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View from the Borderland: Penny drive sheds light on Brandon economy

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For the last two years, my friend and I have been asking area businesses to put mason jars on their counters for the month of November. Our goal is to gather pennies from customers to donate to the Brandon Area Food Shelf. The great thing about collecting pennies is that for adults, they are almost meaningless. Customers routinely receive rounded-up change at stores if we don’t have exact and the register is out of pennies; give-a-penny/take-a-penny containers next to cash registers are used as a form of advertising by cigarette companies and other big corporations that give them away to distributers; the federal government, which now spends more money to mint a penny than a penny is worth, has even considered doing away with them altogether.

In 2008, our two-woman effort to conduct a town-wide, month long Penny Harvest in mason jars took a little time to get off the ground. We rounded up the mason jars (for our “harvest” theme), hand-wrote the labels, and eventually got them distributed to about 75 percent of the businesses in town by mid-November. In general we stayed away from businesses where staff got tips or where there were already charitable jars up. We decided to hand-count the pennies, as the banks no longer provide this service and the machine at our local grocery stores takes a hefty 13 percent surcharge — a bit high for a charitable effort. Luckily the local Boy Scout troop helped out, and by the end, we were astonished that we had collected more than $800 to deposit in the Food Shelf’s bank account, thanks to $50 matching donations we had solicited from the National Bank of Middlebury and the First Brandon Bank.

But this year was going to be tougher. 2009 was the second year into a recession that has devastated the local economy — two major employers, Nexus and Vermont Tubbs, had left town. The so-called artists’ renaissance that had fueled Brandon’s most recent resurgence at the beginning of the decade depended on the sale of luxury goods to middle-class buyers, who were not only not spending, but not even visiting last year. At one point, almost half of the store fronts in downtown Brandon were empty, as businesses either shut down completely or owners moved operations into their own homes. Because all the mason jars were labeled and waiting in my basement for distribution, I made sure every store of any kind had one by the beginning of November. Brandon Auto Sales took one, and so did the Senior Center. Otter Creek Animal Hospital sported one, and the Brandon Free Public Library had a jar next to their own Penny-a-Page promotion of reading. I even tried to drop one off at the drive-through branch of the Otter Bank south of town, but they assured me it wouldn’t get any donations as all their business was via car. At the one remaining bar in town, I dropped off two jars, one at either end. And I asked each business to consider replacing its “give-a-penny/take-a-penny” container with our mason jar for the month.

As we suspected, the recession had taken its toll. When all the pennies were finally counted and deposited last week, we had collected less than $480 — better than nothing, of course, but not enough to meet the increased need over last year. Not only were there fewer customers coming into the stores, but, I suspect, a great many more adults are now beginning to collect pennies again as they once did as children. Last year, several places reported that employees brought in their penny jars and donated the whole lot; this year, I have noticed many more such jars prominently displayed at my friends’ houses — no longer is the spare change being dropped into the children’s piggy bank; rather, it is being socked away in the living room. I have a feeling that as Brandon continues to struggle with joblessness and people use up more and more of their assets to break even, more of us will be dipping into our own penny jars for the bread, milk and egg money to feed our own families. And there is no shame in that, after all; we are in fact teaching our own children a valuable lesson that we had abandoned long ago when the penny stopped being able to buy anything on its own: that small things of value may in fact be what we should treasure most when we have lost so much, and so much has been taken from us.

Rebecca Reimers is a native of the New York City suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and a refugee of Westchester, N.Y. She has been living in Vermont for more than 13 years, in New Haven, Burlington, Middlebury and now in Brandon. She is a retired high school social studies teacher raising her three young sons with her husband, a native of the Boston area. Her thoughts on her community, and the surrounding towns of Leicester, Goshen and Forestdale, appear in "View from the Borderland," an online feature at the Addison Independent Web site.

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