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‘She gave her all’

Melinda Bussino, tireless advocate for the homeless, dies at 65

With additional reporting from Commons reporter Allison Teague.

BRATTLEBORO—Melinda Holden Bussino of Westminster West, the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Drop In Center, died Sunday morning at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. She was 65.

Bussino had been hospitalized since Feb. 25 after suffering a massive heart attack while swimming laps at the Colonial Hotel’s pool on Putney Road.

She has been the executive director of the Drop In Center since January 1989. The daytime shelter on South Main Street serves as a community food shelf and offers support services to people who are homeless. She also helped establish the Overflow Shelter at the First Baptist Church on Main Street in Brattleboro.

Bussino was known throughout the state for her tireless work on behalf of those in need. In a 2010 interview with The Commons, Bussino spoke of how she and her staff are faced every day with people who have given up hope, and how it is their job to help bring it back.

“Sometimes hope is all they have,” she said.

Bussino said that probably the most important part of what the Drop In Center offers is camaraderie and interaction with people who will not look down on or through them, and will look them in the eye.

“The homeless people in our world are invisible,” she said. “Most want to be invisible [because of shame and guilt], and it can become a way of being. When people come here, they are treated respectfully. No one is turned away.”

“I am surprised every day by the overall basic goodness of people,” Bussino continued. “Every day, one of my staff, a volunteer, someone in the community, one of our clients, or a stranger will do something that keeps my faith in people going.”

Tributes from friends, colleagues

State Rep. Mike Mrowicki, D-Putney, knew Bussino for nearly two decades, and as executive director of Putney Family Services since 1989, he had a special insight into her work.

“She dealt with a lot of people no one else wanted to work with,” he said. “But a lot of the people who now work at the Drop In Center started out on the other side of the counter.”

“I don’t know how she managed it all,” said Mary Ide. the regional manager of Vermont Adult Learning. “It was a Herculean task she performed. She was it, the face of the Drop In Center. She wasn’t just doing the day-to-day work. She had her hands on the pulse of everything, The rest of us pale compared to her.”

Ide said that Bussino “was absolutely straightforward with people. She dealt with a wide range of people, but she always was evenhanded and was always an advocate for those in need.”

Kim Nace of Brattleboro, a volunteer at the Overflow Shelter, said Bussino had a knack for getting people to pitch in to help.

“She gave her all to all those people, and inspired the rest of us to try to do the same,” Nace said.

Cynthia Terzariol, parish administrator of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Brattleboro, has worked with Bussino for more than 10 years at the Drop In Center and the Overflow Shelter.

“Melinda gave so freely of herself — days, nights, weekends — and would go all over the state to speak to any group who might help her people out,” Terzariol said. “She wore herself out and literally gave her life for the cause.”

At the same time, Terzariol said, Bussino was no pushover.

“No one could pull the wool over Melinda’s eyes,” she said. “She was a realist. She knew the obstacles her clients faced, and she did whatever she could for them. It’s going to take more than one person do do all the jobs she does.”

Dan MacArthur of Marlboro has volunteered at the Overflow Shelter, mostly on the 1-7 a.m. shift, for nearly all of its existence, and marveled at the way she could defuse a tough situation.

“Even when there was potential friction, she just waded in and did it,” he said. “Nothing wasn’t considered ‘Melinda’s job,’ she just did what needed to be done. Her boots were always on the ground. It simply is impossible for most people to figure out how to do all the things she did.”

And MacArthur said the people she served were grateful for that determination and hard work.

“One guy said to me last week, ‘Without Melinda, I’d still be running around barefoot,’” said MacArthur.

The Rev. Barbro Hansson, pastor of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Brattleboro, said four words could sum up Bussino: “Confidence, competence, compassion, and can-do,” she said. “Especially the can-do part.”

“She grew the Drop In Center and, at the same time, grew with it,” Hansson said.

“She was way too young to be taken away from us. The town has lost one of its pillars, and the homeless have lost their best and most compassionate advocate,” she said.

A native Vermonter

A sixth-generation Vermonter, Bussino was a 1964 graduate of Brattleboro Union High School. She graduated with B.A. in psychology from Keene State College in 1968 and worked as a casework supervisor and community organizer in New Hampshire before returning to Brattleboro in the late 1980s to help start up the Drop In Center.

Bussino has served as the governor’s appointee on the Housing and Urban Development Consolidated Planning Committee and the Vermont Interagency Council on Homelessness. She has previously chaired the State Affordable Housing Coalition, Vermont Protection and Advocacy Board, and the board of the Vermont Campaign to End Childhood Hunger.

She also served as the Westminster commissioner on the Windham Regional Commission (WRC). Since 2008, she served as the chair of the nonprofit regional planning agency’s board of directors.

“Melinda was a great model for what it means to be a caring Vermonter,” said Lew Sorenson of Dummerston, who served with Bussino on the WRC. “She was an amazing advocate for any individual with a need as well as community needs for the entire Windham region.”

According to family spokesman Larry Smith, funeral arrangements are being handled by Ker Westerlund Funeral Home in Brattleboro. A visitation is scheduled for Friday from 4-7 p.m. at the funeral home on High Street. A memorial service will be held on Saturday at 1 p.m. at the First Baptist Church. A private burial service for family members will be held on Sunday.

“The family wishes to thank everyone for their prayers and thoughts throughout this very difficult week,” Smith said on Sunday.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #142 (Wednesday, March 7, 2012).

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