Volunteers are the magic here, says Sara Kobylenski, the outgoing executive director of the Upper Valley Haven, Hartford, Vermont’s multifaceted community safety net. More than a food shelf, more than a shelter, the Haven provides these emergency services and many more to those in need. Some other programs include financial and life skill training for adults, and after-school and summer programs for kids. “The folks in the community who come in and make this place work are the best,” continues Sara. Two prize volunteers are Quechee residents’ Pat Dwyer and Jane Meunier-Powell.
Pat has volunteered with the Haven for seven years and counting. She’s obviously a good fit with the activities – golf and tennis – she enjoys at Quechee. She also turns her hand to various chores at the Haven, with the exception of showing new clients around the food shelf. “I stock the shelves and clean produce,” she says.
Pat and her husband, Bill, first bought a place at Quechee in 1981, and moved up to live full time in 1992. “It was the best decision we ever made,” she says. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” It was through a group of women at Quechee that Pat found her way to the Haven. In August, 2011, after Hurricane Irene, Pat joined a group that was handling relief supplies in a White River warehouse. The work was something Pat knew about, each winter she and Bill spend three months in San Diego where they both volunteer twice a week at the food bank located in a huge warehouse that is the central food bank supply for the whole county. Recycling is a feature of the warehouse. When outdated canned goods come in, they are run through a machine that rips open the cans and emptied the contents. “It is dumbfounding to see this machine in action,” says Pat. At the Haven, discards or trimmings of fresh food go to a pig farmer, who is now also taking expired canned goods.
Over the years she’s worked at the Haven, Pat has seen evolution and changes. The Haven used to have a clothing collection for clients. “It was fun to see the kids getting new shoes,” says Pat. “They’d dance around, so happy!” The Haven now hand out chits to the Good Buy store across the street. Meanwhile, the café, which serves breakfast and lunch, has expanded. Haven clients are allowed one grocery fill-up per month, which could be two grocery-carts full if it’s for a family, but cupboards still can get pretty bare towards the end of the month. The cafeteria meals help bridge the gap, and the café also offers a stock of bread and vegetables free for the taking.
“I remember when I was first there,” says Pat, “a couple came in, and they had no way to cook. The volunteer who was helping them said, ‘Wait a minute – let me look out back’ and came back with a microwave that had been donated.”
“I’m new to the Upper Valley,” says Jane, “but I’m a native of Vermont.” Raised in Newport, up near the Canadian border, she has lived and worked around the country, in Missouri, Massachusetts, and upstate New York. She also has volunteered at other food shelves. Jane currently works in the Microbiology Lab at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. And still makes time to work in the Good Eats program and the gardens at the Haven.
The Haven gardens are patches of former lawn here and there about the grounds that now produce a pleasing mix of vegetables and flowers. “Sara says the gardens are our front line, showing people right away as they arrive here they’ll be nurtured, taken care of,” explains Jane, as she takes a break from an early fall clipping-back of some over-enthusiastic Black-eyed Susans. Two master gardeners plan the beds, and a handful of volunteers execute the designs. The gardens provide a significant quantity of vegetables for the Haven food programs. Near the bus stop a noshing bed – peas in the spring, and later, cherry tomatoes – gives visitors the pleasures of fresh snacks.
The Good Eats program has two or three volunteer chefs supply breakfast and lunch for all comers to the Haven Monday through Friday. They use what’s plentiful in the food shelf, keeping the meal wholesome –they’ve reduced donut availability in favor of egg dishes – and throw in a little education while they’re at it. Volunteers also gather bags of ingredients, along with the recipe of the day; clients can take home these recipe bags without reducing their monthly allowance from the food shelf. “We can’t ever make something everybody’s going to like,” says Jane with acceptance. There’s an effort to create soft food for imperfect teeth, and to use herbs to allow reducing salt.
Both Pat and Jane overflow with praise for the Haven – its programs, its people, its accomplishments, and its attitude. “One of the biggest surprises for me was how much need there is,” says Jane. “And one of the things that impressed me most is how much people can choose. There’s a certain dignity in that, and it comes from Sara. A director sets the tone of the organization, from the top.”
On Wednesdays (a day of big supply drop-offs) Pat sorts about a thousand pounds of produce, getting it laid out and ready for clients. And she does it all with a smile on her face. Clearly both women find joy in the work they’re doing at the Haven, where the effect of their efforts can be so immediately seen. “There are so many wonderful people around,” says Pat. “I’d recommend the Haven to anyone. They need a lot of help, especially in the winter, when the snowbirds leave.”