May 24, 2019

Williston trio travels south for winter

Journey to Nicaragua is no vacation

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

In November, three intrepid travelers from Williston journeyed deep into one of Central America’s poorest countries on a humanitarian mission.

Realtor Jan Lawson; retiree Ruth Magill; and her husband, Charlie, a part-time pastor; joined with a United Methodist church group for a two-week trip to Nicaragua to help with health education and to work on the construction of a new medical clinic. The other members of the group were from near Schenectady, N.Y., Charlie Magill said.

The 13-person group, whose members ranged in age from 40-72, landed in the capital city of Managua, and from there was trucked over barely passable roads through dense jungle to a coffee finca, or farm, in the Department of Matagalpa, where they made their temporary home. Departments are the equivalent of states in Nicaragua.

The trip was organized by the Troy Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church Volunteers in Mission to help a local Nicaraguan organization called Christian Medical Action, or AMC. AMC is a non-governmental organization that works with poor communities in Nicaragua to improve health care and social conditions, especially for women and children.

Though the organizations involved were all religious, the three volunteers said there was no mission beyond simply lending a helping hand. Lawson said she was nervous at first because she did not want to be a part of proselytizing. But that was never even an issue, she said.

“We learned very quickly that we were not taking them any grand ideas,” Lawson said. “We were there to support what they already had in place. We were extra hands to do what the Nicaraguans knew they needed to do for themselves.”

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America, located between Honduras and Costa Rica with borders on the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific. It is also one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with most people earning less than $1 per day, Lawson said.

She said the group brought with them about $3,000 in construction materials, and $2,000 in medicines. Some materials and funds for the trip were donated by members of the Williston Federated Church; the Williston Rotary Club; and local residents, she said.

Charlie Magill explained that the U.S. group was divided into three teams: public health nurses; health educators; and construction crew. Each day the medical teams would travel to different villages to either nurse or teach, and the construction team went to a central location to work on building the clinic from the ground up.

Lawson and Ruth Magill were assigned to the health education team, and Charlie Magill became the supervisor of the construction team. He and Ruth had lived in Guatemala and Guyana working with Habitat for Humanity for several years, so his construction and language skills proved invaluable to the team.

The women from Williston helped teach youngsters in the villages how to brush their teeth and wash their hands properly through a puppet show that Lawson wrote in Spanish.

They said that in the villages they visited many people suffered from malnutrition, scabies and dehydration. The children were also not familiar with toothbrushes, but luckily they had brought about 500 of them to dole out to the villagers, thanks in part to donations from Williston residents.

All three said the trip was physically challenging – hard work, hot days, sleeping on concrete floors – but they all agreed the hardest part was not physical at all.

“The greatest challenge for me was not getting spiritually bogged down by the poverty,” Lawson said. “And helping myself to acknowledge the hope and the spirit of the people, and believe that would shine through.”

Ruth Magill said she found herself saddened by the Nicaraguans situation, too, but she was also able to see hope in their plight.

“Those people we were working with, they work with enthusiasm, with motivation, they are looking to the future of their country with hope,” Ruth Magill said. “So, who am I as an American to say ‘oh, it’s depressing’ or ‘there’s no progress being made,’ when people themselves there are taking on responsibility for their own country and they have a sense of mission, a sense of hope for their future?”

Charlie Magill said he has been to Latin America for work projects almost a dozen times, but never gets used to the extreme poverty he encounters.

“I am always embarrassed when I come back and look at my own house and look at the things, all the stuff, I have,” he said. “You go into the home of a subsisting family, a family that’s working, that’s supporting themselves, and there’s so little. It’s unusual to see a book in a house, and I have three bookshelves and a basement that are overflowing with books even though I give stuff to the library every year.”

The trio agreed that the physical and emotional challenges were offset by the reward of knowing they were helping, and from the friendships they forged, that while fleeting, were indelibly etched in their hearts.

“I’ll probably never see some of those people again,” Charlie Magill said. “But they’ll always have a place in my heart, because they are really good people. Those relationships that develop in a really short time are precious jewels.”

