A stepping stone to help community's needs

A stepping stone to help community's needs

Jennifer Tolaro-Heidbrink becomes executive director of Parks Place, an organization that links Bellows Falls area residents to essential services with warmth and dignity and in the familiarity and comfort of a Victorian home

BELLOWS FALLS — Jennifer Tolaro-Heidbrink, a lifelong area resident, has just been named the new executive director of Parks Place Community Resource Center, its fifth since the facility opened in 1995.

Though Parks Place was created more than a quarter century ago, Tolaro-Heidbrink says that people in the community and even some local officials are just not sure what the center does.

The organization's mission is “to create opportunities by connecting people and resources in the Greater Falls area.”

In practical terms, that mission statement has led to an incredibly broad offering of connections and services for the community.

Need to use a computer for email or an online meeting? Need to send a fax, fill out forms, or get a document notarized? You can do all that and much more at Parks Place.

Over the years, Parks Place has been the center for literacy programs, for help overcoming substance use, for support meetings for single parents, for men's groups and women's groups. The organization can also help people seek job training or employment or provide a place for mental health counseling for adults and children.

For many people facing a crisis in life, the place to start to find help is Parks Place.

“We're a kind of stepping stone to help you get what you need,” explained Office Manager Julie Cermola. “We're a connector with all sorts of other services.”

“Do you need help with fuel? We can do that,” she said. “The same with food and housing. Need a housing voucher? We can help. We direct people to where they can get help. To put it simply, if you have an issue, call on us and we'll help you figure it out.”

“One time we got a call because someone needed a furnace removed and they couldn't afford it,” Cermola said. “We made that happen.”

This is the Resource Center aspect of Parks Place's mission: providing all sorts of groups, state agencies, social service organizations, and private therapists a place to meet and work with clients: the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, the state Department of Children and Families and its Reach Up program, the state Department of Labor, Vermont Adult Education, the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, Alcoholics Anonymous, Greater Falls Connections, Health Care & Rehabilitation Services, Turning Point South, Springfield Supported Housing Program, Windham & Windsor Housing Trust, Southeastern Vermont Community Action, Youth Services, the Springfield Area Parent Child Center, Easterseals Vermont, and Everyone Eats.

Besides offering a place for other organizations to meet clients, Parks Place engages on community support activities on its own.

With the aid of local businesses and groups like Chroma Technology Corp., Sojourns Community Health Clinic, the Rotary Club of Bellows Falls, and Greater Falls Connections, Parks Place organizes a holiday gift program, food boxes that include turkeys for the holidays, and weekly food distribution programs.

One such program has been especially helpful to the region, particularly after Covid struck.

“We have the Time for a Change free diapers and wipes bank,” said Tolaro-Heidbrink. “People can come and get them Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. This was especially useful when we were experiencing diaper shortages at the beginning of Covid.”

Filling 'a black hole'

The history behind the opening of Parks Place goes back to 1992, when several community leaders, including Cathy Davignon, then-principal of Central Elementary School, Gloria Dawson, then-outreach director of SEVCA, and community activist Andy Broderick, recognized that many children of the greater Rockingham community were at risk of not having enough food, housing stability, and other basic life needs.

“Bellows Falls was known as a black hole as far as social services were concerned,” said Barbara Ternes, who would be brought in in 1994 as the first executive director of Parks Place and serve until 2015.

“Transportation was a big issue,” Ternes said. “There were services in Brattleboro and Springfield, but people from this area had to figure out how to get there.”

Ternes said that a community forum to discuss this vacuum brought together some 80 citizens. From that group, committees were formed to assess local needs.

Of those participants, approximately 20 core members began to take action.

Dawson spearheaded buying an older, large residential home at at 44 School St. Extension, near the elementary school. Broderick was able to obtain grants to purchase and renovate the house, which was owned by the Parks family, for whom the organization was later named.

