Jane Steele resolves to help others
MIDDLEBURY — Folks planning for retirement typically map out activities and bucket lists for their golden years.
Jane Steele’s retirement plan was simple: Work even harder — this time on behalf of those less fortunate.
At age 75, the former educator, advertising representative and service station manager is busier than she’s ever been, as a volunteer at the Charter House Coalition’s (CHC) warming shelter at 27 North Pleasant St. in Middlebury. And it’s just the latest chapter in her growing story of service to others.
Steele’s deep plunge into volunteerism began a decade ago, following the death of her husband, Paul. Together they had long operated Steele’s Service Center at 83 Main St., a building that was razed in 2009 to make way for the Cross Street Bridge.
The first major beneficiary of her smarts, energy and compassion was the Round Robin Upscale Resale Shop at 211 Maple St. Round Robin is a nonprofit venture that sells donated, high-quality clothing, with the proceeds supporting Porter Hospital and Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing Center.
“I asked (Round Robin Manager) Robin (Huestis) if she needed help, she did, and that was it. I loved it,” Steele recalled.
She spent three days a week assisting Round Robin with myriad tasks, including pricing items, sorting clothes and waiting on customers.
She was a natural. Anyone who knows Jane Steele — and this reporter does, from her years working as an ad representative at the Independent — is aware of her gregarious nature, her fashion sense and her inability to be anything but honest with a person. All of those skills came into play at Round Robin, along with two of Steele’s passions.
“Clothing. Shopping,” she repeated slowly, eyes wide while sporting a grin.
But it was the interaction with clients, and knowing she was helping others, that were the biggest draws for Steele.
You come in for a bargain and leave with a bonus — an overview of current events and maybe even some helpful advice.
Steele was a Round Robin fixture until the coronavirus pandemic struck the county in March 2020. Most of the organization’s volunteers were seniors and thus most susceptible to the virus’s serious health risks. Social distancing was affecting all retailers. So for safety reasons, Steele withdrew from her Round Robin activities.
But rather than hunker down, Jane has found other ways to serve her community.
Her association with the Charter House Coalition began in 2012 after an encounter with another one of Middlebury’s all-star volunteers, Dottie Neuberger. While dropping off a donation at Round Robin, Neuberger had a chance to chat with Jane.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you come and help out for a Friday night supper,’” Steele recalled, alluding to the free community meals prepared in the Congregational Church of Middlebury’s kitchen.
“I thought, ‘I’ll try it one time and see what it’s like,’” she said.
She did. And she liked it. A lot. Steele became a steady helper for the Friday night repasts. She and Sue Sears also regularly delivered meals to homebound seniors at the Middlebury Commons apartments.
Jane’s dedication turned a lot of heads. She accepted an invitation to join the CHC board, which in turn led to her helping out at the warming shelter. She assisted homeless families at the shelter’s day station, and provided support at Saturday breakfasts and Sunday cookouts led by the Middlebury College rugby team.
Around five years ago, Steele took charge of purchasing for the shelter. She negotiates deals for all food, clothing, appliances and other essentials.
“I knew how to get a bargain,” she said, when asked how she landed that volunteer task.
Steele marvels at the generosity of the individuals, businesses and organizations that make sure the shelter has what it needs. She cited in particular the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, Green Peppers, Vermont Coffee Co. and Champlain Valley Apiaries for their ongoing support.
And, speaking of support, the shelter would be hard pressed to function without its dedicated volunteers. In that regard, Jane Steele sets a frenetic pace that has only intensified during the pandemic. She currently coordinates three meals a day, seven days a week at the shelter, producing a bounty of food for shelter guests, those who stop by, homebound individuals and around 80 people temporarily housed at local hotels and motels.
At an age when most seniors are taking it easy, Jane Steele has been burning the candle at both ends for going on 14 months now.
“I’m so tired,” she said matter-of-factly. But don’t take that as a statement as capitulation; she’s determined to be of service whenever and wherever needed.
