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These Vermonters Came Together To Help Their Neighbors During The Pandemic. But When Can They Stop?

A rainbow flag flies in front of a white church.
Elodie Reed
At the United Church of Thetford, congregation members are not ready to give up their practice of ringing the church bells every evening, something they started doing during the pandemic. For many, it just feels too soon.

When Erika Hoffman-Kiess first heard about people applauding for frontline workers in big cities, she didn’t think that would work so well in her town of Thetford.

“There are some places in Vermont where you can go outside your door and bang a pot and pan and nothing’s going to happen because nobody hears you,” she said. “But we do have a lot of churches.”

And those churches have bells.

At the height of the pandemic last year, bells rang out from five churches and school buildings in Thetford every evening at 7 p.m., including where Hoffman-Kiess worships — the United Church of Thetford.

“It seemed like a way to just let people know that we were thinking about them, and that we were thanking them,” she said. 

A woman stands at the entrance to a dark church hallway.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Barbara Mason rings the bell each week, often with the help of her grandson. When she could not sing with her choir, Mason used the church as a practice space.

While the evening bells at other churches stopped ringing months ago — at the end of last summer or, at one church, when the rope for the bell broke — the group at the United Church of Thetford has kept at it. 

Every night for over a year, someone from the congregation has climbed the narrow staircase at the front of the church to ring the structure's 150-year-old bell.

Even in the early days of the pandemic, the question arose: how long they were going to be doing this? 

In June, eight of the bell ringers met at the church, along with a shy 2-year-old.

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It was just a few days after the governor lifted Vermont’s emergency restrictions, and the first time they’d all been together since this collective project began. 

Despite this new phase, the overall sentiment from the group was that they’re not ready to stop. 

Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
Several of the bell ringers met at the church in June. It was the first time many had been together since before the pandemic.

“It’s hard to think of just stopping because of an event at a statehouse,” said Joshua Monette. 

He rings the bell Saturday nights and lives right next to the church. Monette says that hearing the sound every evening serves as a reminder of what we’ve lost and of the people still hurting. 

Two women help a toddler in a church hallway.
Credit Elodie Reed / VPR
In Thetford, Jesse White likes to ring the church bell for three minutes.

Another neighbor, Jesse White, rings Wednesdays. 

“I want to continue because it’s not over,” she said. 

“It doesn’t feel like we just ended this. I’m really happy that we can be sitting here together and we can be gathering in church, but there’s so many people suffering.”

In other places in Vermont, some people who came together to support their neighbors during the pandemic feel like they don’t have the option to stop. 

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Hillary Gombar has been involved with Winooski Mutual Aid since early on in the pandemic. She says the group got its start when several families in the area couldn’t get food from the city’s schools or Food Shelf. She helped organize a food drive and delivery.

“I have a Subaru Forester and it was exploding with food to the ceiling and out, everywhere,” she recalled.

Two people set up a mutual aid stand with food under a tent on a street in Winooski.
Credit Hillary Gombar, Courtesy
Winooski Mutual Aid organizer Arbai Muhina and Amanita Gombar set up for a free pop-up market outside of the OBrien Community Center in May.

Since then, Winooski Mutual Aid has continued to deliver food to dozens of families. They hold pop-up markets, and winter clothing and diaper drives, filling in gaps where community needs remain.

But those needs don’t appear to be letting up. 

“How we are now  — I don't feel like I could just disappear for a few weeks. And that's not sustainable,” Gombar said. 

Other social service organizations in Vermont have reported sustained levels of need for services like food assistance in recent months, even as some government-sponsored programs wind down.

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“What our group is ... we don’t rely on government funding,” Gombar said. “We don’t just have to end on people.”

Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Lexi Krupp @KruppLexi.

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