Becca Balint: Our rural life full of beauty and challenges

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The storm was going to be a big one; forecasters predicted 18-24 inches over several days. I needed to get the last of the wood stacked and move several days' worth of wood onto the back porch. I was eager to begin; I need these rituals. Despite the hard work — or perhaps because of it — they're meditative and connect me with the rhythm of the season and the tempo and cadence of a rural life.

Vermont's rural character is a tremendous gift to all of us. My children have an understanding of agriculture and a deep appreciation of the beauty of the forests and the working landscape. And they love to swim in the Rock River and look for crayfish and salamanders and pollywogs. When we're all stretched out on boulders in the sun — "lizarding" I call it — and listening to the rush of the river and the laughter of other swimmers, everything feels exactly right. But like all my legislative colleagues in Windham County, I worry about our rural communities and the lives of our constituents.

We are a rural county, and our challenges mirror those of rural communities across the nation. According to a Pew Research Center report from May 2018, "What Unites and Divides Urban, Suburban and Rural Communities," rural counties — particularly in the Midwest and Northeast of the U.S. — are losing people. We have higher death rates than birth rates, and more people are moving away than moving in. Pew Research studied 1,969 rural counties; almost 1,200 of these counties have fewer people employed today than they did 20 years ago.

A 2017 report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also indicates that residents of rural areas tend to be older and sicker than their urban and suburban counterparts. About 15 percent of Americans live in rural areas, and these residents have higher rates of smoking, obesity and high blood pressure. They also have higher rates of poverty and less access to healthcare. The CDC report also shows that unintentional injury deaths are much higher in rural areas than in urban areas. One factor is that immediate access to care can be more challenging for people injured in rural areas. We're so fortunate to have Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, the Brattleboro Retreat, and Grace Cottage Hospital in our county.

Yesterday, at a legislative breakfast at Grace Cottage Hospital in Townshend, we discussed many critical issues facing the hospital, including: the need to increase its primary care capacity; the very low Medicaid reimbursement rates; and the lack of affordable housing in the area. But we also discussed the bright spots: Grace Cottage serves 7,000 patients annually and was recognized in 2017 and 2018 as a Top 20 Critical Access Hospital in the nation for patient satisfaction by the National Rural Health Association. It's a lifeline and source of medical support for so many individual residents in Windham County, but it's also a vital part of our community.

It's a community hub that offers channels of contact along with healthcare. From its Alzheimer's Caregiver support group to its Chair Yoga classes and its Living Alone support group, Grace Cottage is a critical community connector. And it understands that the incredible strength of our rural communities lies in its people.

Over cups of coffee and a good, hot breakfast, we swapped stories and concerns, laughter and strategies. But this coming together was also about simply, powerfully reaffirming our commitment to our rural communities. Our beautiful valleys are the vessels that hold our much more precious resource: all our neighbors who are bound together through the cycle of the seasons and the rhythm of a rural life.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate Majority Leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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