By Tommy Gardner, as seen in the News & Citizen:

When it comes to navigating the ever-changing course of the pandemic and meeting the needs of vulnerable populations, Lamoille County’s cadre of service-providers and people are rowing in the same direction.

That’s the takeaway from organizers of a COVID-19 recovery forum, held last week to hear from those players on what’s working — and what’s needed.

Paul Costello, Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said volunteers in Vermont’s small towns have been working since the beginning of the pandemic, making masks, delivering food, and making sure their downtowns work effectively.

“The reason our team was formed was to recognize not all leadership comes from D.C. or even Montpelier,” Costello said. “Groups have sprung up the smallest of towns.”

Costello also heads up Gov. Phil Scott’s Community Action Team, which was convened in mid-April as part of Scott’s Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force.

According to Costello, the various county partners that have been toiling all summer to create a sort of COVID safety net left the task force impressed.

“It’s a fascinating window and perspective on recovery in Vermont and the way people weave together the strengths of their communities,” Costello said. “Recovery will be driven by a lot of different people.”

The governor’s task force plans to hold forums in all 14 Vermont counties, and Lamoille was the 12th on the list, according to Jenna Koloski, also of the Vermont Council on Rural Development. Where other places were using the forums as a way to brainstorm discussions about how to tackle issues, Vermont’s second-least populous county used it as a way to brainstorm how to tackle those things even better.

“Lamoille County, more than I saw elsewhere, had a very coordinated approach,” Koloski said. “There seems to be a strong culture in the county around giving.”

Koloski said all of the events were meant to garner ideas that the task force can put into a larger blueprint later.

Working with the council were the local economic development organization and regional planning commission.

Seth Jensen, head planner with the Lamoille County Planning Commission, said of particular interest was “the unique challenges faced by rural communities and small businesses.”

John Mandeville, executive director of the Lamoille Economic Development Corporation said it’s valuable to see what other counties are doing, “to receive feedback on what’s working and what’s not and to glean ideas for what we can do moving forward.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created one of the biggest challenges to the economy in modern times,” Mandeville said.

Optimistic about the future

These forums come at a good time for volunteers in counties who have been working for half a year, even though, in the first month of the pandemic, it was largely expected to be over by summer. It’s as if the pandemic was a race, but one that changed along the way from a sprint to a marathon. Maintaining stamina is key.

“Nobody knew the COVID crisis was going to last this long,” Costello said.

He said these meetings bring encouragement to everyone involved, especially since social distancing tends to isolate people, even if they’re all working together toward the same goals.

Costello pointed to a poll conducted earlier this month by Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS that found 65 percent of poll-takers were “somewhat optimistic” or “very optimistic” about their towns’ future. That percentage was almost the same last year when VPR asked the same question, before anyone was thinking about novel coronavirus.

Costello was surprised, and heartened — especially with all the other things 2020 has thrown at people, from national and local issues surround race and all of the divisiveness from the presidential election campaign.

“Vermonters affirmed an optimistic point of view, and I use the word affirmed because a lot of Vermonters are tired, some have worked at home, sometimes with their kids on their heels, and a lot of people are coming, with great discipline, to plan for a future we just don’t know about,” he said. “There’s just no back. You can only go forward in life.”