Green Mountain Meetups: Vermonters Break Bread, Dance and Forge Communities in ‘Third Spaces’ | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice
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Green Mountain Meetups: Vermonters Break Bread, Dance and Forge Communities in ‘Third Spaces’


Published June 28, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated July 5, 2023 at 11:33 a.m.

Pizza party at the Johnson Community Oven - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Pizza party at the Johnson Community Oven

Something was missing in Hardwick. Churches were struggling. The Hardwick Gazette had stopped printing. People weren't showing up to town events. In an increasingly polarized world, locals Erica Heilman, Rose Friedman and Tara Reese kept noticing that neighbors seemed alienated from one another.

"There's so much division. Not just in this town but in most towns," Heilman, known for her "Rumble Strip" podcast, told Seven Days last year.

Civic ties in Vermont communities have been fraying because of a confluence of trends: Local schools are going dark as districts merge. Some general stores have closed. Volunteerism in local emergency services, senior care and community events has dwindled. The home-to-work-and-back-again shuffle has, in some towns, sapped community spark and a sense of place.

In 2022, at the tail end of a pandemic that only further isolated people, Heilman, Friedman and Reese transformed the shuttered Gazette office into a site for building community and christened it the Civic Standard. On its website, the trio posted a simple mission: "People want to gather with their neighbors, both the ones they know and the ones they haven't met."

Since then, the Civic Standard has hosted trivia nights, a haiku club, a rock-paper-scissors tournament, old-time fiddle classes and a hugely popular murder-mystery dinner theater production.

The result of these simple, playful gatherings has been profound, according to Reese and Friedman. Neighbors met neighbors. Unlikely friendships formed. Events inspired other events, which inspired weird projects and surprising conversations. "I think that people are deeply, positively changed and affected by knowing each other," Friedman told Seven Days this month.

Before long, residents of other Vermont towns started reaching out to the Civic Standard's founders, asking for the secret sauce.

Reese warns those who ask: "There is no blueprint." What works in one town might not work in another. 

Ben Doyle, president of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which helps revitalize towns, said community spaces are critical for reinvigorating rural Vermont. "People aren't just looking for a place to sleep," he said. "They're looking for a place where they can find themselves and their friends and each other."

What the founders of the Civic Standard created, and what many Vermonters are craving, is something sociologist Ray Oldenburg dubbed a "third space" in his 1989 book The Great Good Place — hubs where people spend time between their primary spaces: home and work. Third spaces are where we meet neighbors, have a good time and exchange ideas — the "living rooms" of communities, according to another author, Michael Hickey.

These spaces have few prerequisites other than welcoming all. They can be accidental or purposeful. You might have to buy a beer or a coffee, but costs should be low.

After years of being stuck at home during the pandemic, Vermonters are no longer taking such hubs for granted. Where they don't exist in rural corners of the state, Doyle said, momentum is building to create them.

I wondered what Vermonters' third places look like and asked Seven Days readers for examples. I received more than 250, as varied as Vermont's towns. Readers meet their neighbors at disc golf courses, community gardens, lakesides, farmers markets, contra dances and libraries. I narrowed the list to seven, put on my dancing shoes and gassed up my Subaru.

Here's what I saw, tasted and heard during visits in June to seven community hubs.

Pizza Party

Johnson Community Oven, Johnson
Luke Gellatly cooking pizza - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Luke Gellatly cooking pizza

The team members behind Johnson's community oven had no trouble tying on their aprons after a winter hiatus. Luke Gellatly tended the fire burning inside the large stone structure, pushing a pile of glowing red coals farther back. A cheese pizza sizzled. Sophie Berard kneaded a ball of dough that had been bought at a discount from Elmore Mountain Bread while her 1-year-old, Uli, giggled in a sling on her back. Lotty Roozekrans doled out slices and smiles to the growing crowd. 

For six years, residents of the Lamoille County town of 1,402 have been gathering at a Legion Field pavilion on Monday evenings in summer to enjoy free homemade pizza and each other's company at the town's community oven.

Mark Woodward first suggested the idea to neighbors after listening to a 2015 Vermont Public Radio story about a community oven in Norwich, pitched it to the selectboard and built the oven in 2017. Now an eight-member volunteer committee organizes the gatherings.

Volunteers cook the pizzas with ingredients donated by local companies and growers or purchased at a discount. In the winter, the oven committee hosts "skate and bakes" at the field, which doubles as an ice rink. 

Community members make their own pizzas, putting whatever toppings they would like on a pre-stretched crust. Some nights, more than 75 people turn out.

