Matt Pickell, food program associate at the Upper Valley Haven, succinctly sums up the work that the Haven does in five straightforward words: “Good deeds happen here daily.”
Completing its 40th year in service, the Haven has long been providing shelter and education to those experiencing homelessness and food and other assistance to those in need. “The work here is very tangible,” Pickell says, “People come here, they need groceries and they leave with groceries.”
The Haven began its work in 1980, founded officially in 1982 by a group of five Upper Valley citizens in an old farm building on Hartford Avenue, formerly Taft Avenue. “At the very beginning it was all volunteers,” says Michael Redmond, in the fourth year of his tenure as executive director of the Haven, “There were no paid staff and there was a host family for the shelter at the site of present-day Hixon House, the Haven’s adult shelter.” From these beginnings, the Haven has grown to a powerhouse of good in the Upper Valley, serving over 10,000 individuals in the past year alone who needed food, shelter, or a helping hand.
Ron Paprocki of Quechee, a six-year member of the Haven board says the Haven’s reputation as a force for good is what first drew him to the organization. Putting down roots in Quechee in 2002, he and his wife’s friend Roger Shepard introduced them to the Haven: “Roger is such a great supporter of the Haven. He said, ‘If you’re moving here, you absolutely need to get to know this organization.’” He recalls being immediately impressed by what the Haven does for so many people. An instant supporter, Paprocki was nominated as a board member in 2017 when Shepard reached his term limit. “I’m proud of working at the Haven. There is no place better or nothing more satisfying than working with the Haven because of their mission. We’re all devoted, dedicated, and convinced of the mission of the Haven,” Paprocki says.
Renee Weeks, longtime director of clinical services at the Haven now working as the director of complex care & field services at the Vermont Agency of Human Services, speaks of the Haven’s work as something special: “There’s a phrase around here that we use in-house and we call it Haven magic.” She tells stories of serendipitous instances such as when a family will be moving to permanent housing out of the shelter and will be in need of a mattress. Half an hour later a donor will call wishing to donate a mattress. It’s not just these sorts of instances that make the Haven special though, Weeks says, it’s also the staff: “We refer to our staff as the magicians of the Haven, because not only is it these moments of ‘Wow, I can’t believe that happened right when we needed it,’ but the staff are doing that work every day.”
“The staff is terrific, very dedicated, very hardworking, imaginative,” Paprocki says. The Haven staff aims to bring a personal touch to each interaction with the Haven’s guests: “We work with folks to personalize the situation to whatever the person might need, whether that’s assistance loading the groceries into the car or access to a can opener. We really try to not say no. If we have the ability to do it, we will,” Pickell says. This open door policy, Redmond says, is central to the Haven philosophy of work: “People can come to us for any time, for any reason, from any place, no matter who they are, and ask for help.”
This philosophy is apparent on a visit to the Haven’s welcoming location on Hartford Avenue. While they’ve had to adjust in many ways in the past couple of years to keep their residents and community safe, the Haven team are there still with smiles on their faces, packaging and filling curbside pickup orders, stacking the pantry, and so much more. Guests say that the friendliness and passion of the staff make a difference. Roseanne Rice and Bobbiejo Chambers make the trek from Springfield to Hartford because they know the folks at the Haven will always be generous. “The Haven is a very good place to come,” says Rice when picking up a delivery of groceries, “There is always a friendly face.”
Many of these friendly faces at the Haven are volunteers. The Haven utilizes the skills and generosity of hundreds of volunteers a month, and many of these volunteers have been coming back for years.
The community is also a huge part of what keeps the Haven rolling day-to-day. Laura Gillespie, director of development and communications at the Haven, sees that on a personal level in her work of raising much-needed funds: “People are so frequently and generously thinking of ways to support our work.” Gillespie shares the story of two little kids coming in with their family to donate $17.46 from their lemonade stand. “It’s a joy to do this work,” Gillespie says, “You don’t have to explain to people why they should give and give generously. They get it.”
Quechee, Paprocki is certain to mention, has been a big part of the community support for the Haven over the years. He notes the variety of donations that regularly come from Quechee and QLLA, such as the Quechee Elves. The Quechee Elves, led by “head elf” Lisa Lacasse, supply gifts for the families in residence at the Haven and donate to the food pantry. “For over 12 years, the Quechee Elves, made up of members from the Quechee Lakes Community have helped fund children’s holiday baskets throughout the Upper Valley, and one of our key partners is The Upper Valley Haven,” Lacasse says, “We are proud to sponsor such an amazing non-profit in our backyard.”
“The Quechee community has been extremely generous,” Paprocki says, “and I know the Haven is very grateful for that. We continue to need that help and look forward to it continuing in the future.”
In the 2021 holiday season, community support came to the Haven in a big way, as it has for the previous nine years. Each December, the Haven runs its “19 Days of the Valley” campaign, in which businesses around the community donate a portion of their sales to the Haven. The funds raised by the local businesses are now also matched by the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation, and in 2021, the 19 Days raised more the $500,000 for the Haven. “I am just so buoyed by this community effort on our behalf,” Gillespie says. The Haven will begin its tenth “19 Days” campaign on Thanksgiving Day.
These funds will be crucial to the Haven’s work. Paprocki shares that an increasing number of folks are utilizing the Haven’s food shelf: “The need is persistent and ever increasing. The Haven services are going to be as important as ever.”
As part of the board team overseeing the search for the new director and strategic planning, Paprocki has seen the Haven grow and change to meet the challenges of our time. ”What hasn’t changed,” he says, “is the focus on our mission. That is the constant that keeps us all devoted to the Haven.”
“We haven’t stood still,” Redmond says with a smile, “We’re trying to meet the needs of the community and be imaginative, creative, brave – all of those things. That’s the employee magic.”
Overall, the message from the Haven is pride in their work and how much they appreciate the support they receive. “I’m proud of our group, proud of our volunteers, and proud of our community. Working at the Haven completely changed my life and changed the life of a lot of people here. I am very proud to tell people I work here. There are a lot of success stories.” Pickell says. “It’s the best job I ever had,” Redmond says, “There’s just this feeling of everyone pulling together for things that we believe in and that we are all meant to be here at this moment in our life.”
The issues that the Haven addresses are truly pressing issues here in our community and in the state of Vermont. “When I came here,” Weeks says, “seeing how prevalent homelessness was in our small state was really alarming to me, and seeing how many people in our state are living right at the edge of affordability.” The Haven works to de-stigmatize the idea of people reaching out for help when they need it, as there is no telling when or why someone might need help. Weeks remarks on how quickly or easily it is for any of us to become homeless in unexpected and difficult circumstances and encourages people to reach out when they need it. Pickell recalls the words of a shelter guest: “I wish I would’ve asked for help sooner.”
The Haven is celebrating its 40th Anniversary by sharing 40 stories of people, events, ideas, and services fundamental to its mission that can be found on its website at www.uppervalleyhaven.org. The Haven is open Mon-Thu: 9:00am-4:30pm and Fri: 9:00am-3:00pm. The Haven relies overwhelmingly upon support from the community to carry out its mission. Support comes in myriad ways, including financial donations, volunteer time, and donations of food and clothing. Over 70% of the Haven’s revenues come directly from individuals who make donations by check, credit card, or gifts of stock.