SEVCA agreed to provide the initial funding for staffing the project and to take care of the building's expenses.

“The idea from the start was that Parks Place would become independent and its own nonprofit,” Ternes said. “And it did.”

Today, Parks Place is a federally recognized tax-exempt, tax-deductible nonprofit funded by donations and grants. The groups and individuals who regularly use the rooms there also pay fees that help offset expenses.

'I could do this'

Parking was an issue when the house on School Street Extension was being considered, but that was resolved when WNESU Superintendent Hugh Hagerty agreed that an unused playground at the elementary school, directly behind the Parks Place building, could be converted to parking.

“It was local people who made this happen,” Ternes said. “Local educators and social service people.”

Parks Place's board of directors over the past 30 years reads like a Who's Who of leading and respected educators, administrators, business people, and citizen community activists.

Ternes's husband, Alan, a renowned writer, editor, and blue water sailor, had retired as editor of Natural History magazine. At that time she was running one of New York City's Children's Aid Society programs in Greenwich Village.

From 1973 to 1977, Ternes had been one of several young women who served as personal assistants to Margaret Mead, arguably the most famous and influential cultural anthropologist of the 20th century. Ternes and Mead became good friends, and when Mead's health began to decline due to pancreatic cancer, Mead moved in with Ternes and her husband until her death in 1978.

“Margaret was and still is a huge influence on me,” Ternes said. “Despite her age and health, she had four young women struggling to keep up with her.”

With that strong background in social issues and services, and ready to leave the city and relocate, Ternes heard about the Parks Place project and applied as director. She got the job, and the couple moved to Vermont in 1994.

“I wasn't a founder,” Ternes said. “I took the idea and made it operational. I thought to myself, 'I could do this.'”

Services, delivered humanely

The fact that this project would be located in a large, multi-room Victorian house, typical of Bellows Falls, was no accident.

“Parks Place is about access to services in a very humane way,” Ternes said. “We deliberately made it home-like. The idea was to bring services to the people instead of having them come to you. When you walk in, you're walking into a home. There's not someone behind a counter. You're face to face with the staff.”

That friendly, helpful atmosphere remains the Parks Place model. One Bellows Falls woman, “Mary,” has used its services for the past two years.

“They've helped me out a lot,” she said. “Julie helps me with my paperwork. I have a 4-year-old, and they've helped me out with my children.”

Parks Place has also helped Mary with her computer skills and to get her GED and to take other classes. The organization has helped her with printing and faxing important paperwork, and it has provided diapers when her kids needed them. Mary said she was about to pick up her Thanksgiving meal there, and she has had other help from Parks Place with holiday gifts and meals.

“I love it,” Mary said. “I think it's a great place. The facility and the people that work there are amazing. They're never negative, and they never judge you. I recommend them to a lot of people.”

'Focusing on what's needed out there'

Tolaro-Heidbrink and Cermola, along with part-time staff administrative assistant Jennifer Nicholas, intend to maintain the facility's friendly and open atmosphere.

Tolaro-Heidbrink went to Vermont Academy in Saxtons River, got degrees in psychology and mental health counseling from Keene State College, and worked for the local supervisory union until taking her new position a few weeks ago. She notes that she's maintained her roots in the community, and her parents were raised and still live there as well.

Cermola has been at Parks Place for four years, including through the pandemic, when the organization had to curtail normal activity in the building for several months.

“We're pretty close to being back to pre-Covid services,” she said.

She also noted that she is in recovery, and appreciates on a personal level how valuable a center like Parks Place is to a small community.

“It's hard when people have no place to turn to if they have needs,” Cermola said. “It's really hard. You see the problems, but how do we solve them? Part of the reason I took this job was to be in a better position to help.”

Tolaro-Heidbrink agreed.

“We want to start doing playgroups, dad groups, and more family support, especially as face-to-face meetings open up,” she said. “We are focusing on what's needed out there and what will help our community in the future."

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