BURLINGTON - Sarah Rose, 13, put down her paint roller to explain why she was helping decorate a house in downtown Burlington that will soon be home for 10 women newly released from prison.
"It's important because people deserve a second chance to get back on their feet instead of going back to their problems," the Hunt Middle School student said.
Sarah was one of several volunteers who spent last Saturday readying the 150-year-old Varney House on Cherry St. for its opening early next month as the Northern Lights transitional home. They are donating not only time but also money to paint and furnish the bedrooms where the former inmates will stay for up to a year under the supportive supervision of a consortium of agencies while seeking permanent homes.
"It's a chance to have fun and decorate in your own taste," HowardCenter volunteer Ginny Couture said of the workers she was helping to coordinate. Each of the rooms in the refurbished home is being "done up with love and kindness," Couture added.
Red Vincent said she plans to hang a few of her own photos in the second-floor bedroom that she and her husband, retired Burlington fire marshal John Vincent, were painting a springy green. In addition to Vermont landscapes and black-and-white shots of Church St., the bedroom will be outfitted with spare furnishings from the Vincents' New North End home and bedding they're buying.
Why does the couple give so generously?
"I feel bad for people who don't know how to give of themselves," Red replied. "They're missing out on something wonderful."
"We're Burlingtonians," John added. "We're here to help new neighbors."
Laurie Valentine, 76, is donating her services as a semi-professional interior designer. The Wake Robin resident said she took a correspondence course in home-decorating a decade ago, and now looks for opportunities "to do pro bono work in a way I really enjoy."
Valentine hasn't decided on the décor for the home's 130-square-foot dining room, which must accommodate 10 residents and a live-in staffer, but she knows plaid won't be part of it. "That's the kind of thing you'd see in a prison waiting room," Valentine suggested.
Her aim for the Varney House interior is to "show you can make an environment pretty and make yourself feel better as a result. It's known that the environment you build around you becomes part of your personality."
One way to achieve a cheery look at 76 Cherry St. is by "getting as much light as possible into the rooms," Valentine explained. "Other than that, though, it's pretty constraining, given the size of the spaces and the budget."
About $15,000 from the project's $600,000 capital cost has been set aside for interior design, Valentine said. The total sum included the purchase price of the property, which had sat empty for 15 years. The Burlington Housing Authority bought the Varney House, which abuts the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, from the Catholic Diocese of Burlington for $185,000. BHA continues to own the building; residents' rent will come from a portion of their own employment income and federal housing subsidies; the Howard Center will cover those ineligible for subsidies.
While the HowardCenter is responsible for coordinating services for Northern Lights, the nine social agencies sponsoring the transitional housing program will share the task of delivering them, including staff. The women will receive rehabilitation services, including job counseling.
An open house on May 29 will let the community see the transformation of the multi-sectional clapboard home. Among the invited guests are local merchants who tried to block Northern Lights, arguing that the Varney House should be reused in a way more in sync with downtown commerce.
Members of the consortium had sought to soothe skeptics' concerns, said Cara Gleason, a staff member at the HowardCenter. The former prisoners, who may range in age from 23 to 59, will be screened by the Vermont Department of Corrections to ensure they remain nonviolent, she said.
"This will be a good start for these women," suggested Red Vincent. "It'll be a safe environment with everything they need right nearby."
Northern Lights at Varney House will help meet a share of the "incredible need for transitional housing," Gleason said. As many as 100 female offenders remain imprisoned beyond their scheduled release date because they have no appropriate place to go, according to the Vermont Department of Corrections.
Beth Dusablon, another volunteer painter, said she knows how difficult it can be for a female former inmate to find a place of her own. A third- and fourth-grade teacher at Allen Brook School in Williston, Dusablon said she had mentored a woman released from prison a few years ago. "She really wanted to get her life together," Dusablon recalled, "but it was so hard to get an apartment she could afford."
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