BRATTLEBORO -- It was not an easy decision for Lucie Fortier to decide to take over as executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center.
Fortier worked with Melinda Bussino for more than 10 years, first as a board member and then as coordinator of the winter overflow shelter.
Bussino was the heart and soul and brains behind the Drop In Center and Fortier understood that if she took over after Bussino's untimely death earlier this year, there would be challenges beyond writing grants, balancing the budget and serving the area's homeless and low income population.
"I can't take away what Melinda did here. I don't want to erase anything she did but we can grow it. We can make it better,"
After founding and running the Drop In Center for more than 20 years, Bussino was a mother figure to many of the people who used it and Fortier knew that if she took the job, somewhere along the way she would have to make decisions that might not be popular.
Still, when it was time to replace Bussino and Fortier was offered the position, something deep down inside of her told her that she was the right person to take up the mission that Bussino had been leading since 1989.
The Brattleboro Area Drop In Center Board of Directors named Fortier as the executive director as of July 1. She had been serving as interim director almost since Bussino was hospitalized after
Fortier first got involved at the Drop In Center about 10 years ago when she decided to serve as a board member. That decision came after she took a trip to New York City with her church to serve the homeless at a mission on the Bowery. That experience in New York opened her eyes to the struggles of the less fortunate.
When she got back to Vermont and spoke with a church member about people in her own community who needed help, she found out about the center.
Through the years she got more and more involved as a volunteer while keeping her paying job as an office manager at a public relations firm.
When Bussino helped start the overflow shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street in Brattleboro, Fortier became the volunteer coordinator.
About one-and-a-half years ago, while Fortier was training to be a deaconess and needed to work with the less fortunate as part of the training, Bussino gave her a part-time paid position at the Drop In Center.
Fortier never imagined that she would someday be sitting behind the executive director's desk on the second floor of the South Main Street office.
After Bussino's heart attack Fortier began to realize the trust that had built up between her and the clients over the years. While the clients were looking for support as Bussino was dying, they gathered around Fortier, and at Bussino's memorial many of them sat with Fortier.
When they anxiously asked Fortier what would happen to the overflow shelter and the Drop In Center, Fortier promised them that they would be safe and taken care of.
"They knew I was telling them the truth," she says. "It was a very tough time for everyone. They were taking it hard and I had to be strong."
After Bussino died, Interim Board President Jeff Morse said the board realized quickly that the right person to replace her was already working for the organization.
"She has a good work ethic and the staff loves her," Morse said. "We knew her well and we wanted to make her the new director."
Morse said the board realized that it would be a challenge for the next director to follow Bussino while forging her own path, and he said Fortier was the right person to do that.
"To lead the Drop In Center you sometimes have to be tough and soft at the same time and Lucie can do that," Morse said. "She understands the mission and does it with love in her heart. She has stepped in and has done a marvelous job. She has made it her own."
When Fortier was offered the position she had to think hard about leaving the job where she had been for 21 years.
"I thought and I prayed," she said. "This is a big job, and there are big shoes to fill. How was I going to be able to stand up to the community."
Since taking over, Fortier admits that there have been some tough decisions to make.
After 24 years, Bussino had her policies and ways of doing things, and with some tough economic times looming Fortier has been forced to make some decisions that were not popular.
She said even though she is not looking to forget Bussino, she is committed to making the Brattleboro Area Drop in Center as stable and as strong as it can be.
"I have some big dreams but I know it is not going to happen over night," she says. "We can have dreams. We can have goals. I know there are going to be challenges, but I am up for a challenge. I want to make this whole community a better place to be."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311 ext. 279.