BRATTLEBORO -- When Melinda Bussino died Sunday the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center lost its director.
Her children lost their mother, and the town of Westminster, where she lived, lost an active community member.
And the town of Brattleboro, Windham County, and the state of Vermont lost a tireless and powerful advocate for social justice.
She was most well known as the executive director of the Drop In Center, and the co-founder of the First Baptist Church Winter Overflow Shelter.
But during her almost 15 years of work at the Drop In Center, Bussino also helped countless individuals find work, or a meal to eat or a place to stay.
"She had a vision," her daughter Sarah Doyle said during an interview Monday. "Everyone had a piece of what it should be like that, but no one saw the bigger picture.
"No one else knew how she did it. She just kind of made it so," Doyle said. "When (the Drop In Center) moved onto South Main Street it was exactly as she wanted it. She felt it was important that it felt like a home for people who did not have a home. She worked hard, but she never resented it. She loved what she did."
Beyond the well worn walls and floors of the Drop In Center on South Main Street, Bussino's tireless organizational abilities would be seen across Windham County, and the whole state of Vermont, when an advocate was needed for those who did not have as strong a voice.
"She took her passion and
She worked with the annual Empty Bowls dinner and helped organize and support efforts to aid the homeless in Bellows Falls, and across the region.
"She was the most connected person I have ever known," said George Haynes, who co-founded Project Feed the Thousands, the Drop In Center's main annual fundraiser, 18 years ago with Larry Smith. "She knew everyone in Brattleboro and at the state and federal levels too. She was a leader. She knew what had to be done and she wouldn't rest until the work was finished."
From the very first days of Project Feed, Haynes said Bussino was the catalyst that kept the volunteers signed up and the donors, both large and small, committed.
She helped start a countywide group of advocates to make sure no one was duplicating services or missing a grant opportunity, and kickstarted an annual appeal for food and donation that would grow into Project Feed the Thousands.
Beyond all of that, she helped dozens, and probably hundreds of people understand their worth in a society that had cast them aside.
Six years ago William Davison was living in a tent along the Connecticut River.
Today he is assistant director of the Drop In Center, and lives in a house next door to where Bussino lived in Westminster.
Davison said Monday that it was impossible to imagine where he would be today without having had Bussino in his life.
"She gave me an opportunity to show what I could do," Davison said. "She knew I could do this and the rest is history."
"She always said that the clients come first. That's our mission," said Will Fay, who was recruited by Bussino to be a case manager. "The biggest disservice would be to close, for even one day on her account. That's not what she would have wanted. She always told us to focus on the client and that's what we are going to do."
Fay said the past week was very difficult for the staff, knowing that Bussino was in the hospital. He said while there were heavy hearts throughout the organization, Fay said everyone showed up for work Monday, knowing what needed to be done.
Bussino grew up in Windham County, and was quick to remind anyone that she was a seventh generation Vermonter.
Another prominent child of Windham County, Gov. Peter Shumlin, said Bussino's love of the people around her was one of the driving forces that led her into a life of public service.
"Melinda was a local kid who gave back to the community she loved," Shumlin said. "She did more for the poor, the homeless and hungry than anyone else I've known in Windham County She had boundless energy and she never let the enormity of the task let her down."
Melinda Bussino's family members, the Holdens, go back the 1700s, to one of the original settlers in Westminster.
She was born in Boston, and grew up in Brattleboro, in a house next door to her parents' antique store, Holden's Antiques, on Putney Road.
After attending local schools and graduating from Brattleboro High School in 1964 she received a degree in psychology from Keene State College in 1968.
She went to work in New Hampshire, for the Strafford County Community Action Agency, and met her future husband, Louis Doyle at a conference on homelessness and hunger in 1972.
They were married in 1974 and had two children.
The family moved to Waterbury, and Bussino raised her children, and step children, for a few years, until they moved back to Windham County and built a house on property on Windmill Hill that the Holden family had owned for more than two centuries.
Bussino lived there for the rest of her life.
In 1985 Bussino went to work as a secretary at the United Methodist Church.
A few years later Pastor Thomas Shanklin came up with an idea of starting a food shelf and Drop In Center for the homeless and hungry in the Brattleboro area.
Bussino had a bigger plan.
While Drop In Center board members started raising local money, Bussino stressed the importance of going after federal grants.
Early advocates wanted to open a food shelf, but Bussino knew there was a need for people to have a place to shower and do laundry, and just hang out and feel at home.
And while there were some who talked about the importance of keeping a lowkey profile, Bussino wanted the community to look hunger and homelessness in the eyes, and realize that the people who needed the Drop In Center were the same people who area residents saw every day in the street.
Bussino served on the board, and then in 1989, about a year after it opened, she became the executive director.
The first Brattleboro Area Drop In Center opened in Harmony Parking Lot, then moved to Arch Street, and finally to its present home on South Main Street.
For the next decade or so it became Bussino's home away from home.
In the following years Bussino would take part in countless organizations across the state.
She would help start advocacy groups and bring groups together so everyone was working in the same direction toward the same goal.
Fischesser served with Bussino on a number of local coalitions, many of which Bussino initiated, that brought everyone together into one room to address the many issues surrounding hunger and homelessness.
Anyone who would stop for a second and listen would end up working for her.
Vermont Food Bank Executive Director John Sayles said he was a little nervous when the statewide hunger organization moved down into Bussino's area.
Sayles said not only did Bussino welcome Sayles and his staff, but she made it clear that as long as they were working toward the same goal, that they would do so together.
"Melinda was amazingly welcoming and gracious when the food bank came down to southern Vermont," Sayles said. "It can be hard for nonprofits when the big dogs move in but she worked with us to make sure we could bring more support to people in the area. It's hard to overstate the importance that Melinda's work had on people in need in WIndham County."
Larry Smith, president of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center board, said the board is going to meet Friday to talk about hiring a new director.
Smith, on Monday, characterized Bussino as an army of one, and said it will be impossible to replace her with even three or four people, let alone one.
Bussino helped fill the board seats, and Smith said in her way she prepared the organization to carry on without her.
She helped the board members understand what their roles were, and filled the staff with competent and dedicated people who understand what the Drop In Center needs to do to survive.
"She was the public face of the Drop In Center, but she trained all of us to make sure we could do this job," Smith said. "She is irreplaceable, but we're not worried. We'll make it through."
A public memorial service for Bussino will be held this Saturday, March 10, though the time and location are still being worked out.
The Reformer will report the details as they become available.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.