Craftsbury Tackled COVID Challenge with Gusto

by June Pichel Cook

CRAFTSBURY – Craftsbury shines as a beacon of light in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year’s two major storms paled in trauma when looking back at 2020 and the COVID pandemic, which asserted itself with a vehement, domineering, deadly intrusiveness.

photo by Vanessa Fournier | The Craftsbury Academy school sign reads “We Are Craftsbury Strong, We will beat this thing.”

Hope glimmers with the recent approval of two vaccines.

The town’s response serves as a model for the nation of how a community rallies together in its darkest hours.

The Craftsbury Neighbor-to-Neighbor (CN2N), designated as a standing town committee, was coordinated by select board member Susie Houston and Kris Coville. Over 75 volunteers stepped forward in early March to provide services for anyone in need, including transportation to medical appointments or grocery pick-up and shopping. A hot-line was created. The town website, under Michelle Warren, created a full listing of resources, volunteer services, and COVID-19 information. Michael and Lise Roussell transformed their tailor shop into a mask-making center, providing free masks to emergency responders, medical personnel, stores, and town residents.

courtesy photo | The John W. Simpson library in East Craftsbury has seen declining patron visits and circulation, and a dwindling endowment, that could render the institution obsolete.

The United Church of Craftsbury’s monthly supper morphed into a Monday night curbside take-out for area residents. Monday night suppers began with volunteers preparing the food. Through the Vermont Everyone Eats program and help from the Center for Agricultural Economy, the program has expanded with Albany, Craftsbury, and Hardwick joining together. Local chefs and entities prepare the meals.

Efforts by Pete’s Greens, Craftsbury General Store, CVillage Store, and Sterling College were coordinated to distribute weekly grocery boxes which included staples, vegetables, meat, and other products. About 150 families are served to help address food insecurity.

courtesy photo | Homemade breakfast/lunches ready to deliver. Cooks and volunteers write a caring message on each bag before they are delivered to students’ homes.

In March, voters were facing two potential bond votes, one to refurbish the Village Bridge and the second to fund building a new elementary school on Dustan Field. The storms of 2019 blew a hole in the municipal budget and with FEMA re-imbursement not being anticipated until later, the select board put bridge rebuilding on hold. Voters were approved a $793,532 municipal budget, elected Jim Jones to the select board, elected Yvette Brown as Collector of Taxes, and dedicated the town report to Robert Linck for his stewardship of the town’s history. As COVID-19 shadows loomed larger, the Craftsbury School Board put the new school building plan on hold. The town chose Kasey Allen and Michelle Menard as directors and approved a $4,014,955 school budget.

Slowly, town traditions fell before the COVID onslaught. With a heavy heart, coordinator Anne-Marie Keppel announced the 50th anniversary of Antiques & Uniques was on hold until 2021 (hopefully). Old Home Day fell by the wayside, as did the pick-your-own season at Brown’s Beautiful Blueberries. Santa’s workshop at the United Church of Craftsbury, a tradition for more than 50 years, was silent. The Town Block party was canceled, but Carey Crozier launched a virtual town party to entice neighbors to interact in the holiday season.

photo by Vanessa Fournier | Craftsbury graduates (from left) Joe Silva, Holden Thompson, Elliott Bjerke, Elsa Keppel-Lonegren and Griffin Wright hold onto their caps as strong winds threatened to blow them off their heads.

Church services at the United Church of Craftsbury and East Craftsbury Presbyterian Church went virtual, then transitioned back to in-person and outside services, but have since gone back to virtual services.

The Craftsbury Farmers Market stood firm in adapting to new protocols, keeping the market alive and functioning throughout the summer season. The new approach featured social distancing, mask wearing, runners delivering pre-orders to vehicles, a sanitizing station, and strict adherence to other state guidelines. The social interaction and music that was always part of the Saturday morning market were sorely missed, however.

Zooming into virtual reality became a regular activity for town officials and town committees. The select board went virtual and returned to in-person and zooming. The board created new guidelines for use of the Common after push-back from some who were upset with a Little League diamond being created on the southwest corner. Others cheered the diamond being resurrected. The board also established a Procurement Policy to meet FEMA reimbursement guidelines.

