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Formed In Wake Of Tragedy, 7 Years Later Rutland's 'Project Vision' Still Building Community

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Nina Keck
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VPR
About 100 people attended a recent community dinner in Rutland sponsored by the local police department and members of Project Vision.

In 2012, when 17-year-old Carly Ferro was struck and killed in Rutland by a driver who was reportedly high, the police, city leaders and local residents turned their anger and heartbreak into community action.

They created something called Project Vision: a grassroots group, spearheaded by Rutland’s police department, that includes dozens of nonprofit groups, church leaders, local officials and hundreds of volunteers. More than seven years later, Vision Partners — as members call themselves — are still hard at work.

That was the case on a recent evening when about a hundred people showed up for a community dinner the group held at a public school.

Rutland Police Chief Brian Kilcullen was there with about a dozen other officers, encouraging visitors to help themselves to food and drinks. Joining them were representatives from a number of local social service agencies.

A police officer talks to people sitting at a table eating dinner.
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Rutland Police Commander Matthew Prouty talks to locals at a community dinner hosted by Project Vision and the city police department.

While the banter in the cafeteria was light-hearted, Kilcullen said the underlying reason for getting together was anything but. In the weeks prior, the community had grappled with a number of deaths.

On Oct. 8, Christopher G. Louras, the oldest son of former Mayor Christopher Louras, was killed in a police shootout downtown. Hours later, 34-year-old Nicholas Louras, the slain man’s cousin, was found shot to death in what police say is a connected murder. Nicholas Louras was not only the nephew of the former mayor, but also the nephew of current Rutland Mayor David Allaire. 

Police are still investigating and there are no clear answers for the public yet.

“Well, after the incident on Oct. 8 that we had here downtown, you know, we realized that if it wasn't abundantly clear prior, it was certainly very apparent that the families dealing with various issues have incredible struggles,” said Kilcullen. “And there are resources in the community to help deal with those struggles. And we wanted to make sure that the community was aware of those resources.”

A few weeks later, another tragedy: Twenty-six-year-old Jacqueline Burch was killed in a car accident on Main Street that involved a driver who was allegedly seen by first responders huffing on an aerosol can.

A crowd of seated people looking toward a screen at the front of teh room.
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About 90 people attended November's Project Vision meeting, where speakers Christi Anderson of Rutland Regional Medical Center and JoEllen Tarallo, director for the Center of Health and Learning, talked about efforts to eliminate suicide.

Amanda Wolf, who works for BROC Community Action in Rutland, was at the evening meal to talk about restorative justice services in the community. She admitted the police shooting in downtown Rutland shocked her.

"But I think that I was really impressed with the community support that came afterward. Just knowing that as soon as it happened ... people were reaching out to the police department and letting them know, you know, we're here to support you," Wolf said. "And just seeing the community come together, you know, after that event was really great and reminds me why I love living in Rutland."

However Rutland Police Commander Matthew Prouty said he’s not sure people in Rutland would have reacted with the same kind of empathy 10 years ago; back then, there was a lot of anger and mistrust toward the police department and frustration over the city's escalating drug problem.

Prouty, who serves as Project Vision's executive director, believes the group has done a lot to change those attitudes.

“I consider people friends that maybe 10 years ago, it wouldn't have been someone that I would’ve spent any time with, or even talked to, just because it wasn't the circle that I was in,” explained Prouty. “You know, we tend to be around like-minded people, and police sometimes that's — you know, we have our own little subculture.”

"I don't know that many people outside of Rutland realize what's happening here and all the care and the passion." — Kimberly Williams, Vermont Food Bank

Prouty said Project Vision's monthly meetings have helped hundreds in the city connect in new ways. He said he thinks part of the reason for that is because of the group’s unique design.

“What's kind of cool about Project Vision is that we actually don't have any rules: we have no board of directors, we have no bylaws,” Prouty explained.  

What they do have, Prouty said, are two basic principles: "collaborate for the greater good and focus on the positive."

