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All Together Now

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Morrisville, Vt.

A ponytailed girl in a purple Ben and Jerry's T-shirt cranes her neck to see, and a mother bounces a toddler on her lap. There's no fancy auditorium to file into here for today's assembly at Morristown Elementary. The school itself is too small to house the whole student body, which occupies this building, a smaller schoolhouse down the hill, and a wing of the high school up the street.

While they may be separated much of the school day, today's assembly shows that these children know something about working together. They lead the program themselves, explaining in confident cadences a new set of school rules drawn up by delegates from each class. Working with their classmates and the student council, they honed, rehoned, and reached a consensus.

A poster on the wall of the library that serves as their meeting room shows silhouetted figures holding hands in a circle under a sunlit mountain. The scene is ringed by the words "Morristown Elementary, Taking Steps Together."

Both the poster's theme and the children's rulemaking process capture how citizens here in Morrisville and other Vermont towns have been coming together to try to create the right conditions for families. Their labors have provided families a wide range of help in the parenting process and professionals a common framework for meeting children's needs creatively. Families here can receive a range of services including home visits for their newborns, health screenings for young children, and help with their troubled teenagers.

"Hopefully, the message is getting across that we all share responsibility for making sure that our community works," says Principal Otho Thompson.

Harsh winters notwithstanding, Vermont's pristine mountain setting and placid pace of living make it a hospitable place for families. With a population of only half a million and a tradition of town-meeting governance, it is also easy for citizens here to feel part of the political process, and for state and local officials to form close relationships.

It's true, too, that the state has a 20-year history of linking local programs and services for children and families in imaginative ways. Having as governor a physician who has staked a piece of his reputation on the physical and emotional health of children has helped. A convivial relationship between the secretary of human services, Cornelius Hogan, and the former education commissioner, Richard Mills, also set an example for local schools and agencies to seek common cause.

The scope and strength of these partnerships varies widely. The Lamoille Valley, where Morrisville sits, has an especially strong track record.

But even here, there are gaps in services for some age groups, and no one knows how the impending federal cuts in welfare and Medicaid will shake loose the strands of aid woven together to help troubled teenagers or nurture newborn infants. Some of the governor's initial steps to downsize regional human-services offices have sparked controversy. But local partnership groups have swayed state officials to include them in discussions about the streamlining.

Outsiders say Vermont's efforts may not be easy to re-create in larger urban settings with less homogeneous populations and more pervasive social ills.

What this community has done, though, hinges as much on the qualities and characters of the people entwined in its partnerships as in the details and designs of their plans. And as it would anywhere, the success of these plans hinges heavily on how well the players in this patchwork cooperate.

Some women post pictures of svelte models on their refrigerator doors as an inducement to stay in shape. But all the space on Vicki Sacco's Sears Cold Spot is taken up by tiny tots. Somewhere in the collage of camera work there are probably pictures of her four children, who now range in age from 12 to 18. But it would be hard to sift them out of the sea of snapshots supplied by relatives, friends, and co-workers.

Sacco spends a lot of time with babies on the job as a public-health nurse. But she's still willing to baby-sit for friends at the drop of a hat. Today's charge gets cradled and coddled by Sacco and her daughters over homework, heart-to-heart talks, and the saut‚ing of vegetables for tonight's dinner.

Raven-haired baby Alexa is one of the children framed on the fridge."Her mother moved here from California two weeks before delivering, and she didn't know anybody," says Sacco, who helped fill that void first with breast-feeding advice and then friendship.

Sacco works for Success by Six, a statewide campaign that Gov. Howard Dean launched in 1992 to help support community programs that bolster school readiness and family well-being.

Success by Six workers visit new parents and offer them coaching and connections to education and health services. The effort has paid off, state officials say, with a 24 percent reduction in the child-abuse rate over the past two years. About half of the state's newborns get Success by Six visits; in the Morrisville area, the program reaches more than 90 percent of the 50 to 100 babies born every year.

