as well this is kind of like a second priority; it’s not important,’” she said. “We’re just making the issue worse. [Change] needs to come from the top down.”
I was awed and impressed by her candor. I could see her point, democracy is a participatory sport and you can’t sit on the sideline if you want to make change.
Another tough topic on our community’s mind was domestic violence. One year after resident Anako “Annette” Lumumba’s death in May 2018, from an alleged instance of domestic violence, South Burlington hosted a series of community conversations for National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I set out to speak with domestic violence survivors to gain a better understanding of the issue. I knew it wouldn’t be easy to find people who were willing to share these personal horror stories. But I was fortunate to connect with two women who recounted their experiences.
The first, was Gretchen Gundrum. We met in the very Dunkin she fled to after a major fight with her partner. Per routine, I asked her if it was alright if I recorded as we spoke. She obliged but I continued to take notes as she talked. She shared her story slowly at first, but then as I set my notebook aside and treated the interview more like a conversation, we connected more. Gundrum detailed a side of domestic violence that doesn’t usually get much attention.
“The stigma that is on domestic violence is that in order for it to be real, you’ve got to see the victim … they have to be bruised or [have] broken bones,” she said. “That’s only one portion of what domestic violence really encompasses.” But in fact, domestic violence includes everything from physical abuse to restricting access to finances, verbal and emotional abuse and other similar behaviors. Gundrum’s partner also “gaslighted” her, attempting to convince her that she was the problem, not him.
At the end of our conversation Gundrum thanked me for listening and said it allowed her to open up to the point where she might start writing about the experience. I was humbled. If I played even a small role in helping someone reflect on a challenging experience, it made me feel impactful. It was the kind of experience that keeps me going and helps me to see, firsthand, the importance of the media. Soon after speaking with Gundrum, I met with Sybil Hearn. She too was a survivor of domestic violence. Having learned it’s better to listen and converse than scribe these difficult conversations, I tried to melt into the background and let Hearn lead the discussion. She shared a harrowing tale of escaping an abusive partner that made the hair on my arms stand on end. I couldn’t imagine undergoing such an ordeal. Again, I was amazed by the level of trust this stranger placed in me to tell her story for her neighbors to read.
These three women taught me a great deal about listening openly and deeply. I learned people can be incredibly strong and vulnerable when they know their story might help others.
Ride along with SBPD
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went on a ride along with South Burlington Police Department.
After donning a visitor’s badge and being ushered into the station, I sat down to watch roll call. Sgt. Edward Soychak teased me, asking, “Have you ever been in a room with so many police officers?”
I replied, “No,” and might have admitted how nervous it made me. But any jitters dispersed as the ride along took its course. Over the next three hours I was given an intimate glimpse of what policing the second largest city in Vermont entails. Officer Hazen Powell led me through the shift with great poise. I knew it had to be awkward having a journalist in the cruiser and navigating what a civilian can and cannot do while riding along. But Powell was a gracious host and she was upfront. If there was a question she couldn’t answer she was direct about it.
For me, it was the little things that proved most impressive, like Powell’s patience and kindness as she gave a confused motorist directions. It was a holistic view of the job separate from what I’d seen on television.
“Law enforcement is what federal authorities do,” Chief Shawn Burke told me, “policing is this whole other universe where you respond to a wide array of occurrences.”
And while I thought covering the news had its twists and turns, shadowing Powell showed me just how nimble police officers must be. We were attempting to track down some people who stole clothing from the University Mall when suddenly, a call came through the radio noting there was a gas leak on Market Street. Within minutes we were parked in the middle of Dorset Street and Powell was out on the busy road directing traffic.
I must admit that – with the sergeant’s permission – I hopped out of the cruiser to ask Fire Chief Terry Francis about the gas leak. A group of emergency workers hollered at me and directed me across the street. My mind rushed. I felt embarrassed for having been yelled at, then terrified that I would be unable to reconnect with Powell. I envisioned a long walk back to the police station.
But Francis came over and apologized for the startling reprimand. He explained there was a concern the gas leak could have caused an explosion, and that I would have been in the line of fire. I was suddenly very grateful I had been told to move. We continued to chat, and I was able to learn about the gas leak which yielded a story I hadn’t expected to come out of the ride along.
And yes, I was able to reconnect with Powell and ride back to the police department in the cruiser.
City Center has taught me a great deal about perseverance, as I’m sure it’s taught many in the community. Prior to reporting on South Burlington, I knew two things for certain: 1) It had a Trader Joe’s and 2) It had a mall.
But perhaps that view parlays into the sell for a City Center. It’s been said that South Burlington, having split off from the Queen City in 1865, lacks a clear identity. Unlike many of its neighboring municipalities there is no charming, walkable downtown. At least not yet.
My earliest city council meetings consisted of discussions between the city and school district about a stormwater management system to be built under school property –with an easement. There were some tough conversations and some misunderstandings, but the two parties worked it out.
Reaching the Market Street Ribbon Cutting and the 180 Market Street library/city hall/senior center groundbreaking ceremony this November felt like crossing the finish line of a marathon. Though I’d only tuned into the City Center discussion a few months before, there were attendees present like Sec. of State Jim Condos who had been part of a movement for a downtown since the 80s. Indeed, at the ceremony Council Chair Helen Riehle informed us that the vision of a walkable city core dated back 50 years. The excitement and pride of that day were undeniable.
“I can’t overemphasize the importance of having a real downtown,” Riehle said. “These public facilities will be in place for generations to come … together we made this possible.”
The community center isn’t forecasted to open its doors until the summer of 2021. But city residents and staff are hopeful it will help with challenges like creating more centralized affordable housing, allowing people to live and work in the city, edging it closer to meeting its climate commitments.
Operation Firecuffs … or how I thought I might lose some toes
I eagerly anticipated mounting the South Burlington fire engine and heading up to the UVM Children’s Hospital to watch Operation Firecuffs in action. I believe nothing informs a story better than witnessing the scene with one’s own eyes.
However, my eagerness to join the crew was soon superseded by a primal need to survive.
I arrived on East Avenue in Burlington about an hour before the emergency personnel were scheduled to head to the medical center. Police officers, EMS workers, firefighters and mascots like the Lake Monster’s “Champ” and UVM’s “Rally Cat” milled about the street. I felt out of place, lacking a uniform and badge. All I had was a puffy winter jacket and my trusty reporter’s notebook. Soon South Burlington firefighters Alex Spencer and Mike Walsh arrived. But I had already begun to freeze over. As Spencer walked me around and introduced me to the fundraiser’s founders and other participants, I realized I was cold to the point of not functioning.
I couldn’t feel my toes. I tried to wiggle them in my boots, but they felt more akin to lead weights than appendages under my control. I began to worry. “How long does it take for hypothermia to set in?” I wondered. But I chuckled to myself thinking, “Well, if I’m going to lose some toes, it’s a good thing I’m in the company of medical workers, and just a stone’s throw from the hospital.”
Soon Spencer, Walsh and I hopped into the fire engine and prepared to deliver the donated toys. Spencer asked me if I had any more questions.
“Yes, thanks for asking,” I managed to get out. But then I realized it wasn’t just my toes that had stopped working. My lips were just about frozen. I had to warm up before I could speak again.
Entering the solarium of the hospital was like reaching a pilgrimage site at the end of a long journey. I could have kissed the ground.
The rest of the operation went off without a hitch, and I was glad I had attended. By the time I got back to the office to write my piece, the harsh winter weather had dissipated into the warmth of a feel-good story.