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Super Volunteer Laura Hale Grows Community in Burlington's Old North End

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Laura Hale - ROBIN KATRICK
  • Robin Katrick
  • Laura Hale

When Burlington resident Toni Foote, a mother of six, faced a housing crisis in late July, a friend gave her some advice: Talk to Laura Hale. "If anyone knows what you should do, it's her," the friend told Foote.

Before long, Foote was in Hale's North Champlain Street condo, enjoying a cup of coffee. Her host went straight to work.

"She made a bunch of phone calls, told me what agencies to go to and found us some temporary housing through a friend," Foote said. Hale started a GoFundMe campaign and within weeks raised more than $2,000 for Foote's security deposit and first month's rent.

The effort epitomized 39-year-old Hale's ability to do "social work on a deep level," said Meg Cline, a resident of the city's Old North End and the friend of Foote's who connected the two women. It happens "through her mindful building of interactions in a way that nonprofits aren't able to, in a way the systems aren't able to," she said.

Hale shrugged off recognition of her efforts on Foote's behalf. "Toni did all the hard work," she said.

Her modesty masks the steady influence she's had on the neighborhood since she moved there in 2007. In small ways, Hale has fought big problems: gentrification, lack of community engagement, isolation and poverty. She offers community meals, plants flowers along the streets, organizes meetings to resolve conflicts over parking or code enforcement, introduces neighbors to each other, and works to unify the neighborhood.

"It's hard to not give a shit about people if you know them," she said with a laugh.

Her deep personal connections have shaped the neighborhood, residents say — helping to create what Foote called an "old-fashioned" feel, where Somali Bantu New Americans know the old-time residents, and neighbors share their extra house plants.

"She's been a stable, or stabilizing, force in our community," said 30-year resident Jeannie Waltz.

The neighborhood, just north of downtown, has the highest percentage of renters anywhere in the city. A mix of students, young professionals, families and New Americans call it home.

It also has the highest rate of nonwhite residents — 25 percent — and the highest poverty rate — 34 percent — in the city, according to 2016 U.S. Census data.

While the University of Vermont anchors the Hill Section, the South End Arts and Business Association keeps the South End lively, and the Church Street Marketplace works with retailers downtown, there's no organization that unifies the Old North End, Hale pointed out.

She's stepped in — not to spearhead a movement but to help connect people and resources so they can facilitate their own bottom-up revitalization. "Communities need to dictate their own future," she said.

Hale is all-in as a community builder. Last November, she quit her job as executive director of the Vermont Coalition of Clinics for the Uninsured, a network of nine free health clinics around the state, to do the work she prefers — the unpaid stuff. Now, she makes a living selling her art, teaching photography classes and writing grant applications as a freelancer. She works in the living room of her second-floor condo, where she can keep track of neighborhood kids from her window.

She's also passing on her knowledge to the next generation.

Hale is helping with the high school's new offering, Burlington City & Lake Semester, a program that will immerse Burlington High School juniors and seniors in the community. The class will study issues from water quality to housing, Dov Stucker, a social studies teacher and its lead instructor, wrote in an email.

In October, Hale will introduce students to the history of the neighborhood. She has been working to connect them with longtime residents to interview, according to Stucker.

He called Hale's connections a "game-changer." Of particular benefit to the students? She "clearly pays special attention to those she feels may otherwise have their voices overlooked," Stucker said.

It's a skill Hale learned early on.

She was born in Boston, the daughter of an insurance executive and an attorney. She spent much of her childhood at the home of her babysitter, a mom of five who lived in public housing.

From a young age, Hale spoke out about injustice. "I was a little kid with an outsized conscience and no fear of authority," she said.

When she was 5, her parents filed for divorce, starting a decade-long custody battle. By the time she graduated from high school, she'd stayed in 18 different bedrooms, moving between her parents' homes and friends' houses.

The experiences were formative.

"I spent my entire young life navigating between these places of class and race, and knowing how to switch between those cultures," she said.

Hale majored in theater at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and followed an ex-boyfriend to Vermont after she graduated in 2000.

She turned to nonprofit work, starting as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer for the United Way of Chittenden County. She worked for the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington, for Common Good Vermont and for the Joint Urban Ministry Project. At one point, she oversaw the AmeriCorps VISTA program for Burlington.

Since then, she's moved away from work with nonprofits and bureaucratic institutions and toward direct service, she told a reporter as she sipped coffee in her apartment from a mug emblazoned with "I believe in RBG," a reference to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Around her, shelves of books, records and knickknacks took up a living room wall. Two turtles lazed in a tank. A throw pillow with late NPR newsman Carl Kasell's face bedecked a couch on which, Hale said, countless people have slept.

Hale laughs infectiously and often, and she rarely sits still. She said she's pursued so many different passions that she'll turn 40 in October "with no idea what the heck I'm doing with my life."

She's married to Jessica Pierce-LaRose, who transitioned to female in 2016, six years after their wedding. The experience taught them both to empathize, rather than sympathize, with those who face discrimination, Hale said.

The couple made it through some rough patches, though their experiences in the community changed. For instance, wait staff in restaurants they frequented suddenly assumed they would pay with separate checks, thinking the two women were just friends.

Many of Hale's personal experiences have influenced her volunteer work.

Several years ago, she befriended two children who lived next door. They would visit each morning, and to keep them occupied, Hale taught them how to garden in flowerbeds outside her apartment.

But she couldn't find a source of funding that would cover the cost of plants for the kids to start their own garden.

In 2014, Hale launched the ONE Good Deed Fund, recruiting two friends to serve as board members and filing for 501c3 status. The organization gives grants of up to $100 for individuals who want to use the cash to help a neighbor, and up to $250 for a project that benefits the broader community.

The goal, said board member Debbie Krug, is to ensure that "people who are marginalized in some way or disenfranchised are able to thrive and grow in a space ... and not feel like they're a recipient. They're a contributor."

One man received funds to repair his bike, his sole means of transportation. A grant paid for winter boots for a woman so that she could walk her grandchildren to school. Hale and her board members host fundraisers to pay for the gifts.

Early on, former city councilor Sara Moore asked for $100 to buy materials to create a little free library for Carol Wooster, a North Street resident who wanted to host a spot to give away children's books. Pierce-LaRose volunteered to build the box to stay within budget and Hale painted it with sunflowers.

Typical Hale. "Oh God, that girl's always giving," Wooster said. "She never stops."

Hale said she has no political aspirations — "I'd rather chew a limb off," she quipped — but that's not to say she's sitting on the sidelines. She serves on Burlington's Parks Commission and works in a paid position seven hours a week for the three Old North End city councilors: Max Tracy (P-Ward 2), Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) and Jane Knodell (P-Central District). She researches issues and follows up on constituent concerns.

"She's reminding the elected officials and the people who work for the city ... of the diversity of needs in the community," Knodell said.

According to Pierce-LaRose, Hale remembers Sandy, an "old townie" who, before she died, lived with her kids and grandkids and didn't use the internet. When Hale is advertising for city meetings or local initiatives, Pierce-LaRose said, she still has a litmus test, asking herself: "Is someone like Sandy going to know about this?"

This fall, when Hale holds her second plant swap in the parking lot of the local elementary school and runs a neighborhood cleanup with the area's city councilors, she'll "reach out to all communities," Pierce-LaRose said. Hale is also working to install several "little free pantries," wooden boxes for residents to drop off or pick up food.

As for Toni Foote, she and her six children moved into a new apartment last week, not far from the old one.

"In times of transition," Foote said, "it's good to stay somewhere you know you're supported."

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