[Read more…]

Town, police still at odds

Police accuse town of stalling

By Marianne Apfelbaum

The police union and town officials met last week to discuss the recommendations contained in an independent fact finder’s report on police salaries and benefits. However, the latest effort failed to yield a contract agreement between police and the town.

The report was also mulled over by the Williston Selectboard in executive session until 11 p.m. Monday night, but the board adjourned without filing a motion, according to Town Manager Rick McGuire.

Wages and benefits are the big issues and have been since negotiations began over the summer, according to Alternate Union Steward Bart Chamberlain, a detective sergeant with the Williston Police Department.

“The town is refusing to comply with the wage recommendations (in the fact finder’s report),” Chamberlain said.

The report’s $5,000 price tag was split between the town and the police union.

“Why pay if we’re not going to listen to this professional?” Chamberlain said.

Among other things, the report recommends a 4.5 percent salary increase for officers and dispatchers for fiscal year 2006, and an increase of four percent in 2007 and 2008, plus “step” increases. A “step” is the two percent increase that police department employees receive after each year of employment, up to a cap of fifteen steps. The report also recommends a “two percent across the board increase on Jan. 1, 2006, at the same time the employees begin paying for part of their health insurance premium.”

Chamberlain said the union is willing to accept the fact finder’s recommendations, and claims the town’s offer of less than the recommended salary increases is “all a stalling tactic,” intended to force the union to accept a new prescription drug plan that will take effect on Jan. 1, 2006.

Both McGuire and Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons deny that the town is trying to prevent negotiations from moving forward. “There’s no stalling going on,” Lyons said, “just legitimate negotiations.”

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns administers a group insurance plan for town employees. Under the current prescription drug plan, each employee has a $50 deductible and a co-pay, which varies depending on whether drugs are generic, preferred or non-preferred, according to McGuire. Under the new “co-insurance plan,” each time an employee buys a drug, they pay a certain percentage.

“The concept is that employees have a stake in every purchase and will be better consumers,” McGuire said.

If the union has a signed contract by Dec. 31, the police department can remain in the current plan, according to Chamberlain. The town offered to accept the salary increases in the report only if the union “voluntarily agreed to move to the cheaper prescription plan,” claims Chamberlain. “They are using the plan as a bargaining chip.”

The 26-page fact finder’s report detailed several issues in addition to wages including uniform allowances; sick leave; overtime; shift differentials; and vacations. The fact finder recommended that the union withdraw its proposals on these issues. Chamberlain said the union is willing to do this, but expects the town to adhere to the recommendations regarding salary and benefits. Under the proposed agreement, the department would pay 10 percent of health insurance premiums.

As of press time, neither side could say when they would meet again, but Lyons is hopeful. “I think we’ll work out our differences,” she said.

[Read more…]

Town, police close to contract agreement

By Marianne Apfelbaum
Observer staff

Town officials and the police union appear poised to ratify a contract after several months of sometimes heated negotiations.

Selectboard Chairwoman Ginny Lyons confirmed that an offer was made to the union after Monday night’s executive session of the Selectboard. “An offer was made during negotiations. I hope that it goes forward,” she said.

The two sides had been unable to come to an agreement on a salary and benefits package after several meetings last summer, and brought in a mediator to help. When those talks failed, both sides agreed to hire a professional fact finder. Ira Lobel was paid $5,000 for his research, which culminated in a 26-page report detailing everything from police uniforms to salaries and vacations.

In comparing the Williston Police Department to comparable departments in Chittenden County, the report stated, “…a 4.5 percent across the board raise on July 1, 2005 together with a 2 percent across the board raise on January 1, 2006 to accommodate the adjustment in health insurance, would be needed to bring Williston police officers in line with the other departments in the county.”

The report also noted “salary increases for sergeants should be 6 percent in FY 2006, 5.5 percent in FY 2007, and 5.5 percent in 2008.”

According to alternate Union Steward Bart Chamberlain, a Williston police sergeant, the town’s latest offer is 2 percent less than the report recommended for sergeants. “My sense is that the union is probably going to endorse it,” he said.

Chamberlain is not entirely happy, however, that the town’s offer does not adhere to the recommendations in the report for sergeants’ salaries. Citing the difficulty in retaining staff, he expressed concern with the implications for the future.