Sacco plays a unique role in the Success by Six program here: She's a lactation consultant who is on call 24 hours a day. The job came her way in March 1993--at a time when Sacco, who had worked the night shift in a newborn nursery for 17 years so she and her husband could share child-raising, had just been through a divorce and needed to be home nights.

"It was perfect--at that time in my life my self-esteem was pretty low," she says. "People call you because they really need somebody. And when you can get somebody over that hump, it's so satisfying."

Like many of the other players here, Sacco's role doesn't end with any one job. She does prenatal counseling, runs community workshops, and fills in as school nurse when her colleague Dot Reeve visits new parents to introduce them to the school system. She's also an active school volunteer.

Sacco is just one of the many players in a partnership that picked up steam after Education Commissioner Mills and Human-Services Secretary Hogan began barnstorming the state together in the fall of 1993. They sounded the call for collaboration to every education or agency forum that would hear them out.

"This kind of work had been going on for a long time locally, but this kind of support legitimized it," says Cheryl Mitchell, the deputy secretary of the Vermont Agency of Human Services.

Hogan and Mills' philosophy meshed well with a 1990 law that revamped the special-education finance formula to serve children more comprehensively in the regular classroom.

Laws and partnerships like these have spawned a dizzying array of state and local efforts to link health, mental health, education, and social services. The Annie E. Casey Foundation this year awarded the state $200,000 to beef up the cohesion and governing power of collaboratives in key communities--including the Lamoille Valley, which garnered $45,000. The state is also using a grant from the federal Department of Justice for comprehensive community projects throughout the state.

Ann Dunn, the executive director of the Lamoille Family Center, which is part of a statewide network of centers serving parents and children, uses the image of a house to explain the vision she shares with colleagues. In the front room, children and families do not have to fit into one neat category to enter any door and get a variety of services. The back room, she says, "is where all the financing of it gets sorted out."

Scott Johnson pulls a lot of the levers in the "back room."

The lanky, long-haired figure sporting a tie dotted with children's faces, blue jeans, and hiking boots, heads People in Partnership, an umbrella group for collaborative activities in Lamoille County. The group, whose formation was inspired by the Mills-Hogan roadshow, aims to provide a unified voice for service providers and citizens.

"We pulled together PIP right here at Hillary's," the 43-year-old Johnson says as he breakfasts on eggs and toast in a booth at the popular eatery. People in Partnership was formed about a year after Johnson capped off a 20-year career at a residential school for troubled youths, where he had worked his way up to executive director. When he left, he took a year off to ponder his next move. "I built an addition on my house and skied all year, but I continued to go to meetings of stuff I was interested in," he says.

Johnson had been active in several coalitions that helped steer through laws and programs to coordinate care, education, and support for disturbed young people and their families. At first, he says, "We were working mainly for selfish things--better contracts, more money, creating a voice and changes in policy to do our work." But the vision expanded as people began to realize that fragmented approaches were costing too much and helping too few families.

The PIP organization has become an influential force for pooling funding and training so diverse service providers can work with families more effectively. But it has bumped up against institutions, like the local hospital, that are hesitant to sign on fully.

"There's a perception that because we're not an official nonprofit organization or bureaucracy, that we're not legitimate," Johnson notes.

The group's 100-member mailing list includes a pastor, a farmer, school administrators, court and community-action officials, and advocates for the elderly. But its most active members are health, human-services, and special-education providers. Other corners of the community--like service clubs and select boards--are "not really involved except by accident," Johnson concedes.

To draw more citizens, the group has been trying to hold more evening meetings and to expand its reach further beyond Morrisville.

"I have to stop and remember this is a three- to five-year process," says Johnson, who keeps up a hectic pace darting between strategy sessions. Besides his PIP activities, Johnson gets called on to help other groups--this week it was early-childhood providers--pull disparate factions together. He still finds time, though, to serve as the chairman of a local school board. "As I sit at school board meetings, I think a lot about how everything connects," he says.

