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Sat

13

Dec

2008

State Legislator Promotes Neigbors Helping Neighbors
Saturday, 13 December 2008 21:22
by Carolyn Baker

altDo you know your neighbors? If you don't, get to know them soon because none of us knows when we might need them or when they might need us.

Several weeks ago I attended a meeting in Montpelier, capital of Vermont, in which that city's Mayor, Mary Hooper, and Vermont State Representative, Patricia McDonald (R-Berlin) outlined detailed preparations being made by concerned citizens in Montpelier and Berlin to assist the most vulnerable folks in their towns with surviving the cold winter. While this kind of effort may be popular at the neighborhood, city, or town level across America, it is rare that a state representative signs on to it as passionately as McDonald has.

I chose to conduct an interview with McDonald and now publish it far and wide because as the various levels of American society continue to collapse in the wake of economic meltdown, most of the services to which people in need might turn in an emergency will not be there. It is very likely that the only lifeline for millions of people may be with caring neighbors or other community volunteers.

My hope is that featuring Patricia McDonald's vision on the Truth To Power website and circulating this interview may inspire other legislators and citizens in the United States to implement similar programs to monitor the most vulnerable in their communities as individuals and families attempt to navigate unemployment, foreclosure, hunger, lack of heat, illness, and a host of daunting challenges that are now rampant in many parts of the nation.

I sat down in the Statehouse cafeteria with Patricia McDonald, newly re-elected to the Vermont legislature, and who has been very generous with her time, and I asked her some specific questions about neighbors helping neighbors.


CB: So Representative McDonald, before I ask you to explain these initiatives to Truth To Power readers, I'd like to know more about how you became interested in this particular issue since you've been a Vermont State Representative and have worked in state government for a number of years. Why this issue of neighbors helping neighbors among so many others?

PM: I have only recently served in the legislature, but I have served seven appointed positions in state government. When I campaigned the first time, I went door to door and was pretty surprised by what I saw and the discussions I had with people about these struggles. You certainly can't tell by the house that someone is living in what their situation actually is. I also had two very interesting experiences while I was campaigning. One was attending a hunger banquet, and it was such a visual display of what poor and middle class really is. They separate you into these three different economic status groups, and even though we knew we were kind of "play-acting" our status, we still really lived as if we were in those groups. There was no interaction with the "upper class", and the "middle class" didn't talk to the "poor class", and the dynamics between the "poor class" were very similar apparently, to what happens in real life. What really got to me was the quantity of food that we were talking about.

And then I've had someone in my own family who ran into a real problem, and was caught up in a layoff. They owned a home but had no money. They, of course, had our support, and others in the family, but it was amazing to me what we expect people to live on and what we think is "making too much money" to qualify for some of these programs.

I've always been involved in the municipal end of government because I've been on the Select Board of my town, but once I started knocking on doors and being involved in real life situations, my eyes were opened. And also, just before I left state government, I was the Commissioner of Labor, looking at some of the programs for trying to get people trained and stable enough to train in terms of housing, daycare, and transportation. It's been a couple of years of eye-opening experiences for me, very humbling actually, which gave me a very different perspective on life.

CB: Can you explain to our readers what a Select Board is?

PM: It's really the governing body of a municipal town or city. Most cities have councils. In our town [and mostly throughout Vermont] it's a Select Board.

CB: I'm registered in Vermont as an Independent, but you are a Republican, and stereotypically, Republicans don't focus this much on issues like neighbors helping neighbors, so I was curious about what drew you into all this.

PM: I just think experience. I think many Republicans approach these problems a little bit differently than Democrats do. I don't think it's that we're not interested, but that we have a different solution. We would look to the employer to create jobs, and so on, but you have to have folks ready to even take that step.

CB: OK, so having clarified that, please explain some of the most important aspects of the food, fuel, and transportation details of preparing for this winter in your community in Vermont.

PM: What we're trying to do is first of all, get the word out to make sure people know what services are available. These efforts are happening on the state, regional, and town levels, but we want to make sure people know that help is there. I think we're looking at a different group than we've normally served in the past-a group that hasn't had to deal with these struggles before. They're going to be making some very tough choices probably for the first time. They've been hanging on just barely. Some have just recently lost their jobs, some are widows or widowers, and things are more expensive now. They've been hanging on with their incomes, and now they're having to make different decisions than they've made before, and we're very concerned about them because they don't know who to ask, and they don't want to ask. In New England we're a stubborn lot, and we want to be self-reliant.

We want people to know that they're not alone, and that it's OK to ask for help. What we've done in my town of Berlin is to say, "Well, if we can help you in terms of food, fuel, or transportation, perhaps in turn, you can help us by being part of the process." It's more of a barter/trade process. Maybe if you've got transportation, you can transport someone else to go get food or medication. In Berlin, we want to make sure that we have a team in place, so that when we do have an issue, we can respond accordingly.

We're also trying to get volunteers to participate. We put together a Wood Warm project which unfortunately started too late so that the wood isn't quite seasoned yet, but we're asking for volunteers who already have cut wood if they'd be willing to set aside some wood on their property, and then we're asking volunteers to go get that wood and match it up with the individual needs of people who don't have fuel.

In terms of food we just started something new. Our elementary school has left-over food. They've been freezing if for us, and community action volunteers have created a schedule to go pick up that food so that we can distribute it. We want to get other institutions involved besides schools.