“Those who have chosen to stay here more than 5 years are the ones that the Selectboard has chosen not to compensate according to the fact finder’s report,” he said. “It’s a pretty clear message they’re sending. I won’t be surprised if some (sergeants) leave very soon.”

Lyons acknowledged that the town’s offer is not exactly what the report recommended, but indicated that it is a fair compromise. “The town’s offer supports the fact finder’s report in many ways. It is not exactly like it,” she said. “There is a slight difference between officers and sergeants, but all are in the same relative area with respect to other departments like Essex and Colchester.”

The police union vote was scheduled for Wednesday at 3 p.m. If the police union vote is favorable, the contract will go back to the Selectboard for official approval. Lyons said a special Selectboard meeting would probably be held Thursday, contingent on the outcome of the police vote.

[Read more…]

Town gets a clerk, family gets a mom

Deb Beckett returns from Kuwait

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

Last Christmas, David Beckett and his two teenage children had to break a long-standing tradition and pick out a Christmas tree without his wife and their mother, Deb.

This year, after a year in Kuwait with the Vermont National Guard (which she first joined in 1981), she returned just in time to revive the tradition.

Deb Beckett and the rest of Task Force Green Mountain – about 600 members of the National Guard who were assigned to security duty in Kuwait – returned Friday to Hangar 3 at the National Guard air base in Burlington to cheers and shouts of joy.

David, Sean and Ellie Beckett waited in the hangar during a blinding snowstorm that temporarily closed down Burlington International Airport, but did not stop the transport planes from bringing home the troops from Camp Shelby, Miss. The soldiers had stopped there for several days on the way back from Kuwait as part of their demobilization process.

The guard’s brass band struck up the tune “I’ll be Home for Christmas” as the hangar doors rolled up and the first group of soldiers walked in, searching out loved ones in the huge crowd.

Deb Beckett, Williston’s town clerk, was in the front of the throng and made a beeline for her family, who made their presence known by jumping up and down and yelling for their well-tanned mom.

“Sgt. Beckett,” David Beckett said by way of introduction to a reporter in the hangar. “Now, Mrs. Beckett.”

“And mom to these two,” Deb Beckett said between hugs, gesturing to Sean, 17, and Ellie, 14.

Saturday, the Becketts made their annual trip to Catamount Family Center to pick out and cut down a Christmas tree as a complete family. They rode the horse cart and picked out a bushy fir tree to take home.

“When she left, we thought it would be a full 18 months,” David Beckett said in an interview. “It’s nice to have the family together for Christmas and all the activities surrounding Christmas.”

He paused, then added, “Mostly just that she’s home sooner. One day, every day, every minute is better than being away.”


Daily sandstorms, 100-plus degree heat and long periods of extreme boredom were some of the challenges Deb Beckett faced in the desert 6,000 miles from Williston.

“Being away from home, that was definitely the hardest,” she said. “The very routine, mundane kind of work that most people were doing gave you a lot of time to think what you’re missing.”

She said technology helped her get through tough times.

“One of the big differences between this mission and those in the past was just the availability of Internet and cell phones,” she said. “That made it a whole lot easier.”

She said the family talked for 10-20 minutes a day on a cell phone during her deployment.

The family also received support from within. David Beckett said Sean and Ellie were key in keeping things running smoothly.

“They took on more responsibility themselves instead of relying on, you know, mom who was always there,” David Beckett said. “She isn’t there and dad’s not as capable – “

Here Deb Beckett laughs and shakes her head, “He is.”

“— so it was like, ‘hmm, I’m going to have to do it myself.’ And they did, and it was OK.”

Both Becketts said the community also helped out tremendously during the deployment.

Members of the Williston Federated Church brought the family meals on Tuesdays, and the local Boy Scout Troop brought food over every Thursday and Sunday, and other people from the community helped with cooking and offering words of encouragement as well, David Beckett said.

“That was huge,” he said. “The Beckett family is most appreciative of all that support that we got.“

A year apart could ruin some relationships, but for the Becketts, it had a bonding effect.

“I think it got a lot stronger,” Deb Beckett said of their relationship. “You kind of wind up, just through life, kind of doing your own thing.”

