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Community comes together for Brooks House at downtown party

A letter from Kasnitz about the Saturday event appears in this week’s Voices section. Additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

BRATTLEBORO—Elliot Street became party central Friday night as people kicked off the “Unity for Community” weekend with “ A Brooks House Party” celebration, with two celebrations raising approximately $15,000 to benefit the former residents of the Brooks House get back on their feet.

Friday on the street

BRATTLEBORO—Musical groups Sugarhouse and Friends, the Stockwell Brothers, R.T.M., and Cool Beans entertained revelers at the corner of Elliot and Main streets. The town recognized its emergency responders, and Congressman Peter Welch, D-Vt., spoke about the importance of a healthy downtown in Brattleboro.

The party coincided with Gallery Walk. It served as an opportunity to remind area residents to enjoy downtown and support their neighbors by shopping locally.

Friday’s event also raised money for the United Way of Windham County’s Brooks House Fund, created to help meet the needs of those displaced by the mid-April fire that rendered the downtown landmark and economic anchor uninhabitable for the 60 residents and 10 businesses that called the Brooks House home.

Unity for Community was a collaboration of local media, Building a Better Brattleboro, Brattleboro Development Credit Corp., the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, the Red Cross, and the United Way of Windham County.

A staple through an electrical wire sparked the five-alarm fire that broke out on the 1871 building’s upper floors on April 17. Firefighters successfully evacuated all tenants and prevented the fire from spreading to the other buildings on Main and High Streets.

Volunteers walked the area with buckets to collect money for the Brooks House fund.

Kate O’Connor, an event organizer, said that Entergy had just made a “very generous” $5,000 donation to the United Way of Windham County.

That night, she hoped volunteers would match the donation, even if they matched it with quarters.

By the event’s end, volunteers had collected $2,500 in donations, said O’Connor. Included in that amount was a $500 check from the American Legion.

O’Connor said she is waiting to hear about donations from the event’s corporate sponsors.

The town honored the responders from the police, fire, and public works departments who helped protect the people of the Brooks House and surrounding buildings.

“There’s not enough to do or say to you tonight to thank you for all that you have done,” said master of ceremonies, the Rev. Richard “Father Rich” O’Donnell, to the emergency responders.

Rev. O’Donnell is a chaplain for the Brattleboro Fire and Police departments, and pastor of St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church.

“These are the people who did all the work,” said Town Manager Barbara Sondag.

Emergency responders never get called on a good day, said Sondag, adding that it’s hard to gauge their success in the wake of huge disasters like the Brooks House fire.

But Sondag told the crowd that, during the fire and in the weeks since, the outpouring of support from the fire department, police, Red Cross, United Way, and community persuaded her that, despite the loss of property, this community has successfully responded to the Brooks House fire.

“It’s a beautiful experience to see,” said Sondag.

Sondag presented Fire Chief Michael Bucossi with a photo by Jason Henske. It was taken during the fire, and shows a firefighter on a ladder, silhouetted against the blaze. She also presented Bucossi with a William Hays lithograph of the pre-fire Brooks House cupola.

“Because that’s what you saved,” Sondag told him.

Welch credited the responders' training and teamwork. “We were allowed to take for granted that they would be there,” he said.

Welch relayed an experience from a visit to Brattleboro the day after the fire.

He said he spoke to a resident who had lived in the Brooks House for many years. The resident told him how painful it was to try and salvage his belongings from his old apartment, and spoke of the uncertainty of his future. But, the resident told Welch, he felt so good about the firefighters who entered his apartment on that Sunday night and saved his life.

Welch also talked about how, like “typical New Englanders,” no one from the town or emergency services would take credit for their amazing response to the disaster.

The Brooks House will be “the proud anchor of Brattleboro again,” said Welch. “One way or another.”

In a separate interview, Welch said that the Brattleboro community has worked hard to help itself, and he viewed the federal government as having a “partnership” role in the rebuilding of the Brooks House.

About the efforts at the federal level, Welch added, “We’re really in the due diligence phase.”

Welch has described the Brooks House as an “anchor” for Brattleboro’s downtown. He said his staff is exploring existing funding sources, such as downtown and rural development programs, for monies to help displaced residents and to rebuild.

Despite the “ferocious meat cleaver” budget cuts happening at the federal level, Welch noted that reinvesting in local communities is important.

“We want to make certain we leave no stone unturned,” he said.

Saturday concert

The next act in the Unity for Community weekend came the next day, which brought a long list of regional musical acts to the River Garden for 12 hours.

People streamed in and out of the River Garden starting at noon to hear performances from a wide variety of acts: Bill Shontz, Jennie Reichman , Flabberghaster, Lisa McCormick, Electric Fence, David Williamson, Blackjack Crossing, Serenata de Bossa, Mo Ambesa, The Likely Odds, VJC Latin Jazz Ensemble, Hot Mustard, Clayton Sabine, Spike Dogtooth, Groove Prophet, Fenibo, Smiley Bob Inc, Groove Shoes, GirlandPiano, Wyld Nightz, Free Pyle, and SugarHouse.

With a number of businesses donating food, beverages, and other services, all money raised was able to go to the United Way’s Brooks House fund — in all, approximately $7,000, according to a Facebook post from Cider Magazine, one of the event’s many media sponsors.

“I'll confess, the hugeness of the day was as exhausting as it was exhilarating,” wrote WKVT radio host Steve West, one of the masters of ceremonies.

“Not only was money collected for people who genuinely, deeply need it, but we had a head-to-toe, full-on celebration of being from here and being of good hearts,” he continued.

“Despite persistent evidence leaning to the contrary, we stated full-throatedly that people really don’t suck,” West added.

The Saturday event was orchestrated by Daniel Kasnitz, Greg Worden, and Cyndi Cain Fitzgerald.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #100 (Wednesday, May 11, 2011).

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