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Creating solid ground

Morningside Shelter and Brattleboro Area Drop-In Center announce merger

BRATTLEBORO—Two established organizations plan to rewrite the rules of mathematics.

In an effort to bring greater services to those struggling with homelessness, Morningside Shelter and the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center announced last Friday that they are merging.

The new organization is called Groundworks Collaborative. Their tag line is “Meeting Basic Needs With Dignity.”

“One plus one can equal three,” said Morningside Board President Carla Lineback.

For three years, said Linebeck, Morningside and the Drop In Center have asked, “How can we be a stronger organization?”

The answer: a merger.

Two can do more together than separately, she said.

The two organizations’ boards and staff unanimously approved the collaborative last week, said Lineback.

Conversations at recent community forums on homelessness have highlighted the need for additional shelter space and a larger day shelter in town to meet the growing needs of the homeless community.

At the May 22 press conference in the Brooks House atrium, Joshua Davis and Lucie Fortier outlined how their respective organizations will move forward with the merger. They spoke before a large crowd filled with staff from area housing organizations, various nonprofits, and community members, both housed and between housing.

Looking back, and forward

Davis and Fortier displayed both deep feelings for the legacies of their organizations that would soon end, and excitement for the future.

“Now that we’re here, it’s really emotional,” said a teary Davis.

Morningside, founded 35 years ago, houses 120 people annually, he said. A quarter of the residents are children 18 and under.

The merger brings practical solutions and powerful opportunities, said Davis, as the practical efficiencies of shared office space and reduced overhead will create an organization with a stronger political influence to change systems that keep people in poverty.

Fortier shared mixed emotions with the audience. After being involved with the Drop In Center for 15 years, Fortier likened the merger to losing an arm.

“I feel like I’m losing a part of myself,” she said.

Yet, Fortier added, Groundworks is exciting and will lead to exciting things.

“This is the birth of an era for Brattleboro with this new merged organization,” she said. “It will create a single entry point as well as streamline outservices for the clients. We can enhance our present programs and create new ones.”

Clients currently accessing services at Morningside or the Drop In Center will continue receiving services without interruption, said Davis.

In addition to providing shelter, the organizations also provide case management services, support for transitioning back into housing, and mental health support.

Groundworks will roll out new programs and developments over the next three years, he added. Services will encompass all the building blocks needed to live a healthy life: food, housing, jobs, and health.

Completing the merger and moving forward with programs will take an estimated $100,000, Davis said.

Through the help of organizations like The Thomas Thompson Trust, the Vermont Department of Economic Opportunity, United Way of Windham County, and individual donations, Groundworks has raised $80,000, said Davis.

The goal is to raise the remaining money by July 1, the start of the new fiscal year, he concluded.

Davis has served as executive director of Morningside for three years. He will become the executive director of Groundworks.

Fortier has worked with the Drop In Center in a variety of roles, including board member, volunteer, and now as executive director. She will become Groundworks’ associate director.

According to Fortier, the merger doesn’t mean layoffs. Instead, the new organization recently hired a new staff member.

More people need more, she said.

Groundworks will release its strategic plan this fall, Davis said.

Filling needs

According to Fortier, the Drop In Center opened its doors 27 years ago in the Harmony Parking Lot. The center offered a place for homeless or at-risk individuals to receive “basic services,” including using the telephone or restroom, getting snacks, using a mailbox, or finding a warm, dry place in bad weather.

The center operates the second largest food shelf in Vermont, she said. Daily, it serves an average of 90 to 110 people.

From July 2014 through April of this year, the center has provided 27,336 bags of groceries to 12,643 people, Fortier said.

The center also sheltered 196 individual people in its Emergency Winter Shelter this season between Nov. 2, 2014 through May 1, 2015.

Fortier said that this winter she saw a new trend of more young people using the shelter.

A client of the Drop In Center said that the day shelter “literally saved my life.”

Steven Palmer moved to Brattleboro from Bennington to “start life somewhere different.”

Unfortunately for Palmer, a lack of housing and mental health difficulties left him in a place where he didn’t care if he lived or died.

Over recent months, he said that the Drop In Center helped him enroll in a housing program and receive counseling.

The staff’s support made the difference for Palmer who said without the center he would probably be dead.

“They really care,” he said. “If you want to help yourself, they want to help you.”

Taking a wider view

Paul Dragon, chief administrator for the state Office of Economic Opportunity, called the merger “an uncommon and extraordinary moment in the nonprofit world.”

He commended the two organizations for their courage in leaving the security of their individual centers for a “better and more powerful” collaborative.

Groundworks asks hard questions of itself, he said. While most nonprofits ask what they should do, they never ask why they exist and what is their purpose.

Nonprofits make mistakes sometimes when trying to solve the issue of poverty, said Dragon. They focus on the one action they can take rather than the larger systems creating poverty.

As an example, Dragon spoke about his time in the Republic of Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer.

The people in the village he was stationed in suffered from malnutrition, Dragon said. In an effort to solve the problem, he launched a baby weight program.

Every week mothers brought their babies to him to be weighed. But eventually the mothers stopped coming, Dragon said.

“Who wants to weigh their children when you don’t have the food to feed them?” he said.

Tracking babies’ weight does not solve malnutrition, he said.

Looking around the village, Dragon said he observed disused water wells. Installed by another nonprofit to bring water to the village, he said, the residents eventually stopped using the wells because they didn’t have backup parts for the pumps, or methods to halt waterborne diseases.

The wells, like the baby weight program, only focused on the immediate issue, not the entire system, Dragon said.

With such thinking, “you end up with homeless shelters that don’t lead to housing,” he said.

Davis said that the United Way of Windham County initially asked him and Fortier how the two organizations could work more closely. One event to grow from the organizations’ collaboration is Camp for a Common Cause.

Camp for a Common Cause is an overnight campout at the Brattleboro Common. The event raises awareness about homelessness. Funds raised benefit the Groundworks Collective. The community is invited to the event on May 29 on the Common. Pitching tents start at 4 p.m., followed by a community barbecue with live music from Groove Prophet at 6 p.m. Dinner tickets are $10. Kids 12 and under are $5.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #307 (Wednesday, May 27, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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