Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Season of Giving

A few weeks ago my daughter, out of the blue, said “You know Dad, Vermont is a really great place to grow up. I’m glad we live here.”

I was curious as to what prompted this unsolicited comment from a 16-year-old girl whose current mode of communication is primarily a variety of cold-shoulder shrugs and eye-rolls. “I mean,” she went on, “I’m fully expecting to leave the state for college and probably for a while after that, but I can’t imagine a better place to have been raised.”  

Her three older brothers are all in the process of applying to college. It has been a roller-coaster ride of standardized testing, last-minute forays onto the “common app,” frightening conversations with financial aid professionals, and anguished pleadings with teachers. My daughter has quietly watched these proceedings with little or no comment. But I can tell it has given her a real-world perspective on what lies ahead for her when it’s her turn to leap into the vast, unknown arena called college.

I have the joy of doing a lot of travelling around the state, and while I am most familiar with Montpelier and the surrounding Central Vermont area, I can attest that there are many communities all over Vermont that share the same qualities and characteristics that have embraced my family—particularly my children.

Anyone reading this blog can imagine for him or herself what makes Vermont a special place. It’s probably the combination of ready access to the great outdoors, the opportunity to discover where your healthy food actually comes from, the joy of encountering creative people from all walks of life on a daily basis, and boasting rights for “hosting” Ben & Jerry’s as well as Heady Topper. The list is endless.

For me it comes down to what matters for the children. Not just MY children. All children.
And here’s the rub…even in Vermont, with all its beauty and access to wealth and food, an extraordinary number of children are going to bed hungry, waking up hungry, and wearing triple hand-me-downs that no longer keep out the cold. They are unable to keep up with their homework, unable to stay late at school for band or chorus or soccer practice because their parents have no way to get them home except by the bus that leaves at 3 pm.

I had the privilege of participating in the Governor’s Early Childhood Summit in mid-October. It was eye-opening. Depending on the issue, anywhere from 20% to 40% of Vermont schoolchildren are suffering from the lack of SOMETHING—food, transportation, parents with parenting skills, after-school activities, counseling, creative play, joy, inspiration. Art.

At one point during the Summit, the 200 attendees broke up into groups. We were asked to share who we are and what we bring to the summit. Listening to the 30 or so people in my group describe their jobs (teacher, counselor, health-care provider, truant officer, program administrator) and what they need in order to provide a barely adequate amount of service to kids in real need, I realized how truly blessed my family is.

When it came to my turn, all I could do was quote Antoine Saint-Exupery. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”  I suggested that the arts field is always available to help people explore their dreams and aspirations. It is not enough simply to provide a prescription or sessions with a counselor or a probation officer. We have to find a way to inject a sense of wonder, excitement, and curiosity in our young people. If we fail at that, they will never learn, never discover themselves, never live up to their innate potential.

My children are lucky. They have grown up in a community that offers the Adamant Quarry Works theater in which they performed as 9- and 10-year olds (friends performed with Lost Nation Theater, let’s not forget them!). They also had the privilege and luck to grow up in a community that valued chorus and band as much as soccer and field hockey; where the fall musical is as well-attended as the boys’ basketball playoff; and where the community cinches its collective belt a little tighter each year to make sure that the school budget -- the annual investment we make in our kids -- gets passed at Town Meeting Day. But each year the vote is closer, the money tighter, the number in need slightly larger, the news more sobering.

Somehow we have to refocus our attention away from systems that only reward individual achievement and towards activities and people that serve the public good. Vermont’s non-profit sector embraces education, medicine, social services, the arts, and much, much more. As a whole it is THIS sector that makes Vermont truly stand apart from other states.

I submit it is Vermont’s nonprofits—all of them—working diligently, collaboratively, and effectively to improve everyone’s quality of life that makes my daughter want to live here. In the context of its nonprofit sector it actually is possible to imagine a Vermont in which no child is left behind.

In the spirit of the season, then, I encourage you to be generous with your tax-deductible contributions. Together, we can continue to move Vermont forward; investing in our kids and in our future.

Happy Holidays!