Featured Community Partner: Capstone Community Action

Anyone who has lived in or visited Vermont during winter may be familiar with just how beautiful but unforgiving a season it can be. The sometimes biting, bone-chilling cold is undeniable and can be a challenge for some residents to find an escape from it. Helping Vermonters find food, shelter, and warmth is just one of the many important priorities of our Featured Community Partner, Capstone Community Action.

Every day, their staff see the level of need among our community members, some of whom line up before the doors open at 8 am to access services such as Capstone’s food shelf. This level only goes up in the winter, as the weather can make the needs even more desperate. “It’s nearly impossible to think of the future when you’re focused on your next meal, where you’re going to sleep that night or if you’ll have heat in the winter. Once this is addressed, then we can help elevate their perspective of what’s possible,” says Sue Minter, the organization’s Executive Director.

While shopping at Hunger Mountain Co-op now through February 3, you have the opportunity to round up your purchase at the register and Give Change to support Capstone and their Fuel Your Neighbors program, which provides emergency food and heating assistance to our community members in need. Use the form here to opt into being asked if you’d like to round up every time you make a purchase.

We spoke with Sue to find out more about Fuel Your Neighbors, how it works, and the impact it’s having.

How did the Fuel Your Neighbors program begin? What was the impetus for it?

Capstone Community Action, VSECU, and The Point FM had partnered in the past on some small initiatives to support Capstone’s heating assistance program. Three years ago, we saw an increased need for support of our food shelf as well. So, we wanted to do something bigger to help raise awareness of the challenges that thousands of members of our community face to meet their basic needs, particularly in winter, and raise money for emergency food and heating assistance.  With generous backing from VSECU, Fuel Your Neighbors launched as a 100-day initiative, during Vermont’s coldest months, to accomplish these objectives.

How does the program fit into Capstone’s overall mission and other programs?

Every day, our staff witness the devastating effects of poverty on families. Yet we are inspired by their resiliency. The parents we serve want a better life for their children, but it’s hard to make it happen when you are hungry, cold, scared and without options.

With our community’s support of initiatives like Fuel Your Neighbors, we help stabilize lives and work with individuals and families to achieve economic stability and rise out of poverty. We watch as people get jobs, build savings, go to college, start businesses and buy their own homes. Our purpose is to empower individuals with the tools, resources, and capacity to transform their own lives, creating more resilient households and communities.

How does the program provide emergency food?

Capstone Community Action operates the largest food shelf in central Vermont. Last year, we provided nearly 275,000 lbs of food to thousands of residents. With no public funding for this service, the Fuel Your Neighbors campaign is critical to keeping our food shelf stocked and meeting the community need.

How does the program provide emergency heating assistance?

The threshold and requirements for households to qualify for publicly funded heating assistance is becoming increasingly tighter and is drastically out of touch with the cost of living in our state. For example, 40% of households who rely on this service are senior citizens whose fixed income can only be stretched so far. People are forced to make tough decisions on food, heat, and medication. Fuel Your Neighbors allows Capstone Community Action to step in and help a family, so they don’t have to choose between heating their home or putting food on their table.

Your press release mentions, “This year Capstone will work with over 5,000 people to help combat these challenges.” Who are those people?

The people we serve are your neighbors, your kid’s classmates, your waiter, your chairlift operator, your childcare provider. Rural poverty is much less obvious, but it is painfully real and prevalent. We work with households who are experiencing a setback due to a job loss, illness, or another change in family circumstances. We help those who are experiencing generational poverty; conditions which include a shortage of jobs that afford living wages or benefits, lack of necessary education and job training, inadequate access to health care, insufficient access to safe and affordable housing, and unreliable transportation, to name a few.

How will your program be helping them combat those challenges?

Our food shelf can provide immediate relief to families who are food insecure, so they receive nourishment when they would otherwise be going to bed hungry. Children will perform better in school as a result. This allows for one less concern for a family that is likely struggling with other challenges.

Without heat in your home, you’re forced to turn off the water, so the pipes don’t freeze. You’re practically homeless at that point. For households with children or senior citizens, lack of adequate heat can cause serious health risks. Through our emergency services, our objective is to prevent people from having to face these conditions.

What is the biggest challenge for Capstone in making sure the program reaches the people who need it? How do you overcome that challenge?

The biggest challenge for Fuel Your Neighbors is to try and meet the increased demand for emergency food and heating assistance in central Vermont. The early arrival of winter this year has just created greater challenges for households.

We are grateful for the support that so many individuals and businesses have provided the campaign thus far. We’re already witnessing its impact on local families. However, we need the community’s continued involvement to successfully reach our goal of $100,000 raised. Roughly half-way through this 100-day initiative, we have already raised $80,000!

What would you most like the public to know about this program and its impact?

Fuel Your Neighbors is a crucial piece of our effort to create stability in a family’s life, so we might then help empower them to find their voice and vision for their future.

We do that through several programs, including child and family development for birth-to-five through Head Start and Early Head Start. In addition to critical early child development and education, we empower parents as primary educators and advocates for their kids. Our weatherization services create more energy efficient and healthy homes, reducing health risks for kids, such as asthma, caused by moisture and mold. Families access our tax prep services that helped households secure over $1.7M in refunds last year. Our goal-centered financial coaching helps families design strategies to manage their income, improve credit, plan and save for the future. Families build assets through our matched-savings program (for home ownership; advanced education or training; or business investment), and we help aspiring entrepreneurs launch micro-businesses. These supports and strategies lay the foundation for individuals and families to move out of poverty and gain a meaningful foothold in our economy. Families see a bright, secure future for themselves and their kids, which leads to stronger community engagement and active participation. Stronger social networks are built, more diverse voices are heard, and new leaders emerge.