Caring for Neighbors in Need Builds Community Resilience

In our work to address the environmental and economic challenges facing us, sustainability activists embrace the principle that we’re all in this together. If we are to build a more resilient community—one that can withstand the impacts of chaotic weather, increasingly expensive food and energy, and whatever else may follow—we must establish a culture of mutual aid and trust, a place where everyone feels they can depend on each other when the chips are down.

This approach is the polar opposite of the “survivalist” mentality we sometimes hear about—the attitude of “I’ve got mine and I’m going to protect it no matter what” that causes some to stockpile gold, provisions and guns. Those of us working for community resilience agree with scientist Dennis Meadows (co-author of the landmark study Limits to Growth), who told a recent conference of “doomers” that if society descends to that sort of fear-driven anarchy, it would not be worth living in. We can do better.

Fortunately, we live in a state whose culture encourages mutual aid and in a community that is already making serious efforts to take care of those in need. Our area supports many organizations and volunteer endeavors that help people in crisis obtain food, medical care, housing, fuel, or personal support. Our collective response to the Irene disaster three years ago was dramatic and impressive, yet our quiet, ongoing support of these efforts should also be commended and encouraged.

Nine towns in our area have access to a program found in few other places anywhere in the country: Through its Good Neighbor Grants, the Ottauquechee Health Foundation distributes thousands of dollars each year to cover otherwise unaffordable health care costs that slip through gaps in insurance coverage. These are often dental bills (about half of Vermont’s population has no dental insurance), or medical support that enables seniors to continue living at home. OHF partners with local health care professionals and pharmacies to identify people in need and to reduce their bills.

Recently, OHF’s executive director Sherry Thornburg told me that she has noticed a significant increase in the need for these grants. While fifty-two grants totaling about $40,000 were given in 2012 and fifty-nine more for almost $60,000 were made last year, more than eighty grants amounting to $73,000 have been made so far this year with almost five months remaining. “There are many people in our community who need help,” she said. “They’re really hurting.”

Although Thornburg cannot identify a specific cause for this spike, she observes that many people are “underemployed” at this time, that housing and transportation costs make it difficult for people with limited resources to hold jobs in places like Woodstock, and that heating costs over this past winter depleted many people’s resources. In addition, OHF has been successful in its outreach and more people know about Good Neighbor Grants.

I contacted a board member of the Woodstock Community Food Shelf and also an organizer for The King’s Daughters, an ecumenical group that helps families in crisis cover food and fuel costs and distributes holiday gifts. While neither of them are seeing as dramatic an increase in need as OHF is encountering, they acknowledge that many people continue to experience loss of employment, health crises, and unexpected costs (such as higher food, fuel  and health care prices) that put them over the edge.

Thornburg emphasizes that in a time of economic uncertainty, this “can happen to anyone. No one is immune.” Donors have responded to OHF’s appeal for more funding for Good Neighbor Grants, but if the trend continues, she says, there will need to be a more comprehensive, collaborative strategy for maintaining community health and wellbeing.

This means that we will need to work together to look at interconnected issues of affordable housing, transportation, food production, and local economic development, as well as health care. In other words, we must continue our work to build community resilience.

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