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Jim Kenyon: Dan & Whit’s Has It, and They Need It

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

When Dan Fraser was invited for dinner at Hartford Dismas House, he knew little about the program that gives men and woman just out of prison a decent place to live, among other things, as they reintegrate back into the community.

“I’d seen the articles in the paper about some of the neighbors being in an uproar, but I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on there,” said Fraser, referring to the not-in-my-backyard response that Dismas encountered early on but which has since dissipated.

Over dinner, Fraser listened to former inmates talk about trying to find jobs. “I had applications in everywhere,” said Kris Locke. “I had applied at about every gas station on this side of the river.”

Until that night, Fraser, like many people, was unaware that Vermont offenders who have been released on furlough can’t leave the state. “It was pretty hard to find work because you can’t go across into New Hampshire,” said Locke, who served time for unlawful mischief and other misdemeanors.

Fraser, 47, is the third generation of his family to run Dan & Whit’s General Store in Norwich. After dinner, Fraser had a few more questions for Locke. Unbeknownst to Locke, it was a job interview.

Two years later, Locke, 32, is still slicing cold cuts, cooking hamburgers and making soups behind Dan & Whit’s deli counter.

“That worked out pretty well, so we kept hiring people (from Dismas),” Fraser told me.

Next Sunday, Hartford Dismas House will recognize Fraser for his contributions at its annual benefit dinner at the Quechee Club. Chris Herren, who played for the Boston Celtics before opiate abuse derailed his pro basketball career, is the keynote speaker. (More information can be found at www.dismasofvermont.org or by calling 802-824-3660.)

Fraser is this year’s recipient of Dismas’ Jack Hickey Award. Hickey was the Vanderbilt University chaplain who founded Dismas. After meeting Hickey in the early 1980s, Rita and Frank McCaffrey, of Rutland, set about bringing Dismas to Vermont. The McCaffreys were pioneers in the state’s criminal justice reform movement, although Frank McCaffrey, a longtime lawyer and criminal court judge, gives his wife most of the credit.

The premise behind Dismas of Vermont is simple: Instead of keeping offenders locked up for their maximum sentences — at an average cost to taxpayers of $60,000 a year — allow them to slowly rejoin the outside world. But Dismas is picky. It doesn’t take sex offenders, for example, and candidates are interviewed while still in prison before being accepted into the house, where they usually stay between four and eight months.

Residents pay $75 a week. Two years ago, Hartford became the nonprofit organization’s fourth location, providing transitional housing for 10 former inmates at a time.

Dismas spent $450,000 renovating the late-1800s house that had been used in recent years as an apartment building and had fallen into disrepair.

Dismas depends largely on private donations and fundraising events, such as next Sunday’s dinner, to cover the $20,000 a year it spends per resident (one-third the cost of incarceration). The Vermont Department of Corrections has also come to understand the value of Dismas, resulting in an annual $150,000 grant for the Hartford house.

In August 2015, I wrote about a barbecue that Dismas held for its volunteers and neighbors. That’s where I met Casey Maville, who grew up in the Upper Valley and battled substance abuse for much of his teens and early 20s.

Maville, now 28, served 2½ years for aggravated assault. The first two weeks at Dismas are free, but “nothing was happening” for him on the job front during that time, Maville said. “Nobody would hire me.”

Shortly after applying at Dan & Whit’s, he called Fraser. They talked for a few minutes about Maville’s past struggles.

For a final question, Fraser asked, “When can you start?”

“I biked up here the next day,” Maville told me.

It’s five miles from Dismas to Dan & Whit’s. The former inmates don’t have cars, so they tend to get around on donated bikes or Advance Transit, the Upper Valley’s free bus service.

Fraser and his employees help out by offering rides on weekends and evenings when Advance Transit shuts down.

But for Fraser it’s not just about giving a lift to people who are trying to get back on their feet. It’s also good business. Like many small retail businesses, Dan & Whit’s, where the starting paying is $10 an hour or so, has a fair amount of turnover.

“There’s not a large pool of candidates dying to work in a grocery store,” said Fraser, who over the course of a year has 100 full- and part-time employees.

In last summer’s column, I mentioned that Dan & Whit’s was hiring Dismas residents. Apparently, that was news to many of the store’s regular customers. “It was an eye-opener in a good way,” Fraser said. “Our customers saw that (the former inmates) looked and acted like everyone else.”

Maville and Locke are both living on their own now, but still work at the store. Maville cares for his infant daughter during the week while his partner is at work. On weekends, he’s behind Dan & Whit’s deli counter from morning to night, putting in nearly 30 hours over two days.

“It’s impressive that people are staying even after they leave Dismas House,” Rita McCaffrey said. “Dan treats them with such dignity.”

Said Locke, “I appreciate Dan giving me a chance. He didn’t judge me.”