Want to change the world? Take a walk.

Hannah Woodruff has been volunteering for COTS since she was in middle school. Here she is in her COTS Walk t-shirt in 2008
Hannah Woodruff has been volunteering for COTS since she was in middle school. Here she is in her COTS Walk t-shirt in 2008

When Hannah Woodruff was in seventh grade, she and her classmates at the Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont were given a rather ambitious assignment: they were each supposed to change the world. Or, at the very least, they were supposed to try. Hannah decided that her individual project would involve the homeless.

This was back in the autumn of 2006 when she was 12 years old. Now she is a 20-year-old neuroscience major at the University of Vermont, and one result of her efforts is a nine-year relationship with the Committee on Temporary Shelter that includes both her younger sister, Alice (a freshman at UVM), and her mother, Kate Finley Woodruff, a lecturer there. Over the years, the three of them have volunteered for COTS in a variety of ways, and participated in the annual COTS Walk – which is coming up on May 3.

This spring, Kate is teaching a course in community development and applied economics that she is hoping will ripple well beyond the 16 students in her class. The goal? Use a $5,000 grant from Cabot Creamery Cooperative to raise awareness of the homeless across the UVM campus. The course is called the Cabot Community Marketing Challenge. The tactics include guerrilla marketing such as “static clings” that stick to mirrors to show that anyone can be the face of homelessness, as well as more traditional efforts such as posters, bus ads, and social media.

“It costs about $800 to prevent a family from becoming homeless,” Kate said, “but as much as $10,000 to get that family back into housing. So we are focusing on prevention.”

In addition, some of her students will be walking the talk at the COTS Walk three weeks from today.

I’m a big fan of the COTS Walk. It’s not simply that it’s a very pleasant couple of miles through Burlington, Vermont and raises somewhere around $180 thousand annually for the shelter. It’s not even the great company of 1,500 other people walking with you for the same cause. It’s not even the Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream you get to savor when you finish.

It’s that you actually walk through the different COTS shelters on the journey. You see the insides of the men’s and women’s shelters, the day station, and the different family shelters. (Yes, homelessness is so extensive in the Burlington area that we have multiple family shelters.) The face of homelessness? It’s often a child. Last month, COTS launched its #172VT campaign, because it counted 172 homeless children in our community.

And for Hannah Woodruff, the walk brings her back to the family shelters where she initially volunteered with her mother when she was in middle school. “I was shy at first,” she recalls. “I listened a lot. What got to me was seeing the kids there my age. A couple of times there was a girl only slightly younger than I was, and together we decorated flowerpots. They were going to take them to their apartment because they were about to move out of the shelter. That felt really good to me, especially because it was someone I could relate to.”

You can get a small taste of the power and the poignancy of moments like that on the COTS Walk. “Homelessness is not an abstract concept,” Hannah added. “It’s a real thing and involves real people. It’s important to remember that there are people behind the word.”

So how do you change the world? You decorate flowerpots in the spring with homeless kids at the local shelter. Or you bring gingerbread houses there – as well as the Skittles, the chocolates, and the peppermints so they can transform them into fairy tale mansions. Or you volunteer at the annual phone-a-thon. Or you teach a college course in how to raise the visibility of the homeless.

Or on May 3, a spring Sunday afternoon, you join your neighbors and walk the streets of Burlington on their behalf.

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To register for the COTS Walk or obtain your pledge sheets, visit www.cotsonline.org and click on “COTS Walk.” Questions? Call Gillian at (802) 864-7402.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on April 12, 2015. Chris’s most recent novel, “Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands,” arrives in paperback next month.)


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.