Creating community amid crisis — and beyond
Juliette Carr, currently studying in a Georgetown University program to become a family nurse practitioner, considers the concept of neighbors helping one another as “nonprofessional nurse advocacy.”

Creating community amid crisis — and beyond

West River Valley Mutual Aid is keeping neighbors together through the COVID-19 crisis — and designing a network to keep meeting the area’s needs long after the pandemic

NEWFANE — Energetic Juliette Carr has had quite a year, making an impact not only in her own right as a young health professional, but also on her community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An online student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the nurse, community activist, and herbalist will graduate in August from the School of Nursing and Health Studies with a master's degree as a family nurse practitioner.

Carr and two neighbors, Kate Gehring and Gloria Cristelli, also co-founded West River Valley Mutual Aid (WRVMA), a neighbors-helping-neighbors grassroots program that has filled a real need.

When the three founded West River Valley Mutual Aid, it was a direct response to the way COVID-19 was affecting the community.

Carr describes the towns and villages of the West River Valley as “very rural, largely low socioeconomic status, largely elderly [community] with many disadvantaged young families [...] so we felt like we needed more community support. It's basically neighbors helping neighbors. It's pretty cool.”

She said WRVMA operates under the assumption “that we all need help sometimes and we all have something we can offer sometimes, and sometimes being able to offer help to someone else can make a hard situation less difficult - what in nursing we would call 'self-efficacy.'”

In addition to helping meet basic needs, the group is working on several anti-racist, anti-bias initiatives and also works with the local parent-teacher organization in a welcome program for those with children who have moved to town during the pandemic to match families with friends for their kids.

“It's not perfect [...] but there was nothing,” says Carr.

Advocating for health equity

In her Georgetown course “Health Policy and Advocacy,” Carr drafted a final project around food equity and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefits, a U.S. Department of Agriculture food program.

Her idea was well received and Carr took a chance, sending it to Vermont state Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Addison-4, a registered nurse and a longtime advocate on health care issues.

Carr's proposal resonated, and Cordes introduced a bill before the Vermont House of Representatives, one to study a proposal to make WIC benefits redeemable at farmers markets to “promote equity, address health disparities and rural food deserts, and [to serve] as an economic stimulus directing federal funds to small farms,” Carr says.

The bill has been referred to the Committee on Human Services.

Carr has spoken on behalf of the Vermont chapter of the American Nurses Association at the State House and been asked to join the union's legislative committee.

She is also one of 53 people nominated for a 2021 Emerging Leader Award.

According to an email to nominees from the Southern Vermont Young Professionals and Shires Young Professionals, the awards “will highlight those young professionals who went above and beyond during this unprecedented time for our generation.”

Of her achievements, Carr says, “it was a surprise.”

“And then to be nominated for the Emerging Leaders thing - that was really flattering,” she says.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Carr has lived in Newfane with her husband, Henry, and their two small girls since 2013. She first lived in Newfane in 2005, but she and Henry left to travel and “always planned on coming back to Vermont to have a family.”

“I love it here,” Carr says. “The quality of life is amazing. My friends are here, we farm, I'm an herbalist. We have a really tight-knit community. When we didn't live here, we still came here every year to visit friends who have stayed. We just fit here.”

The family raises pastured heritage meats on their homestead farm, Reversing Farm, on the Rock River. The land stewards have protected their woods as a botanical sanctuary through a United Plant Savers grant and have a monarch waystation due to the amount of plants on the property that are friendly to the butterflies.

Carr teaches classes in the forest and is owner of Old Ways Herbal.

Being an online student, full-time mom, and health advocate, especially during a pandemic, has been challenging. However, Carr seems to have abundant stores of energy.

“It's been different from how we expected,” she says. “I'm in Zoom school all the time. I almost dropped out because I didn't know how I'd do this and take care of my children. Day care closed, preschool closed. It was me and my kids, 24/7. But, luckily, my kids are incredibly patient and awesome and understanding that mommy had to work.”

Neighbors helping neighbors

Carr thinks of the mutual aid endeavor as “nonprofessional nurse advocacy.”

“It's access to doctors' appointments, and medicine, and groceries. And things like, 'can you pay your power bill?'” she adds.

WRVMA now has a network email list of more than 200 folks from within the communities it serves.