Dave Beckett agreed. “We really didn’t spend much time on us,” he said. “Demands of the community, demands of the kids. We’ve kind of reset our priorities.”

Time in the desert gave Deb Beckett a lot of time to think about what was important to her.

“There’s been a lot of changes in priorities,” she said. “Family is much more important to me, than pretty much anything.”

Deb Beckett said she and her family will think together about whether she will rejoin the Guard. She has no National Guard duties for 90 days, and then will make a decision.

“A lot, too, depends on the realistic chances of deployment again,” she said. “I do not want to do that again. Been there, done that. Got the t-shirt and everything.”

Back to life

Deb Beckett said she is eager to rediscover her old routines like cooking, grocery shopping, driving her kids around to their various engagements.

“All the activities, all the basketball games on Saturday. I look forward to getting back to work,” she said. “Life, you know, just generally life.”

The Becketts don’t have any plans for vacation in the immediate future, but Deb Beckett said she has some conditions if they do go away on a trip.

“If we do, it will not include a beach,” she said. “Or camping.”

[Read more…]

Town authorizes $8,000 for land purchase

Vote means board won’t need to use eminent domain

By Ben Moger-Williams
Observer staff

The Selectboard on Monday authorized $8,000 of town money to be used to purchase a piece of land needed for the town’s new fire station.

Monday night’s Selectboard meeting ended with a 30-minute executive session, after which board members and Town Manager Rick McGuire emerged and announced the approval.

“A purchase price has been set,” McGuire said.

The land, a wedge-shaped parcel at the corner of U.S. Route 2 and Talcott Road, is a crucial access point to the town’s proposed fire and rescue station. The piece is so important that the board last month voted to authorize the power of eminent domain – buying the land without the owner’s consent – if necessary to secure the parcel.

The town voted to authorize eminent domain because it had to gain approval for its plans for the fire station from the Development Review Board last month. Approval would have been impossible without the piece of land.

Rick McGuire has been negotiating for the land with its owner, Taft Farms Village Condominium Association, since June. Monday night’s action means that a deal has been reached, and McGuire said the last step is to sign an agreement to actually purchase the land, which will likely happen in the next couple of weeks.

 Town launches new Web feature

The town of Williston has taken another step into cyberspace. Rick McGuire, town manager and de facto Web master for the town’s Web site, has set up an e-mail mailing list to keep residents informed of goings on about town.

“The Web site is very comprehensive,” McGuire said. “We keep it very up to date. There is a wealth of information on there.”

Subscribers can sign up for one or all of the mailing lists. There are lists to sign up for:

Important dates and events

This list advises the subscriber of events such as Town Hall closings; tax payment deadlines; water and sewer bill deadlines; and dog license deadlines.

Legal notices

Readers on this list will receive information on public hearings and notices of adoption of town ordinances.

Bid notices

E-mails from this list include notices on bids for equipment; vehicles; major supplies and construction projects.

Job notices

If you are looking for a job with the town, sign up for this list. The list will include vacancies in the police, public works, library and other town departments.

To sign up for a mailing list, go to the town’s Web site, and click on the icon “Get E-mail Updates.”

Budget review begins

The Selectboard also began discussing the town’s proposed operating budget Monday night. McGuire presented the board with the budget for fiscal year 2007, which outlines the expenses needed for all operations in the town.

The total proposed budget comes to $6,917,840, which is an increase of about 19 percent over the current fiscal year’s budget.

“The numbers are high, there’s no question about it,” McGuire said.

However, McGuire said, the budget still does not adequately address all the needs of the town’s various departments. In the introduction to the budget, McGuire wrote: “Despite the large increase, the proposed budget does not reflect a level of expenditures that will serve to maintain service quality in the face of increasing demands.”

McGuire said the largest single increase in the budget was for wages, which increased 14 percent over the current fiscal year’s budget. A 3 percent cost of living increase; a proposed full time position for the Fire Department; as well as increased hours for fire, police, public works and library personnel helped fuel the proposed wage increase.

[Read more…]

School budget draft $15M

No services or programs added

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

The $15 million price tag of the first draft of the 2006-2007 Williston School District budget includes no additions or reductions in programs or services. The $1.373 million increase is nearly 10 percent higher than this year’s budget.

