WILMINGTON- Although the proliferation of palatial vacation homes, multimillion dollar resort construction, and regular sightings of exotic cars on Route 100 might lead one to believe the area is experiencing an economic boom, many local families continue to struggle to meet their needs. Help may be as close as Brattleboro or Bennington, but impossible to access for those without transportation or who are working full time.
In mid-December, school officials met with local groups and state agencies to discuss the need for increased access to services in the Deerfield Valley. “There’s essentially a wide acknowledgment that a lot of the Windham County services are focused in Brattleboro, although some Deerfield Valley folks go to Bennington,” said Twin Valley Elementary School Principal Rebecca Fillion, who attended the meeting. “Our discussion focused on the gap that exists in serving children and families in the Deerfield Valley.”
Homelessness may not be visible in the community, but it may be a much larger issue than many realize. Fillion said homelessness was one of the top issues discussed at the meeting, and also an issue that has a significant impact on students in valley schools. “People in the community may not be seeing it, but the school is seeing it,” she said. “We’re seeing the effect it has on children. There are families who are ‘couch surfing,’ staying with friends or family. Some may be sleeping in cars. One of the flaws in the system is that people can’t get services until there’s a crisis.”
Hunger is another issue that may go unnoticed in the valley. Fillion says participation in the federal free and reduced lunch program at the school, which is based on federal poverty guidelines, has risen dramatically at the school during her tenure. More than 50% of students qualify for the program. School officials have expanded the school nutrition program to include breakfast and an after-school snack.
Substance abuse is also an issue with consequences that impact students in local schools. Deerfield Valley Community Partnership Executive Director Cindy Hayford, who was also at the December meeting of social service providers, said substance abuse in the home has a big impact on children. “Our mission at DVCP is youth substance abuse prevention, and what’s going on in the home has a big effect on that. If younger kids are exposed to it, the trauma and stress show up at school. For middle and high school kids, those adults are their role models.”
Hayford said rates of substance abuse are higher in Windham County than neighboring counties. “We’re not sure why,” she said. “Any family can experience substance abuse issues; it’s not linked to income. But for people living in poverty, substance abuse issues are on the back burner. They’re just trying to survive.”
Although many of the issues families face are connected to high levels of poverty, many cross socio-economic lines. “Our middle class families also have needs for mental health services,” Fillion said. “But when both parents are working, it’s not easy for them to get to Bennington or Brattleboro. There’s a general lack of support in the valley.”
Without local access to social services, particularly services for children, schools have been forced to shoulder some of the burden, Fillion said. Twin Valley Elementary School has two guidance counselors on staff. Fillion and other staff members sometimes act as facilitators to connect children and families to services that are available – sometimes even making sure kids have warm winter clothing. “The school ends up being the place where kids get mental health services,” she said. “We have more guidance counselors than the state recommends, and they’re overworked. But the kids need the support.”
Shifting the burden of social services to schools comes with an increased cost to taxpayers, as well as an impact on academic education. It also increases the pressure on schools as communities struggle to contain tax issues. “On one hand there is the desire to decrease the cost of education,” Fillion said. “But there isn’t necessarily an acknowledgment that schools are doing much more than providing for the academic success of children.”
At the same time, Fillion notes, social service providers are also being squeezed by budget reductions. “Service providers are doing as much as they can,” she said. “There are a number of services being provided in the Deerfield Valley through home visits. Some needs are being met.”
And more needs may be met in the valley in the foreseeable future. Fillion and Hayford said that regional service providers not only acknowledged the need for support in the Deerfield Valley, they brainstormed ways to address the need in the short term as well as the longer term at the proposed Old School Enrichment Center (site of the former Wilmington High School). “There was real enthusiasm to work more collaboratively together,” Fillion said.
“Margaret (Atkinson), of Windham Child Care Association, ended the meeting on a positive note, speaking about how pivotal the development of the old high school site could be for the community, and comparing it to Park Place in Bellows Falls. Like Park Place, the Old School Enrichment Center could become a hub where people can connect with services.”
To help meet immediate need, Hayford, who also serves on the Old School Enrichment Center Committee, said school board members have also offered use of school space to social service agencies and organizations for meetings with clients and other uses. “Right now, if they want to use the space all they have to do is call and reserve it,” Hayford said.