Also, the State Agricultural Department is out doing canning workshops. I went to one of them, and it was standing room only. People were very interested. I think people are really understanding the benefits of buying and producing locally. There's also a program being promoted in Vermont called "Grow An Extra Row" so that when you plant in the spring, you plant an extra row for the food banks and shelters just to share.

Another reason I got involved in food is that I'm a two-time breast cancer survivor, so for me, I just constantly think about nutrition and food safety. So I'm really focused on buying fresh, organic, local food.

CB: That just brought to mind a different question I'd like to ask. How much of the food in Vermont schools is raised locally?

PM: I can't tell you the percentage, but there is a very big effort right now to make sure that we have local food. A couple of bills have recently been passed in the legislature that support the farm to school efforts. Even here in the Statehouse cafeteria, if you'll notice, there's a real push to make sure that we have locally-produced food. There are a lot of signs around about where foods come from. Our milk refrigerator here is stocked with Vermont milk.

CB: If we can go back to that meeting where I met you in Montpelier, it was being conducted by folks who have been organizing Button Up workshops here in Vermont. Can you tell our readers a bit about those workshops and how they were created?

PM: We have put together these Button Up workshops which are really weatherization workshops, and they have been very successful. A hundred of them were planned around the state. Ours in Berlin was particularly successful because we had a spaghetti dinner before. The focus of the workshop is to look at all the things you can do in your house, without spending lots of money, to make sure that your home is really weatherized for the winter. I think people were really surprised about things they thought they should be doing but turn out not to be the best return on investment. Now, what we want to do in Berlin is a hands-on workshop. One of our local lumber supply businesses is going to provide someone for us to actually demonstrate how to do these things-particularly for women and others who live by themselves and may not have the ability themselves and may have to have a neighbor or friend do it for them.

The other day I got a phone call from a woman who said that all she needed was her front door fixed because there was such a gap in it, and all the heat was just pouring out the front door. So through this system we have developed, we were able to get her some assistance, and somebody just volunteered their time, and went over and fixed it for her. It was very rewarding-you just make a couple of phone calls, people get on it, and get it done.

CB: Transportation is an issue you've worked with for a long time, and it's a huge issue here in Vermont where driving is required to get just about anywhere, and we have very little in the way of a passenger rail system. What do you feel must be done to provide Vermonters with other options besides driving?

PM: I am very supportive of public transit. And we do have several really excellent public transit systems, but they're very localized. What we do have to do is make sure that they are not operating in isolation. I think we have to take a look at that and make some investments over time. People in Vermont have to drive everywhere to go to work, and it's a mindset. People need to understand the benefits of public transit. When gas was in the $5 range, many more people were taking public transit, but now that the price has come down, they're back to driving.

CB: Didn't Vermont have more train routes than we do now?

PM: When I was Secretary of Transportation we looked into this, and train travel in Vermont, what little there is, is very slow because we have not put in the investments. Also, the mindset of the car has kept ridership from being high enough to make the investment. In Burlington there is an emergency system where if you need to get somewhere quickly, you can call a number and get transport, but that's very hard to do statewide. Because we don't have the volume of travelers, it would be hard to get rail transportation to a place where it's really viable, but I do support it.

CB: We're currently in a very deep recession nationally, and most economic experts forecast that it is going to worsen in the next couple of years. How is the recession affecting Vermont right now, and what repercussions do you anticipate for our state over the next few years? More importantly, what do you feel we must do to navigate these hard times for the benefit of all Vermonters?

PM: The winter preparedness programs really go back to neighbors helping neighbors. We're a small state, but things cost the same for us as elsewhere. We're in for some very tough decisions this legislative session and beyond. We need to set some priorities. I think we'll need to have even more emphasis on neighbors watching out for each other than we have in the past. People are now very willing to sit down and figure out the solutions. We can't study anymore. I've been instrumental in putting language into legislation that emphasizes government accountability, efficiency, and the streamlining of our services so that we work together as one organization. To me, the most important thing is to get as much of the money and resources as possible to the people that we're serving and not to have it absorbed in an inefficient system. That's really where my interest lies.

CB: In your opinion, what more do we need to do in Vermont to vastly increase our use of renewable energy?

PM: I'm very supportive of trying to figure out how to make it easier for people individually and families to use renewable energy. There's got to be incentives, but not just incentives, but to make the process a whole lot easier so that you're not spending maybe half a year dealing with permits. But I also think that moving toward the green economy and helping businesses become more efficient in that way-I think there's a place for all forms of alternative fuel.

I'd like to make it a lot easier for individual projects. I have a friend who's completely off the grid, and we have quite a few people in Vermont who are off the grid. For those who can be and are interested in it, I think we should help them. Based on my discussion with this friend, I'm introducing a bill that will give more incentives to individuals who want to get off the grid.

I'm not sure how much can get done this year because we have to find $64 million for our tiny state to continue operating. Like every other state we're hurting, but the smallness of our state makes this even more challenging.

Summary: In the short time during which Representative McDonald and I met, we could have discussed food security, health care, education, and myriad other issues which will become more formidable as the current economic crisis deepens. What I already knew about neighbors helping neighbors was greatly reinforced by my conversation with Patricia McDonald, and I'm hopeful that state, regional, and local officials everywhere in America will adopt a similar vision, namely, that this crisis can only be navigated by people committed to developing solid lifelines of compassionate, systematic preparation and cooperation.
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