Regular meetings take place on the second Thursday of the month. They start at noon, and generally 80 to 100 people show up. At those meetings the mayor and police chief provide updates on local initiatives, and there's usually a keynote speaker.

Project Vision’s chairperson Joe Kraus emcees the meeting, and he welcomes newcomers by asking any first-time visitors to stand up and tell the group a bit about who they are and why they’ve come.

“That introduction is a little thing,” said Kraus, “but I think taking the time to chat with first-time visitors a bit is critical to our success because it shows how much we have in common.”

Person holds a microphone, while someone is seated on a small stage behind.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
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VPR
Joe Kraus holds a microphone and listens as someone from the audience speaks at a recent Project Vision meeting in Rutland. Commander Matthew Prouty of the Rutland City Police Department listens from his seat on stage.

Savannah Crowther was one of several first-timers at the November meeting.

“I was super surprised by the attendance; I wasn't expecting that many people to care,” she admitted.

Crowther recently moved to Rutland from Portland, Oregon. As a young mother who likes to walk, she said she wanted to advocate for better pedestrian safety.

“It was super uplifting and enlightening to see that a lot of people in the community care about issues," Crowther said. "And then even afterwards, people coming up to me and talking about how much they relate, I guess, to the issues I brought up. Even though I’m relatively new here, my voice was heard.”

Rutland resident Kellie Ettori was another first-time visitor to a Project Vision meeting.

“I thought it was amazing,” Ettori said afterward. “I made connections, I learned things. I am signing up to volunteer if I can, and I’m very interested in what I heard from the keynote speaker about suicide prevention." 

Looking around the room, she shook her head: “I’m just wondering why I haven’t come sooner.”

A group of three people standing around talking.
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First-time visitor to Project Vision Kellie Ettori, center, talks with Mary Feldman, left, and Kimberly Williams after a recent meeting.

Members say these meetings do more than make people feel good. Committees have been hard at work to improve neighborhoods, reduce crime and fight addiction – and those efforts seem to be paying off.

According to Bradley Goodhale, an analyst with the Rutland City Police Department, burglaries without force dropped 82% between 2013 and 2018. In that same time period, Goodhale said burglaries involving force were down 59% and shoplifting declined by 41%.

Brennan Duffy, director of the Rutland Redevelopment Authority, said in one of neighborhoods targeted by Project Vision, homeownership rates are up, and the median sales prices in that northwest neighborhood more than doubled between 2014 and 2018. 

Prouty said a group listserve with nearly 500 Project Vision members continually addresses all sorts of issues.

"People can send me an email,” explained Prouty, “say, ‘hey, listen, I have a client that is in need of A, B and C,' or 'I have a vet that's coming out of homelessness but has nothing.’ I can shoot that request out onto the listserve and usually within a few minutes or a day or so, we have met that need that's out there."

"Everyone says if you want to get something done, just go to Project Vision, and then you can connect and you can network with folks who are doing similar work." — Mary Feldman, Rutland County Parent-Child Center

"When I get a request that I see on the listserve, if I can take care of it, I absolutely jump on it,” said Mary Feldman, who directs the Rutland County Parent-Child Center.

“When I moved here a few years ago, the first thing I did was come to Project Vision,” Feldman explained. “Everyone says if you want to get something done, just go to Project Vision, and then you can connect and you can network with folks who are doing similar work.”

Kimberly Williams, with the Vermont Food Bank, calls what happens within the group magic: “I don’t know that many people outside of Rutland realize what’s happening here and all the care and the passion.”

Even 40 minutes after the meeting ended, there were still clusters of people in the room catching up. Kraus explained that most of the heavy lifting that committees do to fight crime and addiction happens during separate meetings, so the monthly meetings are often more fun.

“Even though we’re dealing with difficult, complex and tragic issues,” Kraus said, “the attitude in this room is very positive.”

And its the group's positive attitude, Prouty said, that makes the tragedies easier to bear.

"We're going to grieve and then we're gonna get back to work," Prouty said. "That's what we're gonna do.”

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