Six months ago, there was a three-year-old girl in the Committee on Temporary Shelter’s Main Street Family Shelter in Burlington, Vermont who wasn’t talking. She wasn’t speaking. “She was so shy. She wasn’t using words. We were really worried about her language acquisition,” recalled Cassie Paulsen, 28, the Children’s Education Advocate at COTS. The girl’s mother was worried, too: This was one more trauma to add to the ongoing ordeal of being homeless.
But Paulsen had funds at her disposal from the annual COTS fundraising walk through downtown Burlington, and so she was able to enroll the child at a local preschool. A few months later, when COTS had helped the small family find a home, “the girl couldn’t stop talking,” Paulsen said. “She couldn’t stop singing. It was wonderful.”
This is a testimony to the power of having a roof over your head and a little stability in your life. It’s one more indication of the way COTS changes lives daily.
A week from today, Sunday, May 4th, is the annual COTS Walk. It will be the 25th time that volunteers have made the three-mile trek through the city, stopping to see the shelters and services that COTS offers. Last year, 1,500 people participated. This year, Becky Holt, the group’s Development Director, expects even more. After all, Holt said, this is a big anniversary, and for some of the walkers and volunteers it will be like a reunion. The shelter hopes the walkers this year will raise $175,000 in pledges.
Among the ways that COTS uses those funds is to provide services that are not necessarily covered by existing grants. Often that means creating programs for the kids in the shelters – and right now there are 24 children in the two COTS family shelters. The youngest is two months old. The oldest is 18.
And many of those services are managed by Paulsen. In addition to supervising the Book Buddies and the Playroom Volunteers – programs in which volunteers read with the children in the shelter or play with them – Paulsen has to focus on the basics, such as wellness and nutrition. Sometimes the basics entail making sure the kids have transportation to their school. Sometimes it means getting the kids into a summer camp. And some days it means finding the children tutors. She has built relationships with 21 different daycare providers and preschools in the Burlington area.
Paulsen’s position, Children’s Education Advocate, is a new one for COTS. It was designed last November. Prior to that, many of Paulsen’s current responsibilities were handled by AmeriCorps staffers. But Paulsen is perfect for the job. She had worked at the family shelters for nearly three years before taking over the position. “I love the energy at the family shelters,” she told me. “I love the kids and the babies. Those shelters are so helpful for the young single moms.”
Paulsen is also a veteran of the COTS Walk. The Newport, Vermont native started volunteering when she was a freshman at the University of Vermont, helping out as a crossing guard. She’s walked six times herself.
I know firsthand what a delight the COTS Walk is. I don’t make the walk every year, but I do when I can. After all, the shelters always are full; invariably there’s a waiting list.
And there is still time to sign up and raise a little money. (Or a lot of money, but feel no pressure.) This year the walk starts at two p.m. at Battery Park, and registration begins at one. Once again, there will be face painting for the kids and plenty of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for everyone. In addition, “American Idol” finalist James Durbin will be performing.
So, if you’re not already booked next Sunday, walk a few miles for the homeless. It’s three miles that will make a difference in a child’s life.
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For more information – to register or donate – visit www.cotsonline.org .
(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 27. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published this week in paperback.)