Dorothy Reeve is making a connection this October day that she hopes will help cultivate a more literate child and involved parent. She's visiting Kathleen Audet, who gave birth recently to Cally Anne. Reeve, the school nurse at Morristown Elementary, presents Kathleen with a packet of richly illustrated picture books, explaining each one's educational features. She also dispenses advice on everything from immunizations to smoke detectors.

Reeve urges Kathleen to come to school functions and get to know the staff. "We want your input so it will be the kind of place you want it to be when your child comes to school," she says.

On her first two birthdays, Cally will be invited to a community party at the town library, where a book dedicated to her will be kept on display. Community nurses and home visitors from the family center will also check in with the Audets at various points, following up with more regular visits if they qualify for certain kinds of aid or simply want parenting help. When Cally is 3, the school system, health department, family center, and early-childhood providers will begin to assess her development.

In her office, Reeve reminisces about how much times have changed in her 19 years as school nurse.

"When I first came, they said we need you to check eyes and ears and put Band-Aids on," says Reeve, as she doles out ice and sympathy to a girl who fell in the schoolyard. "But now, my role has changed to encompass the whole school community." Today, she sits in on a myriad of meetings to address student needs and works with agencies and churches, health officials, and early-childhood providers.

"It's very easy to sit in the school setting and say why isn't this child getting medical care or glasses," she says. "Once you really work with families, you realize the kinds of things they are up against."

Rhonda Barr, a co-director of the Lamoille Family Center, grew up in a poor family, got pregnant as a teenager, and went on welfare. But she eventually got through college and landed a job coaching other adult students at a community college.

"Because of my own personal background, I have a passionate belief in people's potential," she says.

Based in a renovated house with a back deck overlooking Lamoille Lake, the center evokes Ann Dunn's "front room, back room" imagery. Downstairs, parents and young children dropping in on one of many playgroups construct puzzles and paste decorations on pumpkins. Upstairs, workers doubled and tripled up in offices piece together the paperwork it takes to coordinate some 60 sources of funding. The mix sends workers scurrying in different directions to coach parents working their way off welfare, provide health education for families with young babies on Medicaid, and give general parenting support.

The center also runs a child-care referral service, works with educators to serve young children with disabilities, and has a contract with social and rehabilitative services to work with troubled teenagers. Private funding fills some of the gaps, but center services are still sparse for elementary and pre-teenage children. And the area's capricious skiing industry and economic downturns have stymied many families' efforts to find sustainable jobs.

"A lot of what we do is giving people hope," Barr says.

Mary Rivard, a center worker, drew hope from the support she got at a rehabilitation center where her son, now 24, was sent to recover after a sledding accident left him with severe disabilities at age 9. "I've become a lot more accepting," says Rivard, a mother of two who went back to college and got a degree in counseling at age 44.

In a small house perched on a hill by a waterfall, Noel Raymond, 19, looks forward to Rivard's visits. Her baby, Philip, is lying on his back playfully poking at his new red sneakers. Raymond has her hands full not only with Phillip and her 10-year-old stepdaughter Nicki, but a stableful of animals including a bull, eight pygmy goats, ducks, chickens, and a goose.

Rivard leaves Noel with advice and articles on time management, family meetings, and infant health and safety. But it's the camaraderie the new mother appreciates most. "It's really nice just to talk to someone," she sighs.

When Raymond seeks advice on how to get along better with her husband, Rivard says she tries to be neutral but supportive. Raymond is married to a 42-year-old man she met while waitressing. The 23-year age gap is not that unusual in this area, Rivard says. Raymond seems to hold her household together in relative harmony. But other homes Rivard visits are nothing short of chaotic.

"You drive through Vermont, and you wouldn't think everything isn't as picture perfect as you see," she says. "But all you have to do is drive down some of those back roads."

Being able to help is satisfying. But when she's disheartened, her thoughts shift to her baby granddaughter, who lives next door. "It gives me hope just to see how well loved and cared for she is," she says.

Nancy Daigle and Linda North's lunch schedules intersect at the Flour Shop Bakery. Daigle is the coordinator of Success by Six in Morrisville, and North is the director of the Morrisville district of the Vermont health department. With the smell of cinnamon drifting over them, the two sit for sandwiches and reflect on some of the setbacks they've faced.