“I'm on the steering committee and play an organizational role, and we have it organized into working groups,” says Carr. “So if someone needs a ride, it will go to one person, and if she can have it met immediately, she will, and if not, we'll put it out to the bigger group.”

When the trio started the program, the Vermont Foodbank “didn't even deliver out here,” she says. “Now they do.”

“But, in the beginning, there wasn't a lot going on for our isolated neighbors and young families who didn't have a lot of economic strength going into the shutdown,” Carr explains.

The group also advocated “hard, for like six months,” she says, to get West River Valley residents included in the Vermont Everyone Eats! program, a program launched in Brattleboro and - based on its roaring success and high demand - expanded throughout the state to commission food service businesses to produce to-go meals for residents during the pandemic.

“And we were accepted in December and have a distribution point out here, which is wonderful. So we have a whole volunteer network to deliver those meals.”

That's about 400 households. While WRVMA doesn't pay for the food or its production, members do all the legwork to make it happen.

“That's been very satisfying as an organizer, and the feedback from the community is very positive,” Carr said. “It's also happening at a time when there's almost no food to be purchased out here. I think there's currently one restaurant out here that's open, and [it's] income prohibitive. It's nice for people to have a little lift because the Everyone Eats! meals are from restaurants.”

Will WRVMA be sustainable without a crisis?

“I come from the historical perspective of having been the Town Clerk and a member of Newfane's Selectboard when Tropical Storm Irene struck,” says Cristelli. “The brunt of the storm damaged Williamsville and South Newfane. Most of the Emergency Management team was in Newfane at the NewBrook Fire Department. Most of the residents affected were in the other two villages.”

So Cristelli moved the Town Clerk's office and her duties to Williamsville Hall, “where others of like mind congregated to reach out and help those in need,” she says.

The Williamsville Hall Committee soon created an evening community meal, and some members of the Selectboard gave a report on what was happening and answered questions.

This community effort was not an official outreach from the town government, however, and after initial needs were met, the group disbanded and “went on their way doing their own thing,” Cristelli says.

The pandemic reinvigorated the need.

“When the implications of the effects of COVID-19 became clear, I thought that 'someone' would do something,” says Cristelli.

She said she sent emails to the then-chair of the Selectboard and its administrative assistant “to see what was being done or was going to be done to help neighbors who had needs, especially with loss of jobs and needing to be quarantined in the initial stage. No one from the Selectboard responded to me, so I decided to post a request on Front Porch Forum to see if others would respond to the need I saw.”

That's how she met Gehring and Carr.

“Mine was a narrow vision of NewBrook Neighbors, a hands-on direct response to neighbors' needs in the areas of food insecurity, providing rides, doing errands for people who could not get out, especially the most vulnerable,” Cristelli recalls. “Juliette and Kate knew more about mutual aid than did I, and they had more enthusiasm for going beyond the basics.”

“Because of this, I know that the West River Valley Mutual Aid will continue beyond the crisis of COVID-19,” she continues. “People have reached out with various and sundry needs from having a set of steps built, lawns mowed, snow shoveled, water delivered, and many rides needed for medical appointments, as well as shopping.”

And this time, they've structured it to last.

“Unlike the wonderful group that gathered to serve Newfane residents after Tropical Storm Irene, WRVMA has a structure in place that is flexible enough to accommodate needs along the West River Valley,” Cristelli says. “Admittedly, the brunt of work being done is in Newfane simply because the core group of volunteers are from Newfane.”

All three women note the group is always growing as new folks bring new ideas. From starting by helping one person get a box from the Foodbank's VeggieVanGo service, WRVMA now has one volunteer who picks up 23 or more boxes a month that are delivered to many who are not able to get out to get the food. The same is true for Farmers to Families food boxes, a nationwide program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I know my part in the group has to do with involvement with Senior Solutions as Newfane's representative on the Advisory Council,” Cristelli says, referring to the area's nonprofit council on aging that provides a constellation of support services to the older residents of southeastern Vermont.

“At times, requests for assistance from Senior Solutions blends into requests from neighbors in the West River Valley,” she continues. “My approach to life is that I do whatever it takes to get things done. If no one else can do it, I will.”

“I'm fortunate that way in that I am retired - although now have two paying jobs,” Cristelli says.

