It was humbling to be part of the Vermont Council on Rural Development’s visiting team for the Guilford Community Visit on October 15th. The Town of Guilford is a community just south of Brattleboro, along Vermont’s southeastern border with Massachusetts, that is comprised of five hamlets, each with its own character. There were many reasons why the town approached VCRD and asked to participate in the community visit process, and Richard Clark, the Chairman of the Guilford Select Board and one of the local folks instrumental in the Community Visit, discussed one goal he had for the visit. “I have long roots in this community, which is one place separated by several valleys,” he said, “and I hope that this process will bring the whole town together, so that we will be one community like we used to be.”
“Community Visit Day begins a three-month process designed to help Guilford residents define, prioritize, and confront challenges before them,” said Paul Costello, Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD). The Community Visit process is carefully designed and facilitated by VCRD to actively connect grassroots community-building efforts with state-wide resources, expertise, and opportunities.
More than 100 Guilford residents took part in six facilitated conversations in focus areas that had been carefully and thoughtfully selected by both representatives from the Town of Guilford and members of the VCRD team. Because the average age in Guilford is older than Vermont’s average, one area of focus was the quality of life for Guilford seniors. The other discussion areas included community buildings, parks, trails, and outdoor recreation, farm and the natural resource economy, youth and education, and supporting the Guilford economy.
Guilford residents could attend any of the six forums. The visiting team – a diverse group of experts and leaders from different walks of Vermont life – was divided into two teams, each assigned to be active observers in three of the sessions. I was part of a team that also included Doug Racine, Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Resources, Greg Brown from VCRD’s Board of Directors, and Paul Bruhn, Executive Director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, among several other impressive Vermont leaders.
Doug Racine facilitated a very lively and solutions-oriented discussion about life for Guilford seniors that began by taking a simple inventory of Guilford’s existing assets for them. It turns out that there is already an impressive volunteer-run group in town called Guilford Cares that help seniors with meals, transportation, and more. The Guilford Community Church also leads several popular and effective programs for seniors that are well-supplemented by multiple, additional services in nearby Brattleboro.
The next part of the discussion focused on challenges. The main challenges identified for local seniors were mirrored in all five of the other discussions: the separation of Guilford into five geographically distant villages and how that causes significant transportation and communication challenges, and how these difficulties are particularly isolating for seniors. As one Guilford senior resident put it, “We are very spread out with no way to go as the crow flies.” Making matters worse, several of the main community spaces in town are not handicap-accessible.
The bulk of time was spent on discussing solutions to these challenges. One resident brought up a simple yet powerful idea to get folks from different neighborhoods and varied age groups to get to know each other better. She described how one day she just happened to stop by and give a basket of peaches to a young man she didn’t know, who was fixing up a property, readying it for artists that would be living there. After chatting with him, “he became my friend,” she said, and she suggested to the rest of the group that this idea be turned into a community-wide spirit to help Guilford overcome several obstacles, including the isolation of its seniors.
This is just one example from one of the six constructive and meaningful discussions that took place on Guilford Community Visit Day, along with an impressive Community Dinner attended by over 100 people. Both the story and symbolism of the basket of peaches, though, is the most poignant memory I took away from my participation in the visit. I am greatly looking forward to November 12th, when I can return to Guilford to see how Guilford residents prioritize action items to make a real difference in their community and quality of life.