Johnson residents can reserve the oven free of charge for birthday parties, meetings and hangs. That's been a huge benefit in a community marked with reminders of better times. If it weren't for Jenna's Promise, a recovery center that has taken over some downtown real estate, even more buildings on Main Street would be vacant.

In 2020, in the heat of racial justice protests, selectboard meetings became battlegrounds in publicized debates over whether the town had a duty to condemn racism. Members of a grassroots group, Be-Longing for Justice, complained that profanities were being yelled at people holding protest signs by the road.

The oven has been a neutral meeting ground for the politically divided town. When the pandemic hit, it was used as a makeshift restaurant, providing free meals for all residents, Gellatly said. The take-out arrangement, though, meant the vivifying conversations stopped.

"We'd come here and basically have a slamming two-hour shift of kitchen work," Gellatly said.

This year, the oven committee is hoping to bring back the all-hands-on-deck spirit.

The atmosphere was jovial during June's pizza bake. The oven was fired up for Johnson's Summer Kick-Off Festival, organized by Johnson Works, a nonprofit striving to revitalize the town. Vendors sold homemade art and ice cream. Numbered rubber ducks raced in the Gihon River. Proceeds from pizza sold that evening will help fund this summer's bakes, on Mondays at 5 p.m.

Carri Ferrari, who helped organize the festival, is happy to have something to do close to home. Many residents are hoping the gatherings restore energy to their downtown.

Sophia Berard and her son Uli - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Sophia Berard and her son Uli

Part of the appeal of the pizza nights: It costs nothing. The wood-fired oven draws people close. "It's literally like a fireplace," said Michael Mahnke, co-owner of Studio Store, an art store in Johnson, as he took a bite of his pepperoni slice in front of the oven. "Everyone wants to gather around the fireplace."

Under a shady tree, a musician took a break to eat as a group of children waged a sword fight.

Nearby, Eric Nuse chatted with a neighbor about a problem beaver. Nuse wore a T-shirt — sold to raise funds for pizza-making ingredients — bearing an image of the community oven.

"Here, you meet people that maybe you don't quite agree with politically, but you can still chat," Nuse said. "That's rare."

Calling Ravens and Larks

Capital City Grange, Berlin
This dance in June was the final one for which masks were required. - JOSH KUCKENS
  • Josh Kuckens
  • This dance in June was the final one for which masks were required.

The beginner contra dance class — conveniently scheduled 20 minutes before the main event — was crowded on a Saturday at the Capital City Grange in Berlin. About 40 people gathered around Steve Zakon-Anderson, the caller for the evening, as he demonstrated how to twirl without getting dizzy and the proper technique for a do-si-do.

"In life you choose your partner, but you don't choose your neighbor," he told his students with a smile, using folk wisdom to anchor a quick refresher on dance positions. (In contra dancing, your neighbor changes every sequence cycle, but your partner doesn't.)

Contra, a form of folk dancing that was popular in England and France in the 17th century, is a living tradition in this corner of central Vermont, where dancers gather every first, third and fifth Saturday night. By 9 p.m., dancers wearing an eclectic mix of long skirts, kilts and khakis were figure-eighting and four-leaf-clovering to the festive tunes of the fiddle band onstage.

Built in 1953, the boxy hall just south of Montpelier is modern compared to other Granges across the state. Handsome maple floor aside, "It's not this sexy downtown historic building," said Dana Dwinell-Yardley, 36, who helps run the dances.

Seventy-five to 100 contra enthusiasts used to come out for them. Owing to a post-pandemic boom, volunteers at the door counted 154 people the night I was there. Many of the newer dancers are under 30 and crave in-person connection and good old-fashioned fun after years of isolation.

Ash Cray and Maya Kagan, two rising University of Vermont seniors, had come from Burlington to try contra dancing. "This is the most in-the-moment I've felt in a really long time," Kagan gushed during a break between songs. "I haven't looked at my phone in two hours."

Plenty of older dancers kicked it as well. Robert Nichols, 81, has strutted in time at the Grange for more than 40 years. On Saturday he danced to nearly every song. When asked by Seven Days why he keeps going, he replied, "When you get 150 people doing the same thing to the music, you can feel the energy in the community."

Contra dance at the Capital City Grange - JOSH KUCKENS
  • Josh Kuckens
  • Contra dance at the Capital City Grange

Organizers keep the dance inclusive. In 2018, paying became optional, and a sliding scale was set for tickets, with a suggested adult contribution of $12. The same year, callers switched from addressing dancers as "ladies and gents" to the gender-neutral "ravens and larks." (Ravens stand on the right, larks on the left.)

