BRATTLEBORO — Rep. Peter Welch was in town on Friday, visiting with care providers at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, checking out a performance at the New England Center for Circus Arts and meeting with the organizers of a BIPOC-specific CSA at the Retreat Farm.
The message he took away from the visit was that when the going got tough this past year, people across the community pulled together to weather the pandemic storm.
“It’s truly humbling to listen to you and hear what you did,” Welch said during the meeting at BMH. “There was no roadmap. Everybody had to find a way and you had to do it when you were getting the same warnings about how contagious and how fatal this disease was. You had a lot of responsibility for the people who were depending on you.”
The attendees at the BMH meeting included Josh Davis, executive director of Groundworks Collaborative; Matt Dove, BMH’s pyschiatric nurse practitioner in the emergency department; Louis Josephson, the CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat; George Karabakakis, executive director of HCRS; Jennifer Funaioli-Sheehan, BMH’s director of acute care for nursing homes and assisted living facilities; Wichie Artu, the VP of NAACP-Windham County; Drew Hazelton, chief of Rescue Inc.; and Eilidh Pederson, BMH’s COO.
“Since last March, we’ve accomplished something unprecedented,” said Davis. “Agencies like Groundworks across the state, in partnership with our state partners, effectively ended homelessness in Vermont. ... For a brief moment, we accomplished something that we as advocates have been working toward for years: Everybody in the state had access to shelter.”
He also noted that Vermont’s homeless shelters had a minimal number of COVID-19 cases, “preventing the nightmare scenario of COVID running rampant through our shelter system.”
But, said Davis, the response to the pandemic was only a temporary relief. As programs and funding wind down, people without shelter will once again be out on the streets.
“Despite unprecedented resources designed to support people exiting the motel program to housing, including subsidies, support services and move-in resources, there simply are not available places for people to rent,” he said.
To serve some of the most challenging clients, those with mental health issues or substance abuse problems, Groundworks worked with BMH, HCRS and the Brattleboro Retreat to establish Healthworks.
Dove said Healthworks was set up to reach people who weren’t coming in for care.
“It wasn’t about how patients access care, it was about how care can access patients,” he said. “We are moving the dial on improving the health of the most vulnerable and marginalized. We are making a difference ... It’s been truly inspirational to see the way Groundworks, HCRS, the Retreat and BMH have come together to improve the lives of those suffering in our community.”
Post-pandemic, said Dove, he hopes to keep Healthworks running and to keep the team operating and to expand the scope of its mission. That would require funding from the federal government.
“After a period of one to two years of investment it would reach an economy of scale for billing and would blossom into a completely self-sustaining program in the state,” said Dove. And if that might appear expensive, said Dove, “For less than the cost of one [emergency department] visit, we could fund an entire month of services that includes doctors, nurses, social workers and case managers.”
The Retreat’s Louis Josephson said there is “a tsunami of mental health needs headed our way” now that life is getting somewhat back to normal.
People, children included, have been waiting for the pandemic to end to access mental health care, he said.
The Retreat may not be ready to handle that influx, though, he said, because it has lost about 125 staffers who, fearing for their own health, left the Retreat.
“Our challenge was, at the same time, presentation for in-patient care went way down,” he said. “People were staying home, suffering from home, not getting care. We’ve struggled to come back from that because of healthcare workforce issues. ... We’ve got the capacity, I need the people.”
Currently, the Retreat is at about half of its normal in-patient levels and even has a new unit that he can’t open because he doesn’t have enough staff or enough clients.
A bright spot in the pandemic, said Josephson, was that the Retreat did not have a single COVID positive patient.
“We ran really clean,” he said.
Hazelton said EMS across Vermont went to where people lived to provide care.
“The most significant role we played in the pandemic was the vaccine program,” he said.
Very early, said Hazelton, providers realized there was a very vulnerable home-bound population that needed access to vaccinations. Across four counties, he said, Rescue personnel traveled 50,000 miles to bring vaccines to 5,000 people.
“Early in the vaccination process we figured out we had a very vulnerable, home-bound population, which was largely turned over to EMS as their role,” said Hazelton.
Rescue Inc. and other EMS services around the state set up clinics for “hard to reach people” at mobile home parks, probation and parole offices, homeless shelters, nursing homes, and rest areas and state parks across the state.
He noted like everyone else, EMS is struggling to fill its ranks.
“We lost 20 percent of our workforce last year, statewide,” said Hazelton. “Unfortunately, all EMS education was stopped during the pandemic. There’s nobody coming in to EMS in Vermont right now.”
Before meeting at BMH, Welch visited the New England Center for Circus Arts where he learned how valuable the Payment Protection Program was for the facility.
NECCA received in two installments for a total of nearly $300,000, which helped keep 60 people on payroll when no out-of-state income from programs and workshops was coming in and the summer camp program was canceled last year, said Jenna Struble, executive director.
“We could not have survived without our revenue stream from out-of-state visitors,” she said.
Tom Martyn, chief operating officer for Brattleboro Savings & Loan, said NECCA was “a poster child” for how the Payment Protection Program helped lots of small businesses survive.
He said BS&L, by itself, helped 415 businesses get $34 million in total funding in two rounds. Those businesses ranged from sole proprietors to companies with more than 50 employees.
“These businesses could not have survived without the program,” said Martyn.
Just before noon, Welch visited the Retreat Farm to learn about SUSU commUNITY Farm, an “Afro Indigenous stewarded farm and land based healing center,” states its website, for Black, Indigenous and People of Color.
“We believe food, housing and things you need to survive should be seen as birth rights and not commodified,” said Farm Steward Amber Arnold. “All of our programs are about connecting people back with the Earth and back with the nourishment they need to survive, connecting with each other in affirming spaces for people of color to be in a community.”
This is the first year for this type of CSA in this area, said Farm Steward Naomi Doe Moody.
“There are some in the Burlington area, and some that are refugee specific,” she said. “This particular project is wider than that scope. We do a lot of educational programming and spiritual reconnecting to the Earth. It’s not just a gardening project. It’s about reparations and rematriation.”
“We grow culturally affirming foods,” said Arnold. “All of these are Afro-indigenous crops. A lot of them are seeds that have been saved by Black and Brown farmers. There are a lot of stories that go along with the plants. For a lot of people it’s not just about the food, it’s about connecting back with their lineage and having access to food that is relevant to them.”