Next Sunday, walk a mile in COTS’ shoes

Imagine you’re eighteen years old and beginning your freshman year of college in northern Vermont. You’re from a small town on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and this is your first time away from home. Your parents divorced when you were six, and your mom remarried. Your father moved to Vermont and you saw him less and less over the next decade. As a part of your campus orientation, you’ve volunteered to work with the homeless. It’s the very end of August. On your second day with your fellow freshmen and a few upper class leaders, you are in a building that has been converted into single-room occupancy apartments for formerly homeless women and men. While some of the students are cooking for the residents, you’re playing a board game with others in the common room. When you look up, there – coming through the door – is your father. One of the residents. Someone who had been, quite clearly, homeless.

This is precisely what happened to Nicole Marshall, 25. Marshall was an incoming freshman at Saint Michael’s College in August 2005 when she was volunteering at St. John’s Hall, one of the buildings in downtown Burlington that the Committee on Temporary Shelter has converted into permanent housing for the homeless. There is a stigma to homelessness, and so Nicole had not yet told her new acquaintances that her father – who she had not seen in over three years – might be a COTS client.

The father and daughter reconciled almost casually, as if they saw each other regularly. Still, one of the student leaders was so she moved that she left the room crying. “But the thing that really touched me,” Nicole recalled, “was seeing the volunteers interacting with the men and women who lived at St. John’s, including my dad. Up until then, I hadn’t heard a lot of people say nice things about my father, but all these people who knew him were telling me how much they liked him and how funny and helpful he was.”

Nicole’s father has been battling alcoholism and mental illness most of her life. All too often, alcoholism and mental illness go hand-in-hand, and the result is the sort of event cascade that leads to homelessness. Other causes? Unemployment. A lack of affordable housing. Drug abuse. A health crisis. At the moment, there is a chasm-like divide between the rich and the poor in this country. Last September, the Census Bureau reported that over 46 million Americans were living below the poverty line, including one out of four children. Burlington is not exempt. In October, COTS counted 141 homeless schoolchildren in Chittenden County.

Nicole continued to assist COTS while she was a student, and created a special volunteer program further linking Saint Michael’s with the family shelter. As part of the “Family Friends” program, students provide childcare at the shelter and take the children on field trips.

She graduated from Saint Michael’s in 2009 and now works for COTS, dividing her time between the family shelter and the main office, where she works as a development assistant and volunteer coordinator. Next Sunday is the annual COTS Walk, which has meant the last few weeks have been among the busiest in her short professional life. The walk is an annual three-mile tour around Burlington, with participants visiting the shelters and seeing firsthand the services that COTS offers the homeless daily. The walk is also a critical fundraiser, with upwards of 1,500 people making the trek, and thousands more pledging their support.

“COTS really values every person and every person’s life,” Nicole says, a reality people can witness on the COTS Walk.

Nicole’s father still lives in a COTS apartment and his life remains an ongoing struggle with addiction and mental illness. The fact is, he has had good seasons and bad ones. But he’s not alone. When he wants help, he has it – from COTS and, now, from his daughter.

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It’s easy to join the COTS Walk. Register at . Questions? Call Nicole at (802) 540-3084, ext. 207.

(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on April 29, 2012. Chris’s forthcoming novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” arrives on July 17.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.