Little Details

The threads we weave

Jan. 5, 2012

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper


Christmas was different this year. With our daughter studying overseas, my husband and I opted to volunteer at our Burlington church on Christmas morning. Serving breakfast to folks seeking a warm meal and companionship seemed a positive way to mark the holiday.

We arrived at church at 7:30 a.m. and were put to work setting up tables. Fresh pine branches decorated with satiny ribbon provided simple yet festive centerpieces. Real maple syrup sat on each table. Familiar faces from Sunday services were busy in the kitchen slicing ham, making pancakes and heating up endless trays of baked French toast.

Our first guest arrived a little early, someone I recognized from local literary events. I sat with him and we fell into easy conversation about writing. I was surprised to learn that this former college professor experienced housing insecurity.

A steady stream of guests began arriving. Called to kitchen duty, I thanked my companion for the conversation and stood to leave. This gentle man reached into his bag and gave me an unexpected Christmas present — a sampling of his poetry. It felt like a very precious gift.

The small kitchen was occupied by an efficient and jovial crew. Holiday music played as we navigated around each other in the tight and steamy space, hands occupied by trays of food and culinary implements. The dishwasher hummed between stints of being filled and emptied. We dished out seemingly endless slices of smoked ham, freshly made pancakes and baked French toast onto still-warm plates. Church members serving as wait staff came in requesting “a plate of everything,” “no pancakes, please” and “an extra piece of ham.”

I was eventually relieved of kitchen duties to feed myself and visit with guests. I walked into the dining room with a plate of pancakes and asked if I could join a thirty-something man who sat alone at a table set for eight.

It can be hard to strike up a conversation. I relied on Dale Carnegie’s long ago advice: when meeting someone new, ask questions and demonstrate genuine interest.

Peter* was open and friendly. He was from Pennsylvania, a state I lived in for several years. He grew up near Hershey. His dad was employed in construction; his mom did shift work in a shoe factory. I shared that my parents worked in factories. We lamented the loss of well-paying union jobs.

Peter settled in Vermont to live with his girlfriend. He found a job as a “tire buster” — someone who takes off and places tires on rims. My husband held a similar job in the Midwest before attending college. Unfortunately for Peter, the relationship and the job went bust. It wasn’t my place to ask why.

Given Peter’s lack of housing, I asked if he was staying at one of the Burlington shelters run by the Committee on Temporary Shelter.

“It’s a day-by-day thing, depending on if (the shelters) have room,” he said. “I spent last night outside. Up at the hospital (Fletcher Allen Health Care) they let us come in to warm up in the waiting area.”

I am not a social worker nor do I pretend to be. I did try, however, to share insights on how Peter might tap into support services. I told of my own weekly visits to the Department of Labor on Pearl Street when I first moved to Vermont.

“What did you want to do when you were a little kid?” I asked.

“I wanted to be a fireman,” Peter said, “because they help people.”

When Peter finished eating, I wished him well as he pulled on his coat to leave. I then found another guest to visit with.

The beauty of the event was that we simply didn’t just hand out food. We engaged people in conversation and shared bits and pieces of our life stories. There is much to learn from each other’s stories.

Some of us are blessed to be born into families of tough, resilient fiber. Values of hard work, sobriety and honesty are woven into daily living. Sadly, homelessness, abuse, food insecurity, joblessness and plain old bad luck are also threads sometimes sewn into the diverse fabric that forms our community.

The New Year invites each of us to ponder the nature of the threads we weave. What can each of us do — in small and large ways — to strengthen the tapestry that is Vermont?

My husband and I volunteered at the holiday breakfast because our daughter wasn’t home for Christmas. We learned that, next year, we should volunteer because she IS home.


*Name changed to protect confidentiality*


Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or