The strength of community: lessons I have learnt working with the Addison Early Childhood Education Community
I have been coming to Vermont for family vacations for close to thirty years, and finally, my husband and I took the plunge to live here permanently in 2019. With a background steeped in Early Childhood and Education, I took time to reach out and see what was happening in my local community, and over the last nine months, I’ve immersed myself in the deep, fertile soil of the Addison County ECE community. Just as I was starting to make connections and friendships, COVID19 struck, and we were all confined, physically isolated. However, the grass roots of creativity and innovation quickly came to the fore amongst the Addison crowd, with a prevailing sense of collaboration and community spirit.
What has struck me most about this time of COVID is the togetherness and collectiveness of local community, and this Vermont Strong spirit is represented at its best through the current series of Arts and Crafts projects being highlighted on the Minibury website, and the Addison Independent each week.
In mid-March, when the lockdown first started, the Addison County ECE Director’s collective, a group that usually meets monthly, to share resources, information, and training, seamlessly shifted to weekly Zoom calls. This flexibility and nimbleness has served the ECE community well, ensuring deepened bonds and caring support at a time when it was most needed.
Once the initial shock and uncertainty had passed, and we realized we were moving into a new normal, the group began to explore ways of reaching families and children in innovative and novel ways, including virtual nature walks, online story telling, Zoom show & tells, virtual tea parties, and one-on-ones between families and educators, eager to reassure and encourage. It soon became apparent that some families were struggling more than others, and beyond the emergency supplies of diapers, wipes, food and personal hygiene products being distributed to families, we recognized we needed to do more. How could we help regulate children and their families during a time of deep anxiety and uncertainty?
One of the beautiful things about Vermont is the sense of community. Having lived in big cities for the past 40 years of my life, across three continents, I had forgotten the power of deep community and civic bonds-the sense that everyone knows one another, if not well, they know friends-of-friends, with generations connecting seamlessly. The power of collective connectedness and knowledge is what has enabled the Arts and Crafts project to flourish.
As a group, we began to brainstorm how we could reach families and children beyond the social media and online platforms-Zoom, Whatapp, Skype, and Google Classroom were serving their purpose, but we wanted to do more, reaching further into the hearts and imaginations of our community.
Donna Bailey of the Addison County Parent Child Center was struck by the appreciation a parent expressed with one of the regular food and essential packs that had been arranged-one week, packs of craft paper and pencils were included, to the joy of many families. This sparked the idea of regular Craft and Art Packs, which have now become a staple for children and families during the time of Covid19.
More people jumped on board- there is something powerful about how positive acts attracts others to ‘pay it forward’. Anne Gleason of the Rural Fun Trust stepped forward, helping us create a beautiful series of weekly Arts and Crafts projects, with the additional offer of a small grant. Local donors soon stepped on board, offering their services, supplies and expertise. Donors came forward to support the project, and we were granted mini grants from New Perennials, United Way, and Building Bright Futures.
Megan James from the Addison Independent and Minibury heard about the project, and offered to publish our weekly art and craft projects in conjunction with a series of profiles of ECE providers she was profiling. Jody Pearce from Wow Toyz heard about the project, and donated toys to over 100 ACPCC children and families one week. The Front Porch Forum community donated pencils, pens, paper, paints, playdough over the course of two weeks, and several local churches and community centers stepped forward to act as a central gathering point for contributions.
As the weather improved, we shifted our craft ideas to embrace outside activities, and seeds, flower-pots, soil and gardening equipment were gathered, thanks to Front Porch Forum, friends and family, NOFA, High Mowing Seeds, and The Red Wagon in Hinesburg, all who have contributed generously to the project. With Anne’s careful guidance we have learnt how to make pots from re-cycled newspaper, seed balls, and Terrariums from plastic soda bottles.
Our focus for July entails Balls, Books and Bubbles, conjuring more time outside, whether it is swinging in a hammock, finding a shady tree, learning to throw and catch, or just delighting in the warm weather, soaking up the magic of soapy-sudsy-water of summer days. All just simple pleasures that give children the opportunity to play away from the screens that have become part of everyday life, offering traditional, old fashioned yet tried-and-tested ways to re-focus and re-regulate during these strange and trying times.
The greater picture within this story is the sense of hope and purpose the project has brought to our community. For those organizing, it has been a way to move forward, a positive way of encouraging and supporting others. For the recipients, it has brought a sense of fun and creativity, a way to transcend the everyday, and escape for a while from the current reality. We may be physically distanced, but we are socially connected in deep and meaningful ways.