PUTNEY -- A little more than 25 years ago Tom Ehrenberg was working as a counselor at Putney Central School and he became concerned when he realized that the school district was not able to provide all of the services he thought the families he was working with needed.
He was hearing from parents who were having trouble making ends meet and who could not come up with enough money to meet basic needs such as food, housing and heating.
But it was not only low income mothers and fathers who Ehrenberg thought needed support.
Families with two working parents were also overextended and stressed and Ehrenberg saw that they too could use assistance navigating school services as well as local, state and federal programs.
"I was finding that lots and lots of parents were at their wit's end," Ehrenberg said. "The services they needed were not there and they needed support. They didn't know what to do."
Ehrenberg consulted with the school principal and sent out a letter to town leaders, area social and mental health workers, members of nonprofit organizations and other Putney residents.
Ehrenberg said he did not have a plan or any expectations, but it was clear that if the families in Putney were going to get the support they needed it was going to have to come from within the community.
A meeting was called at the school and Ehrenberg expected a dozen or so people to show up.
Almost 50 people showed up that night, filling the school library.
They talked for two hours, formed a committee, and a few weeks later Putney Family Services was formed.
For the past 25 years, Putney Family Services has been operating on a shoestring budget, leveraging local and state funding, and relying on hundreds of volunteer hours every year to assure that the children in Putney have everything they need to grow and succeed.
The group has been running the Putney Walk-in Clinic, it manages the town's White Whitney Fund, helped start the Putney Food Shelf and has started and managed dozens of after school programs through the years.
On Sunday, June 22, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Gleanery in Putney, the public is invited to celebrate Putney Family Service's 25th anniversary.
The gala will also recognize Ehrenberg, and fellow board member Jacqueline Lichtenberg, who are both resigning from the Putney Family Services Board of Directors after serving for all 25 years of the organization's history.
Ehrenberg said from early on there was feeling among the organizers that many of the obstacles families were facing could be overcome with support from within Putney.
President Ronald Reagan's administration, Ehrenberg said, had stripped many of the social programs that helped families and the state, as well, was reducing budgets.
"The message from Washington and from Montpelier was explicit. It was not subtle," Ehrenberg said. "If anybody was going to help these families it was going to be Putney. Our only option was to do it ourselves."
In the organization's first years the volunteer board would meet at once a week at 7 a.m. and all of the programs were run by volunteers.
Lichtenberg said there was no blueprint for running a group like Putney Family Services and no expectations.
The group would meet to talk about the issues they were encountering and then try to come up with local programs that met those needs.
"We called them our eggs," she said. "We would put our eggs into a basket and see which ones hatched."
Lichtenberg, who is a licensed clinical social worker, spent time visiting families, using her professional skills and then creating classes that could help the families.
"We would ask the families what we could do to help," she said. "Some of it worked and sometimes we had to give up on our plans but everyone wanted to keep trying."
At first all of the work was done by volunteers, and after a few years the board began talking about becoming a nonprofit organization and hiring a director.
Ehrenberg said there was some disagreement among the board members about that decision.
Some of them thought it was important to put every dollar into programming while others realized that it was not sustainable to rely on professionals who were busy enough with their own careers and families.
A part-time director was hired and today a full time director works at the organization with a few part time staff members
Through the years, Ehrenberg said, Putney Family Services has been so successful due to its ability to remain local and small and respond directly to the needs of the community.
When programs were not successful they were canceled.
If other groups, like the school, could take on responsibilities they were handed over, sometimes so that supervisory union or state or local money could be used.
"The truth is that every small community can do a tremendous amount on their own," Ehrenberg said. "This started with a group of local people coming together to meet a need, and it's worked."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.