Cristelli takes care of much of the organizational detail, serving as a “sounding block” for Jeryl Julian Cisse, who coordinates the Everyone Eats! program in the West River Valley with the program director from Brattleboro, the program's regional hub.

“Having the distribution site in Newfane has been an important outreach for WRVMA volunteers,” she says. “It certainly is the most visible and on average we're distributing 225 meals twice a week.”

Cristelli calls the delivery service “a key part of the meals.”

“Volunteers bag meals and deliver them from Newfane to Townshend/West Townshend and even Jamaica and up Route 35 into the lower section of Athens,” she says. “We also go to Brookline and to Marlboro. Of the 225 meals given out, 55 go out by delivery.”

Some volunteers make phone calls to people who are lonely or have suffered recent loss - or both. School welcome bags greet families new to NewBrook Elementary School.

“The beauty of the mutual aid concept is that it grows as people become involved, have ideas, expertise, enthusiasm, and reach out to do something great for their neighbors,” Cristelli says.

“So will WRVMA survive and thrive even if there isn't a crisis?” she asks. “I shout out a resounding, 'Yes!'”

Cristelli said that's because the core group of people in Newfane “care and are willing to roll up their sleeves and do physical work, or open their computers to do organizing work, or open their pocketbooks and provide money for necessary things.”

“Now that we are known as the go-to organization - and even if some of us move away - one or more of us will be ready to get things done,” she says.

United Way of Windham County also contacted Cristelli at the beginning of the pandemic, and she has been working on an organizational chart of how the WRVMA serves people in need.

“With these details in place and being recognized by townspeople up the Valley, we will not just survive, we will thrive,” she says.

“The needs may differ, depending on the times through which we're going, but there will always be needs,” Cristelli says. “Also, what may seem like small needs to some - for example, delivery of water on a weekly basis to someone who lives without water and has no car - isn't something we announce from the rooftops.”

“Most people don't know, but the one who receives the water is thankful,” she adds.

Gehring is clear to emphasize that “many more people than the three of us are involved and have devoted a lot of time, energy, all manner of resources and ideas,” to make WRVMA the resource it is.

She also believes the group and its mission are here to stay.

“I think Mutual Aid will survive - and thrive - beyond the immediate Covid crisis,” says Gehring. “Much of the work we do has gone beyond direct Covid needs, in terms of direct need and community needs, and in terms of the interest in working together to support each other.”

“Projects shift as needs and opportunities change. We've already seen this over the past year,” she adds.

She said their community produce stands “were pretty quiet over the winter, but are taking shape again for this summer.”

Gehring said it turns out that 'last mile delivery' organizing “is really needed and I'm sure we'll continue.” But the community support goes beyond connecting people in need to goods and services.

“Our anti-racism working group took shape in response to racist graffiti last summer and led an effort to have the Newfane Selectboard address the issue,” she says. “It was fairly quiet for a few months and is now stewarding an effort to bring anti-bias training to town offices and residents who are interested.”

“Because our structure is flexible, we are bringing together community interests, capacity, and need,” Gehring says. “It will continue to grow and change along with community needs and interests.”

Silver linings

Gehring emphasizes that the chance to participate in such a “community-stewarded, community-focused effort has been galvanizing” and interest and participation continue to grow even as people think about returning to something beginning to resemble normalcy.

She is especially enthusiastic that mutual aid has offered a way for younger and older people to work together.

“Without preordained rules or goals, we are working with what we have among us, and what we need,” she says. “This means that everyone is useful and everyone has a place at the table.”

Gehring believes people involved in thinking about community through mutual aid has also become a way to “open up new ways of thinking about participating in community and civic life more generally.”

In addition to the anti-racism working group, members have formed the town governance working group that has had several projects focused on getting community members interested and engaged in town governance.

Recently, the Newfane Planning Commission asked her to participate in a panel about food insecurity, tapping into her knowledge and experience leading direct assistance efforts.

“Even as projects ebb and flow, [the WRVMA] continues to provide a forum for people to work together,” Gehring says. “There are no ideological, political, or bureaucratic hurdles to participating, and supporting the community isn't a means to some other end.”

“This lets us act as a bridge to other groups that serve the community, and this seems to be a valuable role,” she says. “The network will be in place if and when there's another crisis, and I think we'll be more resilient in facing whatever comes.”

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