BRATTLEBORO—It was one of the mantras of 2020 — “We are all in this together.”
The COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed everything in Vermont, and the nation, last year. But the ethos of community and cooperation, the hallmark of how the people of this state always respond to big challenges, stood out above all else.
That spirit was honored by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce at its annual meeting on Jan. 21, when it gave a collective Person of the Year award to what outgoing president Tracey John called “all of the unsung heroes in our corner of southern Vermont who rose up to support their neighbors and keep our community moving forward” in 2020.
Interim Executive Director Greg Lesch told The Commons that “we tossed around so many names — all worthy!”
But, he said, “in times like these, people’s true colors reveal themselves, and there are so many worthy people and businesses out there who have helped and are still helping us all get through this.”
While the Chamber has annually given out a Person of the Year award since 1954 to an individual who has had a positive impact on the community, Lesch said that it “eventually it became clear that we would be remiss if we singled one person out.”
That’s when Kate O’Connor — who recently stepped down as executive director after seven years at the helm — came up with the idea of a collective honor, and Lesch said “everyone loved the idea immediately. It was perfect.”
During the Jan. 21 virtual meeting, John said “we’ve all been challenged and more lies ahead, but over the last year — with ingenuity, perseverance, acts of kindness, and by coming together — our community has demonstrated that we can rise to and meet the challenge.”
She noted how businesses adopted new ways to address new needs; how “drive-by” celebrations became the new way to mark birthdays, retirements, and graduations; how nursing home staff became “substitute families” for residents isolated by the virus; and how people came together to do everything from making face masks for health care workers to creating a free meal distribution program — Everyone Eats! — that became a model for the rest of the state.
Other award winners
Gretchen Hardy, owner of The Porch Too on Putney Road and Hardy Foard Catering, was named the chamber’s Member of the Year.
“This business started as a little food porch, mostly servicing offices and warehouse staff throughout their workdays, putting smiles on their faces and gourmet food in their bellies,” said Chamber board member Nicole Braun. “This chamber member was always there, day in and day out.”
The Porch Too recently marked its fifth anniversary, while Hardy’s catering business celebrated a decade of operation. Braun called her “one of the nicest and most caring people” she’s ever met.
“That’s really sweet,” Hardy said upon receiving the award. “Thank you. It’s been a hell of a last couple of years.”
The person who runs another Putney Road eatery, Jon Julian, was honored as the Chamber’s Entrepreneur of the Year. Julian has operated the Top of the Hill Grill since 1997 and, for the last couple of years, opened a “soup shack” to sell soups, stews, and chili during the winter months when his barbecue restaurant is closed.
Newly elected Chamber president Gina Pattison, who presented the award, said Julian has made a point of mentoring dozens of young people — including her son, Jack — in the culinary arts over the past 24 years.
“I’ve always said Top of the Hill Grill is a team sport,” Julian said after getting the award, “and I couldn’t have done it without the wonderful staff that I’ve had over the years as well as the support of the Brattleboro community. It’s been a great ride and I look forward to continuing it.”
Chamber members celebrating milestone anniversaries included the Brattleboro Women’s Chorus (25 years), Howard Printing (30 years), Brattleboro Food Co-op (45 years), Berkley & Veller Greenwood Country Realtors (55 years), WTSA Radio (70 years), Cota & Cota (80 years), and Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters (88 years).