Families First bouncing back after burglary

BRATTLEBORO — The Families First building is always busy and bustling.

Soft voices and giggles can be heard doing art in the yard, off a quiet back road overlooking Elliot Street. Inside, people are constantly moving. They're baking cookies or hanging flyers, and staff talk to each other with animated gestures.

It was surprising to the community when the building was burglarized. Someone broke through a window and wrote vulgarities on the whiteboard, before searching every inch of staff offices and stealing money that the Families First staff and their clients had raised themselves.

Families First is a nonprofit agency serving disabled adults and children and their families.

"We believe that children and adults with disabilities deserve the same opportunities as anybody else," Executive Director Julie Cunningham said. The organization supports the integration of people with disabilities into the community.

"Eighty percent of our adult clients have a job," Cunningham said. A lot of adults also spend time volunteering, she said. A couple of people have their own radio shows, while some help out Meals on Wheels and the Senior Center.

Families First has different activities from art to field trips. One year they went to the beach. "There were people there who had never been to the beach before," Stephanie Salasin, the program coordinator and Brattleboro office manager, said. Salasin also acts as a facilitator for a disability advocacy group run by the clients themselves.

"Really, what we believe is that people with disabilities have a lot to contribute to the community," Cunningham said. "So we facilitate that and the community benefits."

After the burglary, Cunningham and Salasin said that they felt unsafe. The office had been a safe space for their clients. Salasin used to be able to leave the office with caseworkers and clients still inside and ask them to lock up. Now, she said, she needs to know, personally, that every lock is secure before she can sleep at night.

In addition to the theft of the fundraising cash, the staff had to buy a $2,000 security system. It was installed within days of the break-in.

Afterward, Salasin took to Facebook. "I just knew that our community would pull through," she said. Sure enough, Families First received private donations and kind words of support. Salasin said the Facebook post had 8,000 views.

On Oct. 5, only six days following the Facebook post, the organization held another bake sale at the Vermont Welcome Center on Interstate 91 in Guilford. In addition to baked goods from staff and clients, community members donated baked items to sell. Salasin said the fundraiser went well. She, "lay it on thick," with the tourists, letting them know about the burglary. But she always spun it into something positive.

"We're pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps," she would say. Currently, Salasin said, the group is close to reaching its original goal.

After the fundraiser — an 18-hour day — she came back to the office to find postcards. They were from the Brattleboro Love Brigade. She showed them to Cunningham, who "oohed and aahed" in delight.

"Know that you are loved," Cunningham read from one.

The community support has only continued. On Oct. 20, Families First is hosting a FUNdraiser. Currently, Salasin has secured six bands to play. Tacos from Tito's Taqueria and macaroons from Amy's French Macarons will be sold, and Mocha Joe's has donated coffee for the event. Tito's Taqueria will even be donating part of its profit to Families First. There will also be a silent auction. The event is being held at 118 Elliot St. Tickets are being sold on Eventbrite for $10. You can find them at the Families First FUNdraiser event page on Facebook.

"We just want everyone to know how much we appreciate the community supporting us," Cunningham said. "I feel very fortunate."

Harmony Birch can be reached at 802-254-2311, ext.153. Or you can follow her @birchharmony.


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