The Black Lives Matter signage painted in front of Craftsbury Academy rankled different entities and the signage was removed. However, a large rally on the Common and the signage led to the town to create a Craftsbury Equity Team.

photo by Doug McClure | At last Wednesday’s Black Lives Matter protest, a counter-protest led to two confrontations between BLM protesters and armed men. Driver: Jasper Wright of Craftsbury. Holding the Confederate Battle Flag: his son, Jesse Wright, also of Craftsbury. Holding the Gadsden Flag: Chase Lafoe of Wolcott.

Board chair Bruce Urie expressed his frustration, as have others, with virtual Zoom meetings. He felt the conducting the board’s meeting both in person and via Zoom din not reach people, making it hard to address the town’s needs with everyone’s input. Not having good discussions was disheartening and counterproductive.

His hope for the new year was “having some way to fix a negativity he senses coming from the town.” The negativity, frustration, and anger being shown was new and not experienced before to the degree it is manifested now. The COVID-19 pandemic is engendering traumas experienced in different ways.

To help combat isolation and frustration, the Mental Health Resource Group organized walks around the Common. Yoga and exercise classes on the Common were part of the summer scene into late autumn. Craftsbury’s first Out of Darkness Walk to benefit the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention drew over 30 people to the Common and raised over $3,500 for the AFSP.

Although the Craftsbury Public Library’s annual plant sale was upended, the library still offered plants for sale on the front porch. The library created new ways to serve the public with curb-side pickup, providing databases for families with school-age children, and a free lending library on the front porch (sometimes with a cheese offering from Jasper Hill Farm). The Library expansion plans, enabled through the generosity of Milan Kubic in memory of his wife, scholar and teacher Leesa Rose Fine, were put on temporary hold. Work has since started again on the project.

The town’s Prudential Committee, Craftsbury Fire District #2, faced several hurdles as the system shows its age. Two projects are in the works: a back-up power system for the pumphouse to provide water during power outages and locating a new well source. The current well source is under the state’s PFA threshold minimally; however, it is substantially under federal standards. Dubois & King, designers and builders of the original system, is working on the project. Water rates were raised for the first time in many years; future raises are expected as the system, installed in 1983, needs maintenance and eventual replacement of distribution pipes. The system serves 40 homes, Strong Farm, Sterling College, and Craftsbury Academy.

The Planning Commission continued its discussions about affordable housing, but no action was taken. Preliminary research is taking place to improve wastewater infrastructure in the village. In September, the commission’s Zoom meeting was hacked during the Road Safety Committee meet-up. The Road Safety Committee is looking at potential crosswalks in the village, collapsible speed bumps to slow village traffic, fog lines, and village parking spaces.

The Craftsbury Conservation Committee also met virtually throughout the year and continued its work on the Japanese Knotweed Demonstration site, memorializing Steve Wright by placing an Aldo Leopold bench on the Common, and informally beginning an Ash Tree survey on town roads.

Sterling College focused on new community guidelines for students and staff to minimize COVID-19 risks on campus and extended community. It welcomed students back to campus in the fall and developed Living & Learning Pods of 7-18 students working and studying together. The college donated $1,000 of shelf-stable food goods towards Craftsbury’s weekly meal program, received a $223,000 match challenge to increase food production, processing, and storage capacity of the Sterling farm; established a new Food Hub to benefit local micro-producers; and expanded its CSA program. It won approval to accept Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards.

The Outdoor Craftsbury Center completed a paved loop for its rollerskiing training of athletes, leading to a safer alternative than public roads. Hours are open for community walkers and little children learning to ride a bike. Activities are limited on Outdoor Center trails and pre-registration is required through the website. The Center donated 6 cords of log-length firewood to the Craftsbury Energy Committee for its Firewood Progam. The Firewood project provided free firewood to families in need.

The town mourned the passing of Rev. Arnold Brown, Steve Wright and Anne Wilson. Both were icons and an indelible part of the town’s history.