After hitting rock bottom, a woman gives back
Editor’s note: This is the most recent in an ongoing series of stories on homelessness in Addison County, including "A local woman tells her story of homelessness" (November 21, 2019); "Middlebury police struggle with homelessness surge" (October 17, 2019); and "Homeless shelter readies for a busy winter" (September 30, 2019).
MIDDLEBURY — Four short months ago, Mary Chapman was homeless.
And while she’s now got a place of her own, Chapman is actually looking forward to spending another night in the cold — at Middlebury’s Otter Creek Falls on Dec. 7. That sleep-out will be part of a fundraiser to help other Addison County folks escape homelessness.
Indeed, life has come full circle for Chapman, 59, who has come a long way in healing from serious health woes, sexual abuse, alcoholism and crippling debt.
It feels good to finally be able to help someone other than yourself, people in whose shoes you’ve walked many a mile.
“I remember standing in the Helping Overcome Poverty’s Effects (HOPE) clothing room, a single mom with two kids, thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to give back the way these people have given to me.’ I just wasn’t worthy.”
Now she knows that she is.
Things had actually been looking up for Chapman four years ago. She was in a good job, had purchased a new car. She had enough resources to eat healthy, help her oldest daughter with wedding expenses and visit her youngest daughter in North Carolina.
“I’m not saying I was living the American dream, but I was holding my own,” Chapman recalled with a smile.
But that all changed around three years ago, when she was diagnosed with migraine-associated vertigo. Chapman spent many of her days in bed, unable to walk, even to speak on the phone. At one point, she was losing around three pounds per week, due to intense nausea — symptoms she still experiences occasionally.
Unable to work, she couldn’t draw an income and began accumulating debt. Her disability benefit was a fraction of what she had been receiving as her salary. She cut expenses but remained committed to paying debt on her car, because her daughter had co-signed the note on the vehicle.
“I wiped out my 401(k), I wiped out my medical savings plan trying to keep a roof over my head — and keep my car,” Chapman said, her voice trembling with emotion. “My daughter had only been married a year, they were expecting their first baby. I couldn’t give up that car because it would affect her family. I’m not going to put two families out in the street; that was my choice.”
She lost a friend because she couldn’t pay her rent, and ended up on the doorstep of John Graham Housing & Services in Vergennes in August of 2018.
“It’s hard to sit here and say, ‘I’m a local resident of Addison County, born and raised here at Porter Hospital, and I was homeless,” Chapman said.
Chapman was assigned a room at New Haven’s Sugar House Motel because the John Graham Shelter was full at the time. She found a spot at the shelter last November and, after a month, was given a room in John Graham’s transitional housing on Green Street in Vergennes.
While there, Chapman worked with Clinical Case Manager Ellen Repstad to get on a path to permanent housing and the services she would need to live independently — something that finally happened this past summer when she moved into her own apartment off North Pleasant Street in Middlebury. The apartment is owned by John Graham Housing, which has given her an affordable housing voucher should she decide to move.
Chapman has landed a job, as an outreach worker with the Counseling Service of Addison County’s Community Bridge Program. The program helps CSAC clients become more involved with their communities.
And she’s been practicing in her personal life what she preaches at work.
She joined the John Graham Housing & Shelter board a year ago, taking a leadership role in the organization that had helped her turn her life around.
“She’s a great advocate,” said John Graham Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Ready.
Chapman recently participated in one of Middlebury’s downtown master planning sessions, offering the homeless community’s perspective.
It’s a perspective shaped by years of heartache, low self-esteem, and then commitment for self-improvement.
“I have lived poverty all my life,” she said. “Not feeling worthy, not feeling like your voice matters, just feeling worthlessness. I have been digging myself out of this worthless hole for 50 years, from the first time someone touched me. It takes a while to dig yourself out. First, it was recovery for me.
“I’ve always had something inside of me knowing that I’m worth something,” she concluded.
On the night of Dec. 7, Chapman will join dozens of others who will symbolically join the ranks of the homeless in what has become an annual JGH&S sleep-out fundraiser at Middlebury’s Otter Creek Falls.
The evening’s activities will begin with a candlelight vigil on the Middlebury town green at 4 p.m. to raise awareness about homelessness. Participants are encouraged to bring a bag of food, box of diapers, toiletries, hygiene products, cleaning supplies or bedding for a family moving into a home.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on the green will invite people in for a simple meal leading into the sleep-out at the falls. Sleep-out participants are gathering pledges for their overnight experience, designed to demonstrate the hardships homeless people face on a daily basis. Money raised will be used to provide services for the homeless. As of Monday, participants had raised a combined total of $36,681 toward a $40,000 goal.
For more information or to donate, log on to tinyurl.com/wfzyjv2.
Chapman is thankful she’ll have a place of her own to go to when the sleep-out concludes on Dec. 8. But she knows that having a home is not the end of her struggle.
“Being in poverty is a fight in itself, and I’m ready,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.