BRATTLEBORO—The office of Brattleboro Area Drop In Center executive director Lucie Fortier sits on the second floor of the old house on South Main Street that the Drop In Center calls home.
Like so many things at the Drop In Center, it is a space that has been well used to the point of being threadbare. But soon, Fortier said, the space will be “cleaner and nicer to be in.”
That’s because the Drop In Center will be closing its doors later this month for a top-to-bottom clean-up and refurbishing.
“This is the first real work done to this space in more than 20 years,” she said, “and there are lots of things that haven’t been done in that time.”
As a result of the work, which will be done by volunteers, the Drop In Center will be closed, starting Wednesday, Sept. 18, at 5 p.m.
Fortier said the Drop In Center’s food shelf will set up temporary quarters at the First Baptist Church on Main Street for the rest of that week.
Fortier will be in a temporary office in a trailer at the Drop In Center until the work — which includes cleaning, painting, and fixing up the kitchen, laundry area, and showers — is complete by the following week.
“I’m looking forward to it, and so is the staff,” she said. “It will be airy and bright and not so dingy.”
It’s the biggest physical manifestation of the changes that have happened at the Drop In Center since the sudden death of its founder, Melinda Bussino, on March 4, 2012.
Fortier, one of Bussino’s assistants for the past 10 years, was appointed Bussino’s successor a couple of months ago. She knows the big role she now has to fill, namely continuing a vital institution that has been run by sheer force of will by a person who controlled almost every aspect of its operation until she died.
While Fortier has made some staff changes since she took over, one thing that hasn’t changed is the need. If anything, it keeps growing.
“We’re getting more and more of an array of people in urgent need,” Fortier said. “But we are still following Melinda’s model.”
That model is helping people navigate the maze of social service agencies and guide them through the paperwork needed to qualify for programs. Beyond that, said Fortier, it is simply getting people out of jams.
“We’re heading into the heating season soon, and that means we’re going to see a lot of younger families, as well as seniors, coming in to use the food shelf because they can’t afford to buy groceries and heat their homes,” said Fortier. “The rents keep going up, but the wages aren’t keeping up. That’s why hunger and homelessness is so persistent in Brattleboro.”
For example, Fortier said the successful “Load the Latchis” food drive on Aug. 31 yielded more than 750 grocery bags of food and personal care items. But almost everything that was collected in that food drive was gone within a week.
Six months after Bussino’s death, Fortier said the Drop In Center is “still plugging away” in dealing with the transition to a new leadership team.
“We’re caught up on our bills and everyone has gotten paid,” she said. “Now we have to get through the next few months.”
While the sprucing up of the Drop In Center is welcome, Fortier said what is really needed is another shelter in Brattleboro to supplement Morningside Shelter and the Winter Overflow Shelter.
“I have a dream of us having a bigger shelter, something with a bigger food shelf, meeting space, and all the other services people need under one roof,” she said.
But given the current economic situation, Fortier said she realizes just keeping the existing services available to those in need will be tough to do.
She said the real unemployment rate in this country — when you count the people who have stopped looking for work or are working part-time because that the only work they can get — is closer to about 15 percent, or nearly double the official national rate of 8.1 percent. And recent government figures show that nearly one in six Americans are living in poverty.
“How much longer can food shelves and shelters continue in these kinds of conditions with the resources we now have?” she asked. “We, and the rest of the nonprofits in this town, all go after the same donors, and the pot is growing smaller. In the long run, that hurts all of us.”
But Fortier and her staff are committed to the legacy left by Bussino of doing whatever it takes to serve those in need.
“People need to realize that while we can’t work miracles, we can show compassion,” she said. “When you’re hurting, to know that someone is listening to you and cares about you is important. I am never willing to say no to anybody if there is something I can help them with.”