The actual bottom line for taxpayers, however, would be an increase of 8.19 percent; nearly $250,000 of the increase is due to a change in accounting practices. Additions or reductions in programs and services will be considered in the coming weeks.

Williston School District officials presented the first draft of the budget to the school board and four community members last Wednesday night. The meeting – what district principal Walter Nardelli called a “10,000-foot overview” – was the first of four to develop a budget that will be adopted on Jan. 19.

The Williston School District serves students in kindergarten through eighth grades; Champlain Valley Union High School has a separate budget process.

“Even though this is a flat budget, a lot of expenses are up – expenses that we have no control over,” said Williston School Board Chairwoman Marty Sundby, citing as examples health insurance and heat. Figuring out how to offset those increases will be a piece of the board’s job, said Sundby.

A large chunk of the coming year’s budget increase is already settled due to previous negotiations of the current teacher contract. About 35 percent of the draft budget’s itemized increases fall under teacher salaries and benefits, which runs through this coming fiscal year. A 4.55 percent teacher salary increase is required under the current contract, according to Bob Mason, chief operations officer for the Chittenden South Supervisory Union. Health insurance and dental insurance costs are estimated to be up 12 and 10 percent respectively.

Special education and early education for students with disabilities also carry about 35 percent of the itemized increases. A higher number of students are being identified as requiring special education services which, by law, must be provided to all eligible children. State and federal governments reimburse the school district for some special education spending according to regulations: Some expenditures are 55 percent reimbursable; some are 90 percent reimbursable.

Fuel and electricity rates, too, have seen increases – estimated at 10 and 6 percent respectively. Though the rate hikes are unavoidable, total costs may be contained.

“We are working to conserve energy,” Nardelli said, noting that the school is doing an energy audit to determine ways to minimize cost increases.

A change in accounting inflates the budget nearly $250,000. In previous budgets, certain funds, such as Medicaid – for which there are equal expense and revenue – have not been included. Those funds will now be recorded, but as the revenue cancels out expenses, there will be no bottom line increase to taxpayers.

The draft budget also shows itemized decreases. For example, debt payments for construction of Allen Brook School become smaller each fiscal year.

In coming weeks, school officials will present details on potential budget additions. Nardelli presented 25 items of which teachers and staff have requested consideration. Costs range from a couple hundred dollars (for example, additional supply funds for guidance staff) to thousands of dollars (examples include personnel for extended day kindergarten; transportation to lengthen the school day).

School board members will have to prioritize those requests, said Sundby. Nardelli acknowledged the possibility that none of the items might make it into the budget.

Budget affects daily life

Even the smallest of decisions made by the board – both cuts and additions – affect daily life at both schools. Last year, cuts were made across the board in school supplies.

“We have no more supply money; our supply budget is gone,” said Al Myers, a teacher in Swift House at Williston Central School. The Swift House supply budget was cut by about 20 dollars per student. Myers said the team, which serves 87 students, is out of pencils, graph paper, lined paper and index cards – all supplies they’ll need in the spring.

In response, students may need to bring supplies from home, said Myers. He also said that Swift teachers are asking parents who plan to give a teacher a holiday gift to consider giving to the Swift House supply fund instead.

Myers said only one other Williston Central School team has expressed any concern about their supply budget; the other four teams expressed no concerns at a recent meeting.

Margaret Munt, a teacher on Discovery team, said the cuts also have been felt at Allen Brook School in several teams. She emphasized, however, that “the teachers here absolutely appreciate the resources that we have.” In other schools, Munt said, she knows teachers are forced to pay for supplies out of their own pockets.

Both Myers and Munt reflected on the benefits students in both schools have realized as a result of an addition to last year’s budget – the addition of a full-time teacher for the enrichment program. The enrichment program provides activities for students that cultivate special talents, build on individual interests, and extend learning experiences.

Two years ago a part-time enrichment teacher position was eliminated. Last year it was reinstated and made full-time. Munt said that among the benefits to students are the addition this year of a new critical thinking skills program, “great books” literature groups and special math groups.

