Local Coronavirus Response Groups Contemplate Longer-Term Recovery
The local groups that sprang up across Vermont to help neighbors in crisis due to COVID-19 are now turning their focus toward longer-term economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
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So-called “mutual aid” groups have now formed in more than 150 towns. But the immediate needs that those organizations anticipated, such as grocery deliveries for instance, haven’t always materialized. And local coronavirus response teams are evolving their missions to address the economic dislocation that many rural communities now face.
Rebecca Sanborn Stone stood on Main Street in Bethel on a recent afternoon, with a small red stapler in her right hand.
Sanborn Stone is part of a new and informal network of local residents, called Bethel Strong, and she was tacking flyers onto a piece of white corkboard in the center of town.
"It's so hard to predict what this is going to look like and what the needs will be and what kind of response will be required. I don't think anyone knows that right now." - Rebecca Sanborn Strong, Bethel Strong
“A big focus here in Bethel has been getting information out to people about all the services and resources,” Sanborn Stone said. And one of the best ways to do that is a good old fashioned bulletin board.”
The information booth has web addresses for community resources, email contacts for services, and even a local hotline the group set up that’s usually answered by a Bethel Strong coordinator.
“And she’ll ask how we can help. Do you need groceries delivered? Do you need food? Do you need to chat and hear a friendly voice? Do you need information about unemployment, or where to go to get assistance with housing and rent?” Sanborn Stone said.
Sanborn Stone says local volunteers created this COVID response team from whole cloth, as soon as the severity of the crisis became apparent.
“It didn’t take long to get a core group of people on the phone and quickly lay out what we thought was needed for the next couple of months to respond to urgent community needs,” she said.
Sanborn Stone said demand for the more urgent services that group anticipated, such as delivery services, hasn’t been as high as she’d anticipated. And two months into the pandemic, members of Bethel Strong have turned their eyes to a longer horizon.
“It’s so hard to predict what this is going to look like and what the needs will be and what kind of response will be required,” Sanborn Stone said. “I don’t think anyone knows that right now.”
Versions of Bethel Strong have cropped up in communities across Vermont over the past eight weeks. Monique Priestley helped found the local mutual aid group in Bradford.
Priestley has been serving on local municipal boards and civic organizations in Bradford since she graduated college in 2009. She said she inherited the volunteerism gene from her mom.
“She volunteered at … the library and the church and did the parade and stuff like that,” Priestley said. “So … we grew up being the helpers.”
When COVID-19 began to threaten the health and livelihoods of people in her community, Priestley put out calls for volunteers. Within days, she said, more than 120 people signed on.
“There’s a lot of names that have signed up that are high schoolers, families that I know have never really been engaged, and then some older people that live on the backroads that haven’t been engaged, which is kind of cool,” Priestley said.
They now have weekly Zoom calls. And the group has become an officially designated town commission.
So far at least, Priestley said the group has more volunteers than people asking for their help.
“We thought people would be banging down the, you know, on the call line just begging for help, and we have not seen that,” Priestley said.
But Paul Costello, executive director the Vermont Council on Rural Development, said the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have only begun to manifest. His organization is working with 45 mutual aid groups across Vermont, and he said they could play a key role in helping communities respond to the challenges ahead.
“We’ve got broad unemployment. We have whole sectors that are challenged, everything from the dairy economy to our restaurants,” Costello said. “People are going to have to rally to support the future of our economy.”
That future is tenuous right now. More than 90,000 Vermonters have filed for unemployment since mid-March. And Stay Home orders have cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity.
Sanborn Stone said COVID-19 response groups can provide the “civic infrastructure” to recover from those losses.
“If we can build that infrastructure, then we’ll be much more prepared to collaborate and solve problems when they happen,” Sanborn Stone said.
Ten Unkles, who chairs the selectboard in Bradford, said he hopes his town can harness the surge of civic engagement to help that town weather the economic storm he thinks is still to come.
“Once the emergency abates, to keep this group going, to keep the coordination, the communication between all these different facets, that’s going to be the key,” Unkles said. “And it would be a shame to just let everything dissolve when the emergency is over with.”