Often when speaking with people who are a part of the Pathways Vermont experience, they will describe a Pathways Vermont moment; a frozen-in-time-memory moment where perhaps a preconceived idea about something, or even the course of their life, changed dramatically.
The following story is one of those moments for me:
There is a gas station in Randolph, Vermont, just off the interstate coming north from Brattleboro heading back to Burlington. It is usually the perfect place to stop to fill up on gas, use the restroom and grab a snack or coffee before heading home.
In 2009, I was at that Randolph gas station. It was hot out that day. I remember the feel of the inside of the car with the sun beating through the windshield; how the steering wheel and the vinyl seats felt soft and warm against my skin. I could smell the tang of gasoline from the pump nozzle.
My phone rang. It was my friend and former colleague Sam calling. The sound of his voice always makes me happy, but also leary. Sam is not really a chit-chatty-call-to-check-in-on-how you-are-doing kind of guy. Why is he calling? What did he want?
He said he had great news. He had gotten a federal grant to bring the Housing First model to Vermont. It would be the first rural application of the model and he wanted me to run it.
My immediate response was no. No way. Forget about it. Find someone else. Self-doubt swirled around inside me.
I had been out of that world for almost seven years, having moved back to Vermont just after my mother received her cancer diagnosis. I had tried unsuccessfully to get a job in the field for which I was passionate: homelessness and mental health. I had gone on job interview after job interview, but no one wanted to hire me. I didn’t understand why. It was almost like I was speaking a different language. So I ended up veering from my career path and working for a family support organization coordinating statewide services.
I couldn’t even get a foot in the door in the shelter world in Vermont, how would I kick start Housing First?
Sam isn’t one to be discouraged by fear. Sam is a visionary. He builds things in his mind, then speaks about them with such certitude that it is impossible to not believe him. He had a vision about Housing First coming to Vermont and in his vision, I was at the helm.
For those of you reading this who don’t know Sam, let me introduce you. Dr. Sam Tsemberis is the clinical psychologist that developed the Housing First Model that effectively ends homelessness for individuals, families, and youth. The Housing First model has been successfully replicated across the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand and is endorsed by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness and is listed in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs. Sam has received recognition and numerous awards for his commitment, innovation, and advocacy to end homelessness. Every newspaper headline you see that has anything to do with Housing First and ending homelessness, Sam is the change agent in that story, including the most recent, “How Finland Solved Homelessness.” Sam and I worked together in New York City in the ’90s. He recruited me to run the very first Housing First program. I wrote our first tagline: Love, Respect and Creating Possibilities.
I knew the Housing First model and how to run a program like the back of my hand. Sam reminded me and encouraged me. And how amazing to be able to innovate the Housing First model in a rural community where it had never been tried.
So I left my job and went to start Pathways Vermont.
I would like to say that my self-doubt and fears disappeared, but that is not true. But what did happen is when we opened our doors that following year and the first person walked in, with a garbage bag full of everything they owned on this earth, with downcast eyes and shoes without shoe-laces, I knew. I knew I could do this. I knew how to do it. And I knew with every fiber of my being that Pathways Vermont was going to change lives for the better.
But I couldn’t do it alone.
It was going to take a community of support and more funding than we had. It was going to take courage, and all the spunk and innovation it takes to build something out of nothing.
This year marks Pathways Vermont’s 10th anniversary.
There are countless people who have been and still are a part of Pathways Vermont, and who were essential to our formation, development, and success. From our founding fathers, Sam Tsemberis and Brian Smith (from the Department of Mental Health), our first board member Tom Simpatico, to our newest employee and most recent tenant ten years later. I am indebted to these individuals who helped make Pathways Vermont what it is today. Some of these incredible supporters include:
Yves Bradley found our first office space on Kilburn Street and took a chance on renting to us. Jane Helmstetter gave us our initial list of 40 potential service recipients. Pam McCarthy demanded we come to Franklin County (and we did) and started our efforts to offer Housing First around the state. My friends Liz Jordan Shook and Margot Kelsh graciously served as some of our first board members. Maura Collins agreed (finally) to chair our Board of Directors and together with Jane Van Buren and Wright Cronin trekked to Washington D.C. to learn how to raise money and opened the door to diversifying our funding. The non-profit Executive Directors that have mentored me in a job I knew nothing about: Rita Markley, Mark Redmond, and Barbara Rachelson. Susie Cronin has made me a better leader and Pathways Vermont a stronger organization through her wisdom, friendship, and support. Steven Morgan, Laura Sisson, Patrick Flood and Amos Meacham kick-started Soteria House, and Tanya Vyhovsky the Support Line. All of the amazing designated agency staff around the state that have partnered with us, the Burlington Housing Authority and Vermont State Housing Authority, our funders and the wonderful staff at the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Corrections, the University of Vermont, and Burlington’s Community Economic Development Office. The Hoehl Family Foundation, the Richard E. and Deborah L. Tarrant Foundation, Ben and Jerry’s, United Way of Northwest Vermont, United Way of Addison County, the Vermont Community Foundation, Onda Foundation, the Wall family, Patricia Fontaine, all of our Key Society Members, sustaining members and so many more.
Over the ten years, we have had so many incredible staff, each bringing their unique selves to the mix. Rebeka Lawrence-Gomez and Patrick Gallagher have been with us since the beginning. From the first paperclip bought and the first lease signed. There is a core group of staff that have been with us for seven-plus years: Mandy McDermott, Lindsay Mesa, Amos Meacham, Abby Levinsohn, Tom Kimball, Léna Szumowski, Katie Bourque, Tia Lewis, Corbin Burstein, and Alexander Ferguson.
Our current board leadership is the strongest it has ever been and includes two members that were once service recipients of our Soteria House and Housing First services. Our stellar members are Maura Collins, Wright Cronin, Brenda Frank, Rebecca Zietlow, Tim Wall, Jane Van Buren, Peter Toshev, Jedediah Popp, Kay Van Woert, Janet Sisson, Paul Dickin, and Deborah Schapiro.
This whole community of people has made the impossible, possible.
We, all together, have:
- Ended homelessness for 800 Vermonters
- Prevented homelessness for 300 Veterans
- Provided 200 individuals one on one employment support
- Answered 30,000 calls on the Pathways Vermont Support Line
- Served 4,500 nutritious meals
- Hosted 20,000 visits to the Pathways Vermont Community Center
- Welcomed 45 Vermonters experiencing a mental health crisis to Soteria House
It has been a good ten years. A great ten years, in fact.
We have built an amazing organization that is strong, solid and continues to be a pioneer in innovative programs that change lives. Programs that save lives. I am a long way from self-doubting and afraid. I am excited about Pathways Vermont’s next chapter, together with all of you.