“Dick Allen was pretty much straight out,” said Myers of the only enrichment teacher last year. “We had very little flexibility if we wanted to collaborate.”

Myers gave as an example the Swift House one-act play festival. In past years, Allen ran a six-week script writing program for students interested in writing. Last year, as a result of the enrichment reductions, the program could not be offered, said Myers.

What’s ahead

Last year the school board approved a nearly 6 percent increase over the 2004-2005 fiscal year budget. Sundby said it is too early for her to predict what the cap should be for the coming year.

“We’ll understand our revenue stream better in January,” she said. “When I have all the pieces put together in front of me, that’s really when I’ll be able to say whether we have a viable budget to bring forward to the community.”

Diane Frank, one of two parents who attended on Wednesday, said the school budget is “not a simple thing. That’s what I got out of it. It’s very multi-layered. I look forward to being able to delve into the particulars.”

Sundby said she hopes to see more community members – parents as well as those without kids in the school system – at future meetings.

“We’re spending the town’s money, and we’re doing the best we can to do so effectively but we can’t read people’s minds,” Sundby said. “So please call or come to the meetings. We need to know what people are thinking. And we want to have a conversation.”

[Read more…]

Running for a reason

By Kim Howord
Observer staff

Eighth grader Katie Macuga wasn’t very much of a runner when she got involved with Girls on Track last spring. Within eight weeks, she was running a 5K race with hundreds of other girls.

Katie attributes some of her newfound interest in running to her coaches: “It always seemed like they were really happy and that they had a lot of fun with it,” she said.

Girls on Track and Girls on the Run are programs that help girls ages eight to 13 build self-respect and healthy lifestyles through running. The objective is to reduce risky behavior like eating disorders, depression, teen pregnancy, and alcohol and other drug use. In Vermont, 600 girls participated last year.

In Williston, twice a week from April to June, volunteer coaches help girls prepare for a 3.1-mile non-competitive race. Each group of 14 to 18 girls also explores values, body image, friendship and community through a set curriculum.

“It’s sad to see girls falling into the traps of eating disorders,” said Mairead Harris, a Williston native who helped get Girls on the Run started here. “I’d like to hope that the program can prevent a lot of body image problems in the future.”

Harris, now a freshman at Middlebury College, made Girls on the Run the focus of her high school graduation challenge project, which she started her junior year at Champlain Valley Union High School.

“One thing that’s great with running, especially distance running, is you improve just by doing it,” said Harris. “You can build your own self esteem by running more.” Girls run between one and three miles at each practice, depending on age and how far they are into the training program.

Harris’ younger sister, Laura, 10, has benefited from her sister’s efforts. Laura has participated in Girls on the Run for two years.

“I like running with my friends and I liked how I felt really good about myself when I finished off my last lap,” Laura said.

About 36 Williston girls participated in Girls on the Run – serving grades three through five – last spring; fourteen Williston girls in grades six through eight participated in Girls on Track.

“There could be more girls if there were more coaches,” said coach Robin Harris. “We had to turn away girls last year.”

Executive director Nancy Heydinger said she hopes new coaches will come forth to fill demand in Chittenden County. Being an experienced runner is not a prerequisite. At least two coaches are required for each group.

“It’s an excellent program,” said Tracey Barth, whose daughter Lauren, 12, participated last year. “I think it helped her become more confident in herself.”

Lauren said the program is fun. Her coaches taught “the correct form to run so you don’t get shin splints or injure yourself,” she said.

Katie Macuga said she also learned more about running. “But, I also learned a lot about friendship and how to deal with certain situations in the best way,” she said.

[Read more…]

Polar Express on track for a good cause

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Five-year-old Kaitlin Scherber was a bit reluctant to get on The Polar Express train Saturday afternoon.

Though it was to be Kaitlin’s first train ride, her mother, Lori Aldrich, thought the reticence had to do with the movie of the same name which Kaitlin saw last year.

“There were some scenes in the movie that were pretty scary” for a four-year old, said Aldrich. “She was afraid of the wolves.”

