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Sweeney Learns that Burlington Citizens Want a Hand Up, Not a Handout

During my Shepherd Higher Education Consortium Poverty Internship, I worked with the organization Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity (CVOEO) in Burlington, Vermont. This organization provides a wide range of services including a Head Start Program, Financial Futures, Weatherization, Microbusiness, and Community Action. I worked within the Financial Futures and Microbusiness program.

Elizabeth Sweeney worked in Burlington, Vermont.

Elizabeth Sweeney worked in Burlington, Vermont.

I began by observing and absorbing what the clients were learning from the organization. I was taught how the office operated from day-to-day. I went to growing money, spend smart, keys to credit, and investment classes. The classes taught how to save money, rebuild credit, and invest for the future. Observing clients learn from one class to the next demonstrated that they gained information no one had taught them before. The classes and individual meetings helped people who had such terrible credit scores that they could not rent a home and were forced into waiting lists on the few available public housing options in Burlington. CVOEO helped weather a crisis but went beyond that to help them put their lives back together and give them tools to keep them together. Many organizations give fast solutions like temporary housing, canned foods, grants to fix homes, but CVOEO gives long-term help. It enables clients to see that by following the steps that they learned in classes, they could help be financially stable and independent. By giving community members concrete tools, CVOEO also gave them a support system, a friend, and an answer to enduring problems.

After this informative orientation, I set out to find success stories from people in the financial futures program. The program helped people to build credit and invest and gave mini-grants for clients wanting to own a home, start a business, or gain an education. I learned how the grants and client meetings changed people’s lives. I met a woman who became blind at the age of 40 and lost her job and her husband along with her sight. CVOEO helped her create a business plan for a horticulture therapy business. Before becoming blind she owned a flower shop and wanted to incorporate her love of flowers with helping others. When I visited her at one of her classes at an elderly home, I discover that the people in the home loved having her and that she lit up when she was teaching about flowers. She testified that CVOEO, by giving her a grant to start her business, gave her something more important: hope. She had been in a really low place and needed to believe that she could move on and start over. The staff at CVOEO believed in all their clients and that they could give the clients a support system to enable them to become what they wanted to be. Listening to this woman’s gratitude and about what she accomplished spoke volumes for the consequences for my work and the work of CVOEO.

I also talked to a guy who started a painting company after struggling for work after returning from the Peace Corps. And then there were recent college students struggling with college debt, farmers who were not making enough to survive, and an ex-convict who used his grant money to go to film school. There were also clients who built their credit, paid off their college debt, and learned to save. There were clients who started businesses in a variety of fields, , including yoga, cleaning, dog walking, hat making, acupuncture, and card making. These were people who were down on their luck or battling a system that kept failing them. They were ordinary people who needed help to recover their lives. They were not seeking to have their needs met by becoming dependent on others. CVOEO was not their life support system forever. Once they were removed from CVOEO support, they saved, planned, and survived on their own. I learned from CVOEO that people are not trying to live off of a system and become dependent on it for their survival. They want a support system that can help them reach independence and live on their own as contributing members of society.

The stipend aspect of my internship was also eye opening. Being in Vermont, I had all the nature I wanted for free. Being from Chicago, I am accustomed to great public transportation. If I needed to get somewhere in Chicago, without a car, it was no problem. I learned that in a smaller community public transportation can be a pain. There was one grocery store in Burlington, and it was extremely overpriced. To get decently priced groceries, I had to take the public buses, which ran at inconvenient times and were not easily accessible. After a long day at work, I had to get on the bus and carry groceries onto different buses and get them back home before the buses stopped running. I realized that this was not always a realistic option for people who cannot afford cars, and that it can be a struggle just to get basic and nutritious food. Meeting people every day that were dealing over the long term with what I had to deal with for only a summer brought alive the struggles some people confront.

There are people in poverty everywhere even in the small city of Burlington, Vermont. We need to do more to fix the multifaceted problem of poverty. Terrific organizations like CVOEO need more funding to achieve what they are able to do. This summer taught me more than I could have ever imagined, and the lessons I learned will continue with me.


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