The Beverly Fowle Fiertz Community Center, located at The Upper Valley Haven in White River Junction, Vermont, is better known throughout the community as “Bev’s House.” When you listen to those who work or volunteer at Bev’s House speak about their experience, you can hear the warm familiarity spoken with the name, and walking through the halls and rooms lends one to believe she will come around the next corner and introduce herself. It could be her home after all: Bev’s artwork is found in every room, and her family portrait and diploma are prominently displayed in the front sitting room.
Her memory—she passed in 2010—provides the mission of the home. Through the various interpretations I’ve heard, she was an engaging, intelligent, and pioneering woman who worked on her personal development in undeniably meaningful ways: she became a lawyer in her late 50s to work for low-income women, pursued art into late life, traveled the world, and married her high school sweetheart. Next to the front door, pieces of her life story are framed along with the center’s mission statement:
“Bev’s House gives people experiencing poverty the opportunity for change in their lives through the internal discovery that comes from the expressive arts, and the justice that comes from legal advocacy. The goal of Bev’s House is to enrich the lives of others through her model of creative contemplation and active community service.”
The mission is provided through her husband, Alden Fiertz, a current resident of Woodstock. Judy Frost, the previous owner of the home, sold it to the Haven with the understanding that it would be used to extend the Haven’s mission. The multipurpose house serves any community organization that needs a meeting place. Most importantly, it is still very much a home saturated with the presence of children. This Friday afternoon, I’m led around the house by Upper Valley Haven Director Sara Kobylenski and it’s full to the brim with kid’s voices and laughter. If you come to Bev’s House, you’ll likely be greeted by a child, or multiple children, running after each other, calling out to a favorite staff member, or if they notice you at all, it might be to offer a Play-doh cupcake.
“What flavor are they?,” Kobylenski asks a seven-year old. The child seems disappointed that she doesn’t know so she informs her: “they’re Play-doh flavored.” Kobylenski gives the cupcake a pretend nibble, and declares it delicious, the girl satisfied runs out the front door where the next adult given a Play-doh cupcake is heard declaring “Mmmmm, tastes like Play-doh!,” and a cacophony of delighted laughter from any kid within earshot follows.
Guided through the home with Kobylenski, we find a different group of kids involved in activities with various staff and volunteers in almost every room. There are around 30 kids on this Friday afternoon, other days typically have more, but some are out with their Dartmouth College mentors from the Dartmouth Dream Kids programs. The Bev’s House after-school program boasts a healthy 2:1 child to adult ratio. In the half hour that I’m there, I see a group making peanut butter dip for apples in the dining den by the kitchen, from the kitchen window a group is playing basketball with a few volunteers, upstairs in the reading room two younger kids are cuddled up close on a beanbag chairs listening to a story being read aloud, and next to that, the art room has a single child working with multiple colored pencils drawing a piece of paper in the surprisingly quiet space.
Erin Wetherell comes to check in on this child. Wetherell is the Children’s Services Coordinator and she tells me that the room is typically the homework space, but they take a break from homework on Fridays. This day is a bit atypical as a key staff member is out. Usually, the kids would visit the “store” every Friday. The Children’s Program includes a token economy replete with bank accounts, Haven dollars earned through helping with tasks, taxes to pay. They can use their Haven dollars to purchase a number of fun things during a trip to the store, or the kids can decide to save up their Haven dollars to go on the winter trip to Smitty’s Movie Theatre—where you get to eat while watching a show!
The children’s program serves the children of any family that is a previous or current resident of the Haven family shelter. Any school-aged child can participate in the after school and summer programs. The summer program is varied with a diverse range of activities that would excite any kid: from horseback riding at Moonrise Farm in Taftsville, Vermont, to hiking, visiting museums, swimming lessons at the Hartford pool, photography lessons, and overnight stays at local summer camps. The Weekend Backpack program sends the kids home with meals for the weekend for the entire family.
The full extent of the program’s details would be difficult to relate. I feel lucky to have been provided a personal tour surrounded by the children at their most comfortable. Judy Frost and the Fiertz’s have provided the keystones to something that undeniably works to the benefit of the most underserved part of any community. The magnitude of the opportunity provided to these children’s long term well-being is something the Hartford community can truly be proud of.
For more information about Bev’s House or the other programs offered by the Upper Valley Haven please visit http://uppervalleyhaven.org/.