Daigle tells how Success by Six first had to fend off an attack by a group of home-schoolers and other parents opposed to government intrusion in family matters. Its members launched a scathing media campaign that won them legislative language reinforcing the voluntary nature of participation in the program. Jerry Smiley, the vice chairman of the group called Vermont Citizens for Community and Family, still worries whether parents are adequately informed that their participation could open them up for child-abuse investigations. But the group has taken up other battles. "We don't have the personnel to go back and fight them on this," he says.

Today, Daigle says, the program works with many community agencies. But it's hard to keep more than a cluster of parents active, even though, on paper, parents make up half of the governing board. "We have much more success getting people to commit to more finite projects," she says.

North helped design Success by Six and engineer many other connections between schools, the community, and the health department, from preschool screenings to high school health clinics to interagency aids conferences. Getting these activities going wasn't always easy. In early meetings, she says, "when people came up with ideas, no one would raise their hands to volunteer."

The folks assembled at Morristown Elementary for a People in Partnership meeting raise their hands eagerly in a discussion on how to fight a new executive order from Gov. Dean. The order is designed to pare the number of human-services districts--geographic regions that serve as bases of operation for state human-services departments--from 12 to eight.

It looks like bureaucratic streamlining on paper. But PIP members fear the move--which would merge the Lamoille Valley district into the much more heavily populated Barre region--could not only cost pivotal local players their jobs but jeopardize their carefully crafted collaboration.

Under the order, they say, the fate of families this group has worked to find solutions for could be left to administrators miles away. "If Vermont on record values local people making local decisions, this is a real violation of the process," Scott Johnson says. The group has already fired off a letter to the governor, and some members suggest they organize a rally with families at the state capitol.

"Get a bus, get a bullhorn--this is not business as usual," pipes up Rene‚ Shipp‚. "We have to set examples for our children."

Shipp‚ has sacrificed a lot to set examples. The single mother of three left her job as an administrator at Riker's Island Prison in New York City to give her children a more serene setting to grow up in.

One of the few black families in Lamoille County, the Shipp‚s have shouldered their share of hardships. Shipp‚ says the family had a tough time finding a house to rent, and after months of job-hunting, she settled for a part-time job that doesn't cover family expenses.

But she won't turn her back on the bucolic setting her children love. "I have to live for them, so when I die, they'll be productive citizens--not pregnant, not in jail, not living on the system," she says.

Shipp‚ didn't mean to come across as radical today, but after years of community service she's passionate about programs for the poor. "Gov. Dean has said let the people decide," she says. "Well, I'm the people."

Dave Connor knows the passions piqued at today's PIP meeting run deeper than any executive order. The group's frustration reflects all the forces converging beyond its control in Washington.

Connor, the other co-director of the Lamoille Family Center, was a Roman Catholic priest and chaplain at Cornell University who turned in his draft card in the early 1970s to protest the Vietnam War. He left the priesthood and spent 15 years running a commune that grew organic foods. He later launched a network of apprenticeship programs to mentor young artisans and entrepreneurs.

Today, he's a trouble-shooter for problem teenagers--finding them shelter, steering them through the court system, conferring with their families and teachers.

In Vermont, he muses, the need for collaborative governing bodies like PIP will only increase as federal and state funds get tighter.

"We need these innovative collaborations to start modeling for the rest of the country other ways to start providing services," he says. "Rather than whining to Montpelier or the federal government, we will have to find ways to do it ourselves."

PIP members didn't have to resort to a rally over the governor's order. Their appeals and those of their colleagues across the state helped earn them more time and more say in the downsizing of human services. The order is on hold pending the results of an early-retirement program the governor is pushing to trim state costs. And state officials are looking to the local partnerships for their ideas on more cost-cutting.

"People feel they have the right to act--that's the good thing about Vermont," Connor says. "We may be able to squeeze two or three years more of support, and that will give us more time to plan alternative strategies."

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