Perhaps it was the thought of seeing Santa Claus that gave Kaitlin her courage. Or perhaps it was the mystique of the conductor who breezed into the lobby to see if the children were ready. But when the conductor hollered out “all aboard to the North Pole!” the kindergartener from Richmond – dressed in multi-colored pastel pajamas, black rubber boots and a purple bathrobe – grabbed her mother’s hand and with hundreds of other people, boarded The Polar Express.

“The Polar Express,” a 1985 illustrated children’s book and a 2004 movie, tells the story of a young boy who one night rides a train with other children – all in their pajamas — to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus and his elves.

The real-life Burlington version loads children – most between three and five years old – and families onto a train from the Wing Building next to an empty-looking Union Station. The train drives 10 minutes into South Burlington, and returns to a Union Station filled with elves dressed identically in red shirts and hats. Inside the building, families listen to a reading of “The Polar Express,” then follow Santa Claus upstairs to receive a bell from his reindeer sleigh.

The event is the largest annual fundraiser for the Vermont Children’s Trust Foundation, according to project coordinator Fagan Hart, who created the event in 2002. Over $60,000 is raised for community-based prevention programs for children and families in Vermont. Literacy, mentoring, teen leadership, parent education and afterschool activities are among the programs the Foundation supports. Hart estimated that more than 600 books would be collected this year, too, as families are asked to donate a book to support literacy programs.

“We try to do the programs that keep things magical for kids after school, day in and day out,” Hart said of the Foundation. “This event (The Polar Express) just works two days a year to make this magical moment, and we want every kid to feel like this every day of the year,” she continued.

In its fourth year, the event has grown increasingly popular. Last year organizers turned away 700 families, Hart said. This year 40 percent more train rides were offered and organizers still ended up turning away 100 families. Tickets are sold by lottery.

The event is a logistical feat. Over fourteen hours – from 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday – 3,300 people move from Burlington to the North Pole on 14 train rides on the hour. There are more than 600 volunteers: “conductors” lead a Christmas carol sing-along and “chefs” serve cookies and hot cocoa on the train; “elves” greet children by first name (they wear nametags) upon their arrival to the North Pole; a choir sings as families enter Union Station.

For the last two years, a number of students and chaperones from Williston Central School’s Swift House (grades five through eight) have volunteered.

“You get to make the little kids happy when they get off the train making them think they’re in the North Pole,” said Leah Leister, 11, who was an elf for the second time this year.

Swift House teacher Al Myers estimated that about 40 students and 25 chaperones helped this year. Myers helps with lighting effects. On Saturday afternoon, Santa Claus bore a striking resemblance to Swift House teacher Gary Howard.

Jacob LaCroix, 10, said that it seemed he’d make a good elf because “everybody else is taller than me.” His favorite part was saying hello to the kids and shaking their hands.

“It’s really fun,” said Jacob

[Read more…]

Pat Peterson celebrates 90th birthday

Longtime Williston resident revels in family, friends

By Kim Howard
Observer staff

Williston had reason to celebrate last Friday, and most people probably didn’t even know it: Jeneva Peterson, a long-time resident, turned 90 last week.

Who is Jeneva Peterson? Most people know her as “Pat.”

“I’m ‘Pat’ because I was ‘Patterson’ before I was ‘Peterson,” explained Peterson in an interview on her birthday.

Regardless of how she is known, Peterson has contributed much to Williston. In addition to being a charter member of the Williston Historical Society, Peterson worked in the town library for 41 years.

Rickie Emerson, who retired as library director after 30 years this fall, said Patterson was “instrumental” in building the library.

“She always had her finger on the pulse of the town, and she knew everybody,” said Emerson. “She represented long-time residents in town. She kept their interests in mind. She would help me buy books, talk about programs.”

Peterson moved to Williston in December 1944, when she says there were fewer than 1,000 names on the voter registration list.

“We sort of got to know everybody in town,” Peterson said of herself and her husband, Dr. Oscar Peterson Jr. who went by the nickname Pete. “There were a lot of farms there then, and itinerant workers.”

The Peterson family lived in a big brick house at the corner of Oak Hill and Williston Roads before purchasing what the family called North Williston hill in 1946. The Petersons raised five daughters, three of whom still live in Williston. Brenda Perkins, the youngest daughter, lives in the house in which the children grew up on Peterson Lane; Jeneva Burroughs lives on the same road; Karen Shastenay lives in the village. Two additional daughters live in Michigan and Tennessee.

