Every day, as children head home from school and residents pull into their driveways weary from a long day of work, 40 members of the Williston community—many of them children—do not have a home to return to.
Willistonians make up approximately 2 percent of the 2,000 Vermonters served annually by the Committee on Temporary Shelter, known as COTS.
“It’s not just Burlington. It’s in all of our communities and we don’t realize it,” said Brigitte Ritchie, Vice Chair of the COTS Board of Directors and a Williston resident. “What really spoke to my heart were the children. Think about going home at the end of the day, then think of not going home. Think of looking up at the ceiling at night, and it’s not your room.”
Williston residents can help the members of their community who are homeless during this weekend’s COTS Walk. On May 5, approximately 1,500 Vermonters will take part in the walk, raising awareness of homelessness in Vermont and funds for COTS’s shelters and services.
“I do this because everyone deserves a home,” Ritchie said of the reason she walks. “How can you not want to help COTS?”
Williston residents Lisa and David Stever plan to walk with their two young children, Athena, 9 and Natalia, 6, for the fourth year. The Stevers participate as challenge walkers, meaning they set a goal to raise $1,000 each year.
Lisa Stever said she walks to be a part of the community she lives in and to help her neighbors.
“I think sometimes there’s a misunderstanding about the people COTS helps,” she said. “These are the kids my kid is sitting next to in the cafeteria. It’s not just the bum on the streets. These are families who lost their jobs, who are veterans or single parents who are having a bad run of luck and need a helping hand, and I feel like COTS does that.”
The COTS Walk follows a three-mile route in Burlington that a homeless person might use to receive services. It is the only time of the year when shelters are open to the public, so people can see how their donations are put to use.
The walk begins and ends in Battery Park, with a follow-up celebration including music, free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and other refreshments. Registration begins at 1 p.m. At 2 p.m., drummers from Sambatucada begin leading the walk with a jaunty Brazilian beat.
“They are so much fun you can’t help but dance the first part of it down,” Ritchie said. It’s a really, really great community event.”
Ritchie said Williston has traditionally had a strong showing in the COTS Walk. Approximately 10 percent of total participants are Williston residents—150 walkers.
When the Stevers began participating four years ago, their youngest daughter was just 3 years old, but she walked the full 3 miles.
“We were dead last,” Lisa Stever said. “My girls were so fascinated by going into the way stations and all of the houses.”
Stever said her children were full of questions—“How can a family of four live in this tiny room?” “Why is the refrigerator locked?”—and they were able to have a conversation about homelessness and helping community members.
“I think it’s humbling for them and I also think it’s empowering for these little girls to have these people there say ‘thank you for walking for us,’” Stever said. “They feel at a young age that they’re making a difference in people’s lives.”
The walk is COTS’s main fundraiser, and makes up a significant portion of the organization’s total funding, Ritchie said—11 percent of the general fundraising budget. Organizers are hoping to raise $175,000.
Aside from providing shelters and services, COTS works to prevent homelessness by helping people stay in their homes. Its Housing Resource Center provides one-time grants to avert homelessness and helps find affordable housing.
“It is much harder to get into a home if you lose the home you’re in already,” Ritchie said. “(Prevention services) help people who have been hit with that medical bill and can’t make their mortgage bill or rent.”
Since the center formed in 2008, COTS has helped 1,319 households avoid eviction or foreclosure. Of those households, 35 percent needed help because of a job loss or reduction of hours, and another 11 percent because of illness.
“I have personally a good job and am able to take care of my family, but not everyone is as fortunate,” she said. “It’s our responsibility as a community to be that safety net for people who don’t have that.”
Besides helping others, Ritchie and Stever said they participate because COTS walk is a fun community event.
Stever said her children get determinedly excited to complete the walk and get their free Ben & Jerry’ ice cream—despite the fact that their father works for Ben & Jerry’s and they can have all the free ice cream they want.
“It’s like their little medal on their neck,” she said.
Residents can sign up for the COTS Walk as individuals or teams. Visit www.cotsonline.org or call 540-3084, ext. 204 for more information, to register or to donate. Organizers are also looking for volunteers on the day of the walk. To volunteer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 540-3084, ext. 207.