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Driven by a higher calling, HOPE Coalition helps rebuild in Vermont after the flood

A man in an orange tee shirt and blue jeans in a gymnasium leaning against piles of new mattresses
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Dan Molind, one of the founders of a long-term flood-recovery group called the HOPE Coalition, stands next to piles of donated mattresses for flood survivors.

An all-volunteer effort that’s sprung up to help central Vermonters recover from the flood is drawing volunteer labor from some unlikely places.

In an old religious school on the outer edge of Barre City, green canvass cots are arranged neatly in the former classrooms.

Dan Molind, the pastor of Enough Ministries, an evangelical church in Barre, said the austere accommodations have provided a place to sleep for hundreds of people, who’ve traveled more than a thousand miles in some instances, to help people they’ve never met recover from the flood.

This effort is being organized by the HOPE Coalition, a group made up mostly of local faith organizations. The coalition provides congregate living spaces , and they cook breakfast, lunch and dinner in the school’s industrial kitchen.

“Our effort is to make sure that when teams volunteer we provide them with all the things necessary so that they can spend the majority of their time actually working and helping out local residents,” Molind said.

“We like to work with our hands, and if they tell us we have to put up insulation, show me how, I’ll do it.”
Barbara Zehr, volunteer from a Mennonite community in upstate New York

The coalition, and the network of far-flung faith groups that Molind’s has been able to summon, is trying to fill the gaps in government-run flood-relief programs.

Many flood survivors have won individual assistance awards from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or FEMA, or gotten payouts from insurance companies.

“But [they] still can’t quite recover, and so we’re in that position to find out what other programs they might have access to to help them with funds, or if they need physical labor, or they need materials or whatever,” Molind said.

Molind started down this track at the tail end of his 32-year military career, during a combat tour in Afghanistan, when he received orders from on high for his next big mission.

“God spoke to me and said, ‘Dan, I want you to serve me in the same way that you’ve served country for so many years,’” Molind recalled recently.

A yard sign in front of a school complex
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
The HOPE Coalition has set up shop in a vacant former religious school in Barre.

Molind retired from the Army as a colonel shortly thereafter, and returned to his hometown of Barre City. It didn’t take long, he said, to figure out what God had in mind.

“And I thought, ‘Man, there’s a lot of people who are just overlooked in Barre – the homeless, addicted and hungry in our own hometown, and there’s a mission to be done here,’” he said.

Molind and his wife, Dawn, started a soup kitchen that slowly sprouted into Enough Ministries, an evangelical church in downtown Barre City. And when flood waters inundated their community, Molind spearheaded the formation of a long-term recovery group, made up mostly of other faith organizations in central Vermont, that now operates out of a vacant school compound owned by the Seventh Day Adventists.

The old gymnasium here is packed with pallets of cleaning supplies, personal hygiene products and more than 200 new mattresses that arrived last week. Another building nearby houses a food pantry and supplies of winter clothing.

Most importantly, however, the space functions as a dormitory for the hundreds of out-of-state religious groups that have been traveling here since the days after the flood to muck out flooded homes and perform the heating and electrical repairs needed to get them habitable before winter.

Green cots set up in a classroom
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Cots set up in a classroom in advance of the arrival of an out-of-state volunteer work crew.

It’s been four months since the summer floods devastated communities across Vermont. And many flood survivors have long since recovered. But in communities such as Barre City, where 10% of the housing stock was damaged or destroyed, Molind said the path to recovery has been more arduous.

The HOPE Coalition has a case load of about 140 homes in 27 towns in central Vermont, many of which Molind visits regularly.

“And, you know, often times this is what we’ll see is the head of the household sitting on a five-gallon bucket, sort of a deer in the headlights look, and there are piles of stuff in the house that is building materials and trash and stuff that they laid out to dry,” he said.

Sue Minter, executive director of Capstone Community Action, says financial aid awarded by FEMA often isn’t nearly enough to cover the costs of needed repairs.

“The need to address these critical needs of people without warmth, without walls, right now is so essential,” she said. “And it’s why the HOPE Coalition and the many long-term recovery committees that are starting to form is so essential.”

What makes the HOPE Coalition’s approach so unique and so effective, Minter said, is the volunteer labor Molind has been able to solicit.

“He is recruiting and bringing teams to come and help people rebuild homes, so that is already on the ground and really the furthest ahead in central Vermont,” she said.

Molind said the coalition has hosted teams “from pretty much every state east of the Mississippi.”

On a recent evening, as Molind gave a tour of the facility, the newest crew arrived.

Donna Yancey and Jessie and Barbara Zehr are retirees from a Mennonite community about halfway between Utica, New York and Canada. They drove nearly five hours to get to Barre. And Barbara Zehr said they’re in Vermont to do whatever needs doing.

“We’re hands on people,” she said. “We like to work with our hands, and if they tell us we have to put up insulation, show me how, I’ll do it.”

Yancey said sleeping on a cot for a week, and working for free on other people’s houses, is an act of kindness born of her faith.

“We always use the example of Jesus, and his love for humanity and loving your neighbor more than yourself, and that is the action speaks louder than words,” she said.

The volunteer crews that have traveled here have provided more than 7,000 hours in free labor since July. Molind said the recovery effort will continue until their work is no longer needed. And he said he already has teams booked to arrive in spring for some of the hardest cases.

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