COTS Walk: Homeless Security

Next Sunday afternoon, roughly 1,500 people will be walking the streets of Burlington. That’s more people than live in 147 of Vermont’s 253 towns and gores. It would be as if every single person who lived in my village, Lincoln (1,254 residents), Goshen (226 people), Avril (8) and Buel’s Gore (12) decided to march en masse through the streets. And you don’t have to be a meteorologist to know that the odds are good the sky will be blue … or, at least, that it won’t snow.
After all, it never snows on the annual COTS Walk. At least it hasn’t yet, and next Sunday will be the 19th time that people with homes have walked in support of those who don’t. It is a spectacular cause, a walk-a-thon to raise money for the Committee on Temporary Shelter, and more years than not the weather has cooperated. It’s a three-mile walk through the city that begins and ends at Battery Park, and passes the COTS 36-bed shelter for adults, the day station that’s open 9-to-5, the family shelters (sadly, there is the need for two), and the buildings (again, plural) where COTS has single-room-occupancy apartments. These aren’t the landmarks we usually think of when we conjure the Queen City in our minds, but they are testimonies both to the reality that there are homeless among us, and there are people who are trying to find them shelter. Last May, the COTS Walk raised $175,460.
And once again this year, there will also be free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream awaiting the walkers when they finish the circuit. (One year there was free cheese. Vermonters like cheese, but after a three-mile walk in the sun, we do prefer ice cream.)
The COTS Walk is always filled with groups from churches and synagogues, Realtors, and students. Lots of students, especially from Rice Memorial High School and Burlington High School. Dan Hagan, a 29-year-old history and economics teacher at BHS and the coordinator of the school’s COTS Walk volunteers, expects at least 80 BHS students to be part of the walk a week from today.
“We have the whole spectrum of students participating,” Hagan said. “We’ll have kids who come from tremendous affluence walking side by side with recent refugees who have lost almost everything.” Last year, BHS students raised $5,000 for COTS.
Hagan has been coordinating the school’s connection with the COTS Walk since he left a high-powered (and even higher-salaried) job as a Washington, D.C.-based management consultant in 2002 to teach at his high school alma mater. He said the kids don’t participate in the walk for the Ben & Jerry’s — though he did admit that the year COTS had cheese instead of ice cream, “there was a minor rebellion among the do-gooders.” He said they’re involved because “they have pride in their school and their city, and they have a sense of the social mission.”
These are students like Travis Connolly, a sophomore at BHS who is assisting Hagan coordinate the school’s efforts by logging in the walker’s names and information on spreadsheets, and will be walking next Sunday as well. “My family has close friends who are struggling,” he explained. “And I’ve seen people go through hard times, so I wanted to help.”
Hagan believes that a lot of the students have Connolly’s commitment. “Some of the (pledge) envelopes I get back have one check from the walker’s parents. But others are completely ratty and filled with dollar bills and change and lots of small checks. These are kids who worked hard and were really dedicated.”
There is still plenty of time to sign up for the COTS Walk, get your pledges, and earn your ice cream (no cheese, they promise). Simply visit or call 864-7402.
(This column originally ran in the Burlington Free Press on April 27, 2008.)

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.