VERGENNES — The residents of the John Graham Emergency Shelter in Vergennes know what it’s like to be without a home.
Maybe that’s why it didn’t take long for the shelter’s newly formed women’s group to zero in on the men and women who are serving in the military far away from their homes as the subject for a community service project.
With help from folks at Middlebury’s Otter Creek Bakery, the Vergennes Post Office and the Vergennes Army National Guard armory, the eight members of the shelter women’s group last week sent packages of three cookies each, decorated with ribbons and supportive sayings, to 40 Vermonters serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lynette, a shelter resident from Connecticut who has an extensive culinary background and education, explained why.
“With the servicemen being so far away and not being with their families, one of the moms came up with the idea, well … why don’t we just send them something,” Lynette said. “And then we came up with the idea of sending cookies with quotations. And that’s what we did.”
A typical quote read: “We are with you in heart and spirit! So many thanks!! Happy spring holidays!” All were signed, “Love, The Women of the John Graham Emergency Shelter, Vergennes, VT.”
Michelle, a mother of a preschool child, suggested the project during one of the group’s regular hour-long Wednesday meetings. She said just because shelter residents are facing challenging circumstances of their own doesn’t mean they couldn’t lend others a helping hand.
“We all may be homeless, but we all have a heart. This situation we’re all in is tough enough, but luckily we’ve got the staff here to help us,” Michelle said. “They’re over there fighting for our country, and they don’t have what we have. So why not give back?”
Shipping cookies to foreign war zones was not exactly what women’s group founder Leila Joseph had in mind. Joseph came to the Graham Shelter as one of its two AmeriCorps volunteers earlier this year and, among other duties, works as a case manager there.
The first meeting a couple months back was more like a traditional women’s group, Joseph said, where the participants could unwind and talk about their lives and issues.
“I’m very discussion oriented. I thought discussion, discussion, discussion,” Joseph said.
A group leader at Burlington’s COTS homeless shelter suggested adding crafts, and at the second meeting the women made Valentine’s Day cards for the young families staying at the shelter.
“We made these wonderful, beautiful Valentine’s cards,” Joseph said.
By then, what had first been resistance to the idea of a women’s group had begun to vanish. Many came to the group only grudgingly.
“When we heard we were having a women’s group, I think we all kind of dug our heels in, because we weren’t going. We said, ‘I don’t want to go sit in a women’s group,’” Michelle said. “Then Leila, being the nudge that she is, kind of nudged us over the edge.”
A resident named Bridget said she only came at first to support Joseph; now she is a regular.
“I did it for Leila to make sure she had a little bit of an audience, to make sure she could get it off the ground. And it’s off the ground and running, and it’s a great place to be,” Bridget said.
The Valentine project proved to be a bonding event.
“I thought, scissors and glue. I don’t go for that ordinarily,” Bridget said. “But that was a great day. That was fun.”
The group is also meeting Joseph’s original goals, members said.
“It’s a good place to go and vent when we need to,” Michelle said. “I’m with my child 24 hours a day, seven days a week. My husband takes the child, and even if it is an hour, it’s an hour for me to kind of (take a deep breath) and there are other women I can talk to … It’s meant a lot to be able to talk to other women on a level that not every day you can communicate with them on.”
Abe, the group’s youngest member, agrees.
“To me, it’s like my safe space,” Abe said. “With working two jobs, (it’s nice) to sit down with a bunch of girls and no guys and just talk about girl things. I think we all learn from each other, too.”
That Valentine’s project also set the stage for the cookies-and-cards effort. All the residents feel strongly about those who serve, in part because many know those who have been in harm’s way.
Lynette had relatives working near the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9-11, and a relative and an acquaintance injured in the 1996 attack on a Saudi Arabian apartment building housing U.S. Air Force personnel.
“One of my cousins was in the building that they bombed. My best friend’s brother was upstairs from my cousin,” she said.
And a family of a serviceman has stayed at the shelter while he is on active duty.
“One of the things that is happening is that we’ve had people here recently, so that it’s on people’s minds,” said shelter director Elizabeth Ready.
The entire group believes those who serve and their families deserve more support.
“They’re putting their lives on the line every day,” Michelle said. “And they come home to their families, and they have nothing.”
All were on board when Michelle suggested they do something for active military personnel.
Bridget, who saw one set of her friends’ marriage dissolve because of post-traumatic stress disorder following two tours in Iraq, said she was more than happy to do “a silly little thing like sending them cookies just to let them know that we are aware and we care.”
They went to work and contacted the bakery, the post office and the armory, and last week finished the effort.
“We got the donations, we bagged them, we put the quotations (on them), we decorated them and we shipped them,” Lynette said.
And afterward they felt the satisfaction that they could be the ones offering a helping hand.
“It feels good inside that you know that you’re doing something for other people out there,” Lynette said.
And Joseph was happy to see the group she founded take an unexpected turn.
“This women’s group is just very unusual, unique. These are women … whose circumstances are challenging. They’re challenging,” Joseph said. “So to be able to facilitate fun, interesting, exciting, service-oriented projects that totally take us outside of ourselves and give to others, it’s just been thrilling.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].