"It's gotten queerer; it's gotten more gender flexible," Dwinell-Yardley said.

Dancers on Saturday reflected the wide array of Washington County characters—straightlaced country folk mingled with free-spirited, back-to-the-land Boomers and angsty teenagers.

Some men wore skirts, which one said makes twirling more fun. Dancers moved along four long lines, each with about 30 people. From above, the circles and spins created geometric patterns. ("Engineers love contra," Dwinell-Yardley remarked.)

While newcomers picked up the simple steps, the more experienced dancers added some pizzazz — speeding up a twirl or adding an extra pivot to a box step.

Larry Tighe, meantime, was in a corner, sharpening an old ax. No one batted an eye. The blacksmith has been contra dancing for more than 30 years but has slowed down. While his wife and daughter dance, he restores tools.

Elise Sai-Hardebeck, 25, had come from Bethel alone for the evening. She's a regular. "This is one of the things I like to do just for myself," she said. "It's a great way to meet other people and connect casually."

The next song began. Sai-Hardebeck grabbed a partner and headed to the dance floor. The band readied their fiddles. The caller announced the order of moves. The hall reverberated with the sounds of music and the shuffling feet of 154 people, moving in unison.

Drills and Drinks

Harry's Hardware, Cabot
Harry's Hardware in Cabot - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Harry's Hardware in Cabot

The bar inside Harry's Hardware was packed by the time Bryeanne Russillo arrived with a slightly lopsided Black Forest cake. Russillo, who owns Nibbles of Love, a Cabot-based animal rescue, brings baked goods on Thursday evenings to sell for her nonprofit. On her drive over, though, the cake had tipped.

"Don't look at the cake," Russillo warned the people who greeted her.

"I'll still eat it, Bryeanne. Don't you worry," a man at the bar said. Just then, Whalen, a Saint Bernard, came running up.

The scene was typical for a Thursday evening, the unofficial locals' night at Harry's Hardware in Cabot, New England's "first and only bar in a hardware store," according to its owners. Near the front of the store, a sign tallied "future drinks" that neighbors had bought for each other. At the bar sat a handful of customers, including Jay Cappelli, Whalen's bearded owner, and Matt Villeneuve, a bespectacled mechanic. Villeneuve was pitching Cappelli on his latest business venture: a mobile auto shop.

"I'll be your first customer," Cappelli said, eyeing a mock-up business card.

Past the kitchenware and near the animal feed stacks — cleared to make room for a stage for musicians on Friday and Saturday nights — Don and Mary Lou Delacy, age 90 and 87, respectively, enjoyed glasses of red wine and plates of jambalaya, the evening special. 

Harry's Hardware in Cabot - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Harry's Hardware in Cabot

On the front porch, a group smoked cigarettes, laughing loudly. Bluegrass music played softly in the background.

This was what Johanna Thibault had in mind when she bought the hardware store in 2017 with her husband, Rory Thibault. He formerly served as Washington County's elected state's attorney and made an unsuccessful bid last year to become Vermont's Democratic nominee for attorney general. Gov. Phil Scott named him a superior court judge earlier this month.

Johanna, who is a lawyer for an international engineering firm, said taking on the hardware store was a passion project.

"The only time I would see my neighbors would be at a contentious Town Meeting Day," Johanna said of Cabot, population 1,695, which is mostly known for its tourist-friendly creamery. The village, in the heart of dairy country, is modest, with just a library, a small grocery, a school and post office.

And, of course, the hardware store. In operation since 1896, it was struggling financially when the Thibaults bought it, so Johanna decided to diversify by adding a bar and revamping the kitchen. "It wasn't until people started coming in that we realized it was kind of cool," she said. 

Bartender Laura Knowlton - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Bartender Laura Knowlton

Jina Alboreo, a friend of the Thibaults, was drawn to Cabot from her former home in northern California. In 2022, after a few months of working the Friday shift, she became part owner of the store.

And next door, Russell Statman, a Burlingtonian with a cabin in Cabot, is opening an upscale eatery, Headwaters Restaurant and Pub, inspired by the energy that Harry's Hardware is generating downtown. Johanna and Alboreo plan to construct a beer garden outside the hardware store.

"I'm a very shy person, but I'm very happy here," said Sarah Harding, a Marshfield resident who stopped by for a drink. "I'll be having a beer alone and somebody will sit down and we'll start playing cribbage together."

In the corner, Russillo and Cappelli recounted to a growing audience how they had retrieved two mini Highland cows, Poppy Seed and Vanilla Bean, that had escaped Russillo's animal rescue. "Cowgate," they nicknamed the incident. The search became an eventful adventure through Cabot which, somehow, roped in Matt Villeneuve, as well. (The mechanic looked on in dismay during the retelling.) Eventually, Russillo said, she hired a "real Vermont cowboy" — "You can do that?" someone interjected — and the cows were brought back to their pasture. 

By 7:30 p.m., the evening had turned into a town social. Clusters of people relaxed on the store's porch. Russillo and Cappelli were still telling stories. The Delacys had headed home, and a family had taken their place. 

On the counter, Russillo's Black Forest cake was half gone. No one had seemed to mind the tilt.

Trash Talk

Alburgh Transfer Station, Alburgh
Free trash day - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Free trash day

Jim Senesac was at the Alburgh Transfer Station on a Sunday to drop off two bags of trash and a box of recyclables, but soon he was chatting up Colby Hemond. Letting his pickup truck idle, Senesac stood with Hemond, one of the two transfer station attendants, and talked about his side gig.

"There's good money in roofing, but when you get older, it's time to quit," he said to Hemond, who nodded in agreement. 

Skip Prairie pulled up with a truckload of trash. Brendan Letourneau, the other attendant, helped him unload.

"Hey Jim," Prairie called out. "I owe you a call."

"If you want to talk to somebody," Senesac told me, "you gotta go to the dump." 

Brendan Letourneau (center) - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Brendan Letourneau (center)

That's true across Vermont, where more than 210 transfer stations serve as de facto gathering places. Seven Days readers reported that their local transfer station — be it in Montgomery, Springfield or Jericho — is a reliable place to connect with neighbors. Some tune in to WDEV's Saturday morning show "Music to Go to the Dump By."

This was Letourneau's second day back on the job; he had quit during the pandemic. Almost every driver who headed down Dump Road to the transfer station warmly greeted the tall, bald man in aviators and peppered him with questions. 

An older woman sporting floral garden shoes gave Letourneau a hug after dropping off her trash. "It's good to see you, Brendan," she said, smiling at him. Later, a customer gave Letourneau and Hemond a box of cookies. 

Free trash day - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Free trash day

Alburgh, a working-class town of 2,106 near the Canadian border, doesn't have many places for people to work or socialize. About five years ago, its only convenience store and deli closed. Now, Hemond said, most residents hang out at the Maplefields gas station down the road, across from the Dollar General. Or they happen upon neighbors at the dump.

By 3 p.m., things were really ramping up. John Chesarek and Ed Fisette both pulled up and greeted each other. Chesarek barraged Fisette with questions and made plans to meet up with him soon. 

Alburgh Selectboard member Elliot Knight (left) volunteering at free trash day - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Alburgh Selectboard member Elliot Knight (left) volunteering at free trash day

"I've been to his house two or three times for lawn sales," Chesarek explained. "And I always show up and think, Well, I'm gonna stop by some time with a bottle of wine, and we'll just sit and talk, but I never do."

Just before the 4 p.m. closing time, Bernie Croteau, who had stopped by earlier in the day, returned. "I have a raccoon problem," he announced to Hemond and Letourneau. The noisy creature had somehow made its way into his house.

Hemond, an avid hunter, suggested baiting a live trap with a can of tuna. That seemed to satisfy Croteau, who headed back to his car. No one questioned his decision to come to the dump to crowdsource raccoon-removal advice.

"There's nowhere else to go," he explained. "So I figured, I better go to the transfer station and ask around."

Something for Everyone

Elmore Store, Elmore
Robin Pugh helping Melissa Botaish at the Elmore Store - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Robin Pugh helping Melissa Botaish at the Elmore Store

Situated on picturesque Lake Elmore, across from Vermont's last operating one-room schoolhouse, the Elmore Store has been open since the early 1800s. It serves as a post office, local news hub, deli, pizzeria and coffee shop for residents of the quaint Lamoille County town, as well as the swell of summer campers who stay at Elmore State Park.

On an oppressively hot day, Olivia Larow, 18, stood behind the counter looking like she owned the place. In fact, she's been working in the historic grocery store since she was just 14. Her two temporary assistants, Hayleigh Miller and Kip Nichols, were shadowing Larow as part of a middle school project. Kip sported a Trump 2024 hat and experimented with scanning his hand while Hayleigh helped organize packages.

In the periphery, a suspender-clad elderly man drew mail from his post office box. 

June McKinley, a former employee of the Elmore Store who was visiting, poured herself a cup of coffee. "The pie your brother made yesterday was delicious," she told Larow, half looking up. By 11 a.m., the place was hopping.

The deck at the Elmore Store - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • The deck at the Elmore Store

The store nearly closed in 2021, when its owners of 38 years, Warren and Kathy Miller, decided to sell the operation and no one stepped up to buy it. Residents saw the writing on the wall; general store after general store had shuttered in neighboring towns. In response, a group of locals formed a community trust and raised about $400,000 — mostly from concerned Elmore residents — to purchase the building.

Securing a manager was a challenge. Jason Clark, an Elmore resident and chef, assumed the role about a month ago.

"He's the mayor of Elmore now," one customer declared. Clark laughed.

Despite his short tenure, Clark has already started making requested changes, including bringing back deli sandwiches, ice cream scoops, a monthly concert series and housemade pizza. Clark knows he has to respect decades of tradition — and an opinionated clientele. 

"I'm trying to make it inviting for everybody," Clark explained. "I got a lot of requests for beers other than the more expensive local ones."

Melissa Botaish checking her mail - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Melissa Botaish checking her mail

The store's offerings reflect its economically diverse customer base. You can buy a can of soup for $1.69, a jar of local honey for $17.99 and a neighbor's eggs for $5.60. (They sell out quickly.) A handwritten poster lists the ice-out dates for Lake Elmore going back to 1940. Amazon packages for residents pile up on the ice cream cooler. A trout caught in 1942 is mounted above the cash register, while another wall boasts a rack of earrings made by local artist Deborah Heller. "My hope is that you might enjoy nature's treasures," reads the sign above the display. "And you might get a glimpse that you are a treasure, too." 

Proximity to the lake means the summer is busiest. Around noon, a freckle-faced boy ran in wearing a drenched shirt that read: "I just really like walruses, OK?" He bought two ice cream sandwiches and scurried back outside.

On summer evenings, the back porch, which overlooks the lake, is filled with neighbors sipping beers and catching up. Stopping by for mail often leads to impromptu dinner invitations. Clark is hoping to capitalize on that energy, creating a summer schedule filled with music, pizza and gatherings.

Doug Wells, a long-haired owner of a solar company, stopped by to drop off a fresh batch of tomato starts he was selling at the store. "It's a hobby more than anything," he said, after watering the plants. Wells likes the excuse to drop in. "I see people here that I only get to see two or three times a year," he explained. "You don't really have much interaction with these people outside of the store."

Wham Jam

The Whammy Bar, Maple Corner, Calais
Open mic night at the Whammy Bar - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Open mic night at the Whammy Bar

"It's going to be a busy night," Sarah Gallagher called from the Whammy Bar kitchen to her daughter, Jamie Moorby. Gallagher was cooking the Thursday night special: tacos. "It's someone's birthday, and Eric's son is back in town," she noted.

Moorby, 40, a born-and-raised resident of Maple Corner, member of the Calais Selectboard, town road commissioner, and vice president of the Curtis Pond Association, took over the Maple Corner Community Store & Whammy Bar eight months ago. She is infusing new life into an establishment that is equal parts general store, music venue and restaurant. It's the heart of close-knit and increasingly affluent Maple Corner.

Bartender Nancy Toulis and her husband, MC Artie Toulis, the former owners, readied the bar area as patrons started rolling in, some still in their Carhartts or button-downs from a day of work.

A group of men in their thirties headed outside with beers while a family of five claimed a table near the front and ordered tacos.

The Toulises, who are musicians themselves, transformed the corner store's shed, which is attached to the general store, into a music-centered, living room-size bar in 2012. Since then, the Whammy Bar has become a neighborhood fixture and coveted music venue. Musicians often travel for hours to perform in the intimate space.

Open mic night - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Open mic night

"You can be a complete stranger and go there and feel like you were hanging out with the best family that night," said Dee Davis, who performs there regularly. "It's medicine. It's like the best medicine that I know of. If I didn't have those kinds of gigs, I wouldn't be alive."

By 6:45, just before the open mic night started, about 30 people packed the tiny space. The overflow poured into the backyard; some latecomers loitered in the hall. 

"Half the state of Vermont is here!" a man told Moorby.

A toddler picked at a plate of food. An elderly woman adjusted her hearing aids. In the corner, a group of women listened intently and nodded as another woman wearing huge red glasses talked.

Tacos, beers and margaritas circulated. A man started the open mic with a ukulele rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'."

Mike Chartier, a Woodbury resident in his thirties, sipped a beer. "It's like that scene in 'Cheers' where everyone knows your name," he said over the hum of the crowd. Jacob Markowicz, who sat next to Chartier, agreed. 

"You go to other bars to try and make conversation and friends, and it's awkward," Markowicz said. "After a couple of beers here, someone's my new best friend."

Chartier nodded effusively. "That's the Whammy Bar for you," he said.

Goals: Friendship and Fun

Landry Park, Winooski
The community pool at Landry Park - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • The community pool at Landry Park

Charlotte Blend — with her sons Addie and June, plus their dog Moose — approached Landry Park on a Monday evening. First to greet them was Molly Coffey, whose pooch, Leo, gave Moose big, slobbery kisses. Coffey and Blend discussed the dogs as Addie and June ran off to a nearby soccer field for their practice.

Next to come by was Jesse Halverson, or Mr. Jesse, as he is affectionately known, whose bleach-blond hair and arm tattoos flashed as he skateboarded to the edge of the soccer field. Halverson, a substitute teacher for the Winooski School District, volunteers in the evenings as a soccer coach for the Vermont Patriots, a local youth soccer league.

At 5:30 p.m. on this pleasant evening, the park was abuzz. On the playground, children chased each other down the slide. In the skate park, teens wearing oversize T-shirts and baseball caps compared tricks on skateboards. Middle-aged women played a pickup game of pickleball, darting up and down the makeshift court. A family picnicked at a table. Blend strolled around the soccer field, greeting neighbors and watching her sons play.

The city park is like an extension of Winooski's backyards during the warmer months. It's an inclusive, welcoming place that bridges continent-size cultural gaps in Winooski, a former mill town under transformation. That's no small feat for a city that last year was deemed "diverse but not inclusive" in an audit that it commissioned. While residents, many of whom are refugees, speak more than 30 languages, community members admit there are very few physical places where all feel welcome.

Landry is one, though. It has something that draws people across cultures: soccer.

Members of the Vermont Patriots, a youth soccer league - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Members of the Vermont Patriots, a youth soccer league

"You drop a soccer ball on the floor, and everyone knows what to do," Blend explained. "You don't need a common language."

For much of the year, the Vermont Patriots league fills the park as teams practice and compete. Iri Sunj, a Winooski resident who fled war in Bosnia, founded the league. Sunj was frustrated by the expense of most youth soccer programs, so the fee to join this one — $20 — is optional. About 100 children, mostly from Winooski, played during the past fall and spring seasons.

A few weeks ago, Blend said she met the dad of Hamza Alkailani, a new soccer player who had just moved to Winooski from Syria. Blend doesn't speak Arabic, and Alkailani's dad doesn't speak much English. The pair talked using "Google Translate, hand gestures and smiles," Blend explained.

Suddenly, Hamza scored an impressive goal, and his teammates erupted in cheers.

Nearby, soccer moms Hillary Gombar and Faridar Ko, stood in the playground. Ko fiddled with a gem that held her head covering in place while Gombar shooed a bug from her tattooed arm. Ko moved to Winooski from Burma 15 years ago. Gombar, meanwhile, spent her childhood in Landry Park; her grandparents lived across the street.

The two had seen each other at John F. Kennedy Elementary School but didn't become friends until they started coming to Landry Park. Now they spend their evenings chatting about jobs, parenting and "other annoyances," they said, laughing. 

A softball game at Landry Park - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • A softball game at Landry Park

"When [my family] started coming here, it felt life-changing," Gombar recalled. "[My husband and I] could just drop off our kids, but we both want to come." She pointed out her husband, who was chatting with other parents. 

Ko nodded. "It's nice to get other opinions on how to parent," she said. Ko's daughter ran up, asking for help getting on the slide. 

Just then Coffey walked by, her dog leading the way and her three children trailing. "I'll be right back," she called to her kids. "I need to go check on the banana bread." The kids scurried off to the playground.

Blend reflected on the busy scene. "Since the pandemic, I've noticed that people are making different decisions in their lives in various ways," she said.

"Could we live somewhere else? Sure. But we don't want to," she said. "We're in a pretty small house, but we wouldn't have it any other way. This is what's important." 

The original print version of this article was headlined "Green Mountain Meetups | Vermonters break bread, dance and forge communities in "third spaces""

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