“I’m not ready to hand over the reins,” she said. “They’ve tried to have an intervention, but that hasn’t worked.”
It’s rare to see Steele without the ubiquitous “Peanut” in her shadow. Peanut is her precious dog, which she acquired seven years ago — not long after the tragic death of her son Matthew.
Matthew was a Middlebury grad and wildly talented writer who succumbed to severe heatstroke while researching an article in Uganda, Africa, for Men’s Journal. A memorial to her beloved son can be found near the base of the Otter Creek Falls, a short walk across the Frog Hollow footbridge close to Jane’s home.
“Peanut was like a therapy dog,” she said, gazing at her sidekick. “Matthew had passed away that March, and Peanut came into my life that June. It was just a miracle.”
Her miracle has become the unofficial mascot at every place she’s volunteered. Covered in a mop of thick white hair, Peanut is short and broad; he hasn’t missed many meals, and Jane isn’t above tossing the occasional treat his way. He dutifully shuffles along wherever his master goes, gratefully accepting the many pats he receives along the way.
“Peanut is also a volunteer; everyone loves him,” Steele said.
And Peanut was Steele’s inspiration for rallying other dog lovers around the idea of a Middlebury dog park four years ago. Middlebury College agreed to allot the park 2 acres near the Middlebury Regional EMS headquarters off South Street. Jane and other advocates raised around $25,000 to outfit the park with a perimeter fence, trash bins for dog-waste bags, and other pet accessories.
Jane still performs chores at the park, which recently received a load of wood chips to soak up some of the spring moisture.
She couldn’t be happier about the way the dog park turned out. It was, and continues to be, a 100% community effort that’s been a particularly valuable asset during the pandemic.
“The dog park was a saving grace for people this winter,” Steele said, referring to the ability of pet owners to meet up — with social distancing — at an outdoor spot.
But her time these days has been spent making sure people have safe spots indoors. When she isn’t overseeing the culinary side of things at the shelter, she’s constantly networking with its guests. Perhaps they need some advice on where to find a pair of earphones, or maybe they need info on local transportation options. Sometimes they just need a shoulder, and Jane’s is open to all.
THANKS FOR THE HELP
And her care is appreciated.
A woman we will call Andrea is an Addison County native who arrived at the shelter two months ago after three years of substance abuse, sofa surfing and life on the streets. She said she’s been in a tailspin since her mom passed away.
“I was a mess when I came here,” Andrea said as she drank in sunshine at a picnic table outside the kitchen.
Heidi Lacey, Charter House Coalition’s executive director, personally picked up Andrea when she phoned for help. She and other CHC staff have put Andrea in touch with counselors and other aid, so she can get clean and sober and transition to permanent housing.
Her new “mom,” Jane, has been part of her recovery.
“It’s great having someone here who’s always checking in,” Andrea said as she glanced at Jane. “Even my family doesn’t do that. She asks how I’m feeling every day, whether I’m eating. Having that (compassion) around me has been a huge help.
“She saved my life.”
Other guests lovingly refer to Jane as “mom”; others call her “aunty,” and at least one kiddingly refers to her as “the warden.” The terms of endearment are genuine and built around mutual respect. Jane knows the folks she’s helping are at a low, perhaps even the lowest, point in their lives. She does whatever she can to get them on an upward trajectory.
And Steele has witnessed several success stories. She spoke of a former guest named “Louis” who caused problems during an initial stay at the shelter, but proved a stellar volunteer in his own right during a subsequent stay.
“He really came to his own and turned his life around while he was here,” Steele said.
True nourishment for the soul.
Lacey said Steele — a.k.a. the queen of the kitchen — has worked “tirelessly,” bringing an “attitude full of energy and drive and has been an inspiration to everyone she comes into contact with. Without her guidance and involvement, our food program would not run as smoothly or as effectively as it does. While this pandemic has changed our organization in ways unimaginable, her steadfast ability to get things done should be honored by all.”
Her reward is seeing the good she is doing.
“I absolutely feel I’m making a difference,” Jane Steele said.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.