All of the daughters, many friends, and a good number of Peterson’s 19 grandchildren and 14 great grandchildren gathered at the First Baptist Church in Burlington on Saturday to celebrate Peterson’s milestone.

Peterson, born in Milton, said her father often told her it was 20 degrees below zero the day she was born, and that they were butchering hogs.

“I’m a true Vermonter,” said Peterson last week. “I think I’m the sixth generation.”

Peterson graduated from high school in 1933, during the height of the Great Depression. As a result, she said, “my dreams of going to college were put on hold” – a dream she still regrets never pursuing. She got a position at the wholesale house of Hagar Hardware and Paint Co. on the corner of King and St. Paul Streets in Burlington where she worked for four years – first as a stenographer and eventually as a billing clerk.

In 1936, Peterson married her husband, a medical student in residency at Mary Fletcher Hospital. The couple moved briefly to Whitingham, back to Burlington, and then to Massachusetts as Peterson’s husband pursued additional studies in radiology.

After settling in Williston in 1944, the couple became involved in town activities. The beginning of a school hot lunch program was one effort to which Peterson devoted time. Another was the new library.

“We had very few books,” said Peterson. “We weren’t sure how to catalog, but we did our best. We were only open three days a week and one evening. So we took turns for evenings and Saturdays.”

Peterson said that of her time in Williston she is most grateful for the goodness of residents and the friendships she has had.

Gertrude Urie, who said her family grew up with the Petersons, said she has known Pat Peterson since 1946 or 1947. Urie recalls her and Peterson’s reupholstering furniture together. And once or twice a year, she said, the two friends would dress in formal gowns for a special dinner just for them and their husbands.

Peterson isn’t sure to what to attribute her longevity, though she said it runs in her family; her father lived to be 95.

Several friends interviewed mentioned Peterson’s love of people, her seamstress skills, and the fact that she made all of her daughters’ wedding dresses. They also spoke of her personality.

“She is a woman of great moral character,” said Emerson. “A lot of depth, with a wicked sense of humor. To me she stands for all the good qualities that women are supposed to have.”

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Observer moving to new offices

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

The Williston Observer will relocate later this month, making room for the newspaper’s growing staff.

The new address will be 300 Cornerstone Drive, suite 330, in office space above Artists’ Mediums in the Taft Farms Village Center. The shopping center is located about a mile east of Taft Corners off U.S. Route 2.

“We are very excited about the move in that it affords us the opportunity to expand, as we continually strive to make the Observer the premiere source of local news and information for Williston residents,” said co-publisher and managing editor Marianne Apfelbaum. “It was also very important that our new office be easily accessible to the community, and this location near Taft Corners is just that."

Over the past several years, the Observer has added several editorial, advertising sales and administrative employees. Not including publishers Marianne and Paul Apfelbaum and freelance reporters, the newspaper now has 10 full- and part-time workers. The Observer had just two employees when it moved to its current location at 2141 Essex Road in 1998.

Though the Observer needed more space, the move was prompted by the pending sale of the building to Judge Development Corp., which already owned the land where the structure is located. Peter Judge, the South Burlington-based company’s principal, confirmed that he has signed a purchase agreement with the current owner, Yankee Farm Credit. The sale is scheduled to close Jan 10.

Rumors have circulated that the building will be torn down and replaced with a drug store. Williston Town Planner Lee Nellis said he has met with representatives from Judge’s company about plans for a drug store at the site. “We expect to see plans for a drug store there within the foreseeable future,” Nellis said.

Judge, whose company owns the adjacent Taft Corners Shopping Center, said he has not decided what to do with the building. He acknowledged talking with Brooks Pharmacy, but the chain’s proposal could not fit under the town’s zoning rules. He said no agreement would be struck until all tenants move out and the building sale closes.

The building’s other tenants plan moves to other Williston locations. Green Mountain Video and Economic & Policy Resources will also relocate to Taft Farms Village Center. Yankee Farm Credit is moving to Hurricane Lane.

The Observer will move during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. The new office will be open starting Jan. 2.

[Read more…]