Leah Rosin-Pritchard in her LinkedIn profile photograph.
Leah Rosin-Pritchard in her LinkedIn profile photograph.

'She was helping people'

Leah Rosin-Pritchard brought unconditional love and radical empathy to her work at Groundworks. Until our leaders listen — and then act to provide necessary services and programs — we will continue to see tragedies like this one.

BRATTLEBORO — This morning, I found out that Leah Rosin-Pritchard was beaten to death with a hatchet. The description I heard from an eyewitness was graphic and brutal.

I am shocked by this loss of life, and I am profoundly sad because I believe this was preventable. I will honor Leah and her radical empathy by telling parts of my own story as it relates to events and circumstances that led to this tragic incident.

My relationship with Leah was professional. I was a client of the Groundworks shelter while she was the case manager.

We had some great conversations about how to live a well-rounded, productive, happy life and what that looks like. I believe she was living her life in that way.

We would talk about something that I have learned to be the fundamental issue we as humans are always debating: “How do we take care of ourselves and each other?” Every topic, every debate in the town square, in politics, in conversations at the dinner table all have this common frame of reference - this common question we ask of ourselves every day.

Leah had radical empathy, which means she understood and accepted people as they are. No judgment. Unconditional love is what she gave of herself every day, to everyone in her life. She had created, and continued creating, a meaningful life for herself.

Anyone who knew her could see the confidence and love she carried with her.

As her client, I was able to grow and find my path forward to becoming housed again after three years of homelessness. Although I recognize there were others involved in my journey, Leah played a profound role in helping me get ready for and move into my current abode. Moving is one of the most stressful experiences life offers. Homelessness makes it hard to even imagine what it can be like to have a place to call home.

The last time I saw Leah, she was here at the shelter to assist a couple of my neighbors who were struggling. I saw her in a familiar position - crouched down - which she would do as a way to get down to the level of whoever she was speaking with, as adults do with children who are crying. It seems to make people feel seen and heard.

She was smiling, and her eyes conveyed a sense of calm.

Although she would never have crossed the boundary to tell me what she thought of her job or her employer, I got the sense she was doing the work she wanted to be doing.

She was helping people.

* * *

This brings me to parts of my own story.

When I first lived on my own, away from my parents, my neighbors were the kind of neighbors anyone would want: kind, generous, fun to spend time with, but also the kind of people you can count on if times get tough.

I learned how to be a good neighbor from these neighbors - what it really means to share a cup of sugar, so to speak.

One evening, I had finished smoking a joint with the Mr. of the house, and I sat in the kitchen while the Mrs. was cooking. I loved to talk with her about life.

She is a Christian, a first-generation immigrant. Her family lived in New York City; she wanted a life closer to the land and moved to Vermont with her husband. They grow and raise much of their own food.

This particular evening we got onto the topic of our purpose here on Earth.

“The longer I'm here, the more I just think we are all just here to help each other,” my neighbor told me.

This has been a guiding value for me ever since. It is also why I must speak up now.

* * *

For many years, I worked in the hospitality industry - food and beverage, hotel, catering, etc. I burned out from that work and was unemployed for over a year. Then I found work at Groundworks Collaborative.

In many ways, I found the job both personally and professionally rewarding. But eventually, I found I was often the target of verbal abuse from clients.

I don't blame clients for this. Having experienced homelessness at different times in my life, I understand the stress that comes with this experience and the frustration that there isn't a better safety net for our friends and neighbors, that our society is unable to resolve this issue.

However, I have come to learn that these positions require more qualified workers. Groundworks ends up playing host to a growing number of clients whose needs are significant, and the facilities and programs they operate are not capable of providing the level of care needed for many of them - even when I worked there.

Eventually, what happened to me is that I was asked to become the live-in key holder at Great River Terrace on Putney Road. I moved in and then realized I was living with many of the clients I had been working with at Groundworks.

As a result, one of the clients who was jealous about the people who were becoming housed there - and who was jealous of my living there - followed me home and made threats to me and other residents.

That was the first major trauma I experienced while working for Groundworks. One of my supervisors later told me they should've done more to protect me.

I tend to try to ignore trauma, and then I fall apart months later. That incident did not seem to affect me right away, and I went to a subsequent job. But there, another trauma brought up my Great River Terrace experience, and I found myself without work.

The fact is, even the leaders at Groundworks, despite their good intentions, are not equipped to deal with the myriad issues facing both employees and the clients they serve.

* * *

After reading the first accounts of news today, I am angry.

I am angry that the needs of the clients are not the priority of Groundworks. In a statement, the board said the organization is “grateful for the outpouring of support from the community” and “at the moment they are focused on staff, volunteers, and clients.”

Of course, staff need support, but the primary focus should always be the clients. But because of much of the funding Groundworks receives, the organization is unable to advocate for the needs of its clients in a meaningful way.

As a nonprofit prohibited from engaging in politics, Groundworks is restricted from advocating for changes in the law. It is prohibited from working to convince the Legislature that to end homelessness and to actually provide help to the community members suffering from severe mental health issues, we must have both mental health funding and diverse, long-term, comprehensive mental health and substance-use treatment.

* * *

The person charged with murdering Leah Rosin-Pritchard is a victim of apathy.

Having met Zaaina Mahvish-Jammeh, and having lived in the shelter with her for a couple of months, I know for sure her specific needs far exceeded the scope of what Groundworks could provide.

But here is the problem, as I understand it: The state wouldn't provide her with the psychiatric medical care that she needs. There are not enough diverse programs for people with various types of mental illness - what is available is generic and not nearly comprehensive enough to help people like her to live productive lives.

I am also angry with state Sen. Nader Hashim for his comments, where he suggested that the problem is an increase in homicides in Brattleboro.

The fact is, we have several major crises happening in the United States today which are not being addressed in a meaningful way. The homicides are a symptom of apathy. The narratives about homelessness, substance use, and mental illness are being driven by people who are only serving themselves.

* * *

We are living in a time when people are dying at alarming rates and in increasingly brutal ways. As a society, we need to start listening to the people who are most impacted.

We need to listen to those who are homeless. We need to listen to those suffering from mental illness and substance-use disorder.

We need to innovate new treatments that are long-term and comprehensive. These treatment programs need to also be linked to housing.

Until our leaders are willing to listen, and then take action to provide the services and programs these people say they need, we will continue to see tragedies like this.

Our community has lost a great woman. Leah Rosin-Pritchard's capacity for empathy is why Zaaina Mahvish-Jammeh was still at the shelter.

The reality is, if Zaaina had been forced to leave sooner, she would have been on the street this winter. The Groundworks Drop-in Center would not have been able to handle her, the state wouldn't have put her into a mental health treatment facility to stabilize her and then find adequate housing, so she probably would have died outside this winter if not for Leah finding a way to provide her with space at the shelter.

I don't think anyone would have thought this particular tragedy would necessarily happen with this particular client, but it is a consequence of the lack of strict policy regarding the level of care Groundworks is capable of providing.

I would also point out that another client Leah had helped to get housed from the shelter died only a week after moving into a nursing home. Although I cannot speak to what she felt about that, I would imagine that played a role in how and when she would decide to ask someone to leave.

Leah lived her life asking the question: “How do we care for ourselves and each other?”

I think of my neighbor's words: “The longer I'm here, the more I think we are all just here to help each other.”

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates