- Rachel Hellman working on a Vermont State Park campsite
In May of 2020, Rachel Hellman graduated with honors from Washington University in St. Louis and started looking for a job in journalism. Her timing was terrible. The number of U.S. reporters has been declining for years, and the early days of the pandemic exacerbated that trend. "There was a lot more firing than hiring going on then," Hellman recalled in a phone interview from her current home in Brooklyn.
So Hellman turned to AmeriCorps, a national service organization, and found a carpentry gig with the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps. A New York native, she'd never been to Vermont — or done carpentry — but she gave it a go.
Hellman spent the fall of 2020 repairing lean-tos and building backcountry composting toilets in Vermont State Parks as part of a six-person crew. She learned to use power tools, camped in a tent, made meals over a campfire, and marveled at foliage season in Elmore and Groton state forests. "It was a pretty magical time," she said.
Smitten with the state, Hellman stuck around for a year, working at Roam in Montpelier and the Plainfield Co-op, followed by a six-month stint at Field Stone Farm in Northfield. Ever the journalist, she also saw "stories" around her and proposed writing them as a freelancer to various media outlets, including the Boston Globe and Backpacker. She said she'd never felt so connected to a community before.
Her year of working and reporting in central Vermont was great training for a full-time writing job at Seven Days. Starting on June 1, Hellman will be covering the challenges, opportunities and innovations in the state's small, rural towns. We found her through Report for America, which recruits talented and driven "emerging" journalists and deploys them to local newsrooms around the country. The nonprofit has grown apace with the national need. In 2017, RFA placed 59 "corps members"; this year, it will deploy 300 of them, including Hellman. It announced the names and news outlets yesterday.
RFA's parent nonprofit, the GroundTruth Project, pays half of the corps member's salary in the first year; the percentage of its subsidy decreases in years two and three. Seven Days has to raise the rest — and we did, thanks to a matching grant from Vermont Coffee founder Paul Ralston and another local individual who wants to remain anonymous.
Both donors see the struggles over affordable housing, mental health care, equitable schooling, drug treatment and economic independence that are playing out in rural Vermont — often far from the media spotlight. These are concerns Hellman is eager to cover.
In her RFA application, she wrote: "For the past year, I have been working as a freelance journalist covering issues ranging from forestry in Vermont to flooding in the Midwest. I have seen firsthand how good reporting can strengthen democracy in small communities."
Help her hit the ground running by sending story ideas and tips to email@example.com.
Paula Routly is on vacation and will return next week.