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Rutland Uses Shared Vision To Fight Back Against Drugs And Crime

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Nina Keck
/
VPR
Project Vision members brainstorm ways to bring winter clothing to needy families during a recent monthly meeting in Rutland.

Two years ago this week 17-year old Carly Ferro, a popular high school senior in Rutland, was killed by a driver police say was high on drugs.

For a city struggling to come to grips with its growing addiction problem, Ferro’s death was a gut-wrenching wake up call. 

City officials say the tragedy galvanized people from all parts of the county to join forces and fight back in a grassroots effort called Project Vision.

Members of the group meet once a month at a church in downtown Rutland. At the most recent meeting, about 80 people filled the room.

"It's incredible to think that so many different factions of the city and county are here and care so much and have continued for the last two years." - Mary Cohen, Project Vision Member

Mary Cohen says she tries to make as many of the meetings as she can because the energy is palpable. She waves to several people nearby. “It’s incredible to think that so many different factions of the city and county are here and care so much and have continued for the last two years,” she says.

Cohen works with a nonprofit housing agency. But there are also business leaders in the crowd, police officers, lawyers, social workers, educators and neighborhood activists - all grappling to solve problems involving drugs, jobs, housing, family life and crime.

Joe Kraus raises his hands at the front of the room to quiet the crowd and begin the meeting.

"For every person who raises a subject, I know I can walk them over to another person in the room right now and say this is so-and-so, introduce them and say here's your interest, here's hers. What can we do about that?" - Patti Lancaster, Project Vision Member

A former utility executive, Kraus says he was skeptical when city officials asked him to lead the volunteer effort two years ago because the concept was so nebulous. “Unlike most organizations we don’t have a big board of directors, we don’t have bylaws, we don’t have rules, we don’t have a budget!” he says shaking his head.

But what the organization does have, he says, is passion for Rutland. “Project Vision just keeps asking the question what can you do to make this a better place?” says Kraus. “Who can you partner with that you typically don’t think of as a partner, to be creative, to take some risks? And he adds, “We do whatever we can to help facilitate.”

Most of the heavy lifting at the monthly meetings occurs when the crowd breaks into committees.

Today, one of the groups is discussing how to expand a needle exchange program, while another goes over a new approach police are taking with addicts who want treatment. A third group is brainstorming how best to get winter clothing to needy families.

Attorney Patti Lancaster works in the Defender General’s office in Rutland.  She says, “For every person who raises a subject, I know I can walk them over to another person in the room right now and say this is so-and-so, introduce them, say, ‘Here’s your interest, here’s hers. What can we do about that?’”

Lancaster says it’s what makes these meetings so exciting. “I know there’s going to be three opportunities or more to have that happen each meeting, every month," she says. "So I think there’s something going on here.”

Rutland police Chief James Baker, one of the founders of Project Vision, says the people and the tools to make Rutland better already existed. It was just a matter of bringing them together.

“Look, the first big thing we tackled with Project Vision was the methadone clinic,” says Baker. “It was controversial. People were very emotional on one side of the issue or the other. But the methadone clinic is here now, and even though we’ve had a couple issues, that clinic is dosing 400 people and what we’ve seen as a result of that is we’ve seen our larcenies and burglaries go down.”

"It's water cooler conversations that are getting this job done; it's not complicated. They stand around the coffee pot in the morning, they have a conversation about a situation that's been happening and then its all tied together with our mapping." - Rutland Police Chief James Baker

Baker says the collaborative ideals of Project Vision are now at work inside the police department. He says mental health and social workers, as well as representative from the Corrections Department, the Attorney General’s Office and the local women’s shelter now work right alongside police officers. “And why that’s significant is it’s water cooler conversations that are getting this job done. It’s not complicated,” says Baker. “They stand around the coffee pot in the morning, they have a conversation about a situation that’s been happening and then it’s all tied together with our mapping.”

The Police Chief says most of the calls his department receives are not about crimes but about bad behavior. Things like suspicious activity, complaints about animals and disorderly conduct. He says they’re quality of life issues that his department is now better able to resolve. “Right now, for the first six months of 2014, our calls for service are down 25 percent,” says Baker. “It’s even phenomenal to me.”

Other parts of Vermont are taking note. Baker and Rutland Mayor Chris Louras spoke about the city’s efforts this week at a public meeting in Springfield.  And Joe Kraus says he’s been contacted by activists in several counties wondering how they can create their own Project Visions.

But on Rutland city streets, reviews are decidedly mixed. Two women working at a downtown convenience store scoffed at the idea that things in the city are any better. They weren’t willing to give their names, bus said drug abuse was still rampant.

A few blocks away Lynne Fredette, who’s street has been hit hard by crime, was more hopeful. 

Standing on her front porch, she says the city finally fixed the streets and sewers around her home and there’s a new community garden she likes. While she hadn’t heard about Project Vision, she says whatever the police are doing seems to be working. She points to flowers and hosta plants she put in and smiles. "People left them alone this year. I have my little flag out here and three years ago it wouldn’t be there, it would have been gone.”  

While she says good paying jobs would do even more for the city, what she is seeing is a start.