Walking that extra mile for COTS

In 1989, Lucy Samara of Burlington and Gail Anderson of Charlotte were spending way too much time standing outside of supermarkets on Saturday mornings asking people to give their empty Coke and Pepsi cans to COTS (the Committee on Temporary Shelter). The program, “Cans for COTS,” was an attempt to raise money for the shelter a nickel at a time.

“It was misguided at best,” recalls Samara, director of outreach ministries for the First Congregational Church of Burlington. “Asking people for $1.50 worth of cans was completely ridiculous.”

But the two COTS volunteers were looking for ways to help the shelter raise money and increase its visibility in the community. And so they decided if people were willing to walk to raise money to fight world hunger in “Crop Walks” around the country — the Church World Service walk-a-thons held annually in the autumn — they might be willing to walk to raise money to fight homelessness here in Vermont. They were correct. On April 1, 1990, easily 750 walkers set off from the First Congregational Church on South Winooski Avenue on the first COTS Walk.

This coming Sunday, May 3, will be the 20th: Two decades of pounding the pavements of the Queen City to support the women, men and children who need the shelter. Over 1,500 people are expected to converge on Battery Park next Sunday afternoon at 1:30 to sign in for the 3-mile walk around Burlington — passing along the way the COTS shelters, including the new interim family shelter in the old Eagles Club on St. Paul’s Street. The effort has grown enormously in the last two decades. In 1990, the walkers raised about $29,000. Last year, they raised nearly $187,000.

And year after year, a chunk of that money has come from Samara and Anderson, who have participated in each and every COTS Walk. The two are “challenge walkers,” which means they have each made a commitment to raise at least $1,000 for the shelter.

“In the beginning, there were fewer volunteers so we did everything,” Anderson says. “We put out the balloons, we picked up the trash.” For the first walk-a-thon in 1990, Samara made 450 COTS Walk buttons — one at a time — using a Girl Scout button machine.

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–>Yet despite the reality that the event is considerably larger than it was two decades ago, it has lost none of its homegrown flavor. Once again the COTS Walk will be filled with teams from local churches and synagogues and area schools, and the fundraisers will be feted with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream when they finish. Along the way they will see their neighbors: Those who are fortunate enough to have homes and those who have lost theirs.

“My husband loves the way we’ll be sitting outdoors at Leunig’s and how many of my friends are COTS clients,” Anderson says.

And if there has ever been a year when COTS and COTS clients could use the community’s support, it’s now. As a result of the economic downturn, the group’s services are more in demand than ever before. It’s not merely that more people are depending upon COTS; it’s the fact that COTS clients are having a much harder time finding employment, which has meant longer stays in the shelters.

“COTS works hard to build awareness of how each homeless crisis is personal,” Samara says, “and when people join the COTS Walk, they see the programs and they get an understanding of what homelessness means to a family. The services are individualized.”

Both women add that a walker shouldn’t feel pressure to raise a thousand dollars. The walk is always great fun — and a day with 1,500 friends and neighbors sure beats standing in front of a supermarket asking shoppers for their empty soda bottles and cans.

More information

There is still plenty of time to sign up for the COTS Walk, get your pledges, and earn your ice cream. Simply visit www.cotsonline.org or call 864-7402.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on April 26, 2009.)


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.