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Jim Kenyon: Woodstock Group Helping People Near and Far

  • 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.


Monday, November 27, 2017

Tropical Storm Irene’s floodwaters had barely receded at Riverside Mobile Home Park in Woodstock when Erik and Laurel Tobiason arrived with their John Deere tractor to help with the massive cleanup in September 2011.

From teaching at Woodstock Union High School, Laurel Tobiason knew families who lived in the mobile home park, which sits on the low-lying banks of the Ottauquechee River near Bridgewater.

“These are the people who can least afford to lose anything and they lost the most,” she told me at the time.

Six years later, the Tobiasons and a small group of Woodstock area residents are still mindful of the struggles that people of little means face in the days and months following a natural disaster.

Only this time, the storm victims they’re helping are 1,500 miles away — in a low-income fishing community in an isolated part of southwest Florida.

Everglades City took the brunt of Hurricane Irma when it whirled through the Gulf of Mexico in early September. A 9-foot-wall of seawater left about 100 homes uninhabitable.

Even before Irma, “people struggled down here to make a living,” a Florida TV station reported. Nearly three months later, many of the town’s 400 residents are still dealing with the water, mud and mold left in the hurricane’s wake.

Which brings me to the Green Mountain Disaster Relief Team.

Never heard of it?

“We’re pretty quiet,” said Meg Seely. “Almost everything is done under the radar.”

On Monday evening, five team members huddled in the upstairs conference room of Erik Tobiason’s business (he’s a builder of higher-end homes) to map out the “Vermont Christmas” they’re planning for about 200 Everglades City children.

They’re raising money — a minimum of $10,000 is needed — to buy Christmas gifts for families in Everglades City.

The Green Mountain team consists of 10 or so friends who became acquainted when their kids were growing up together.

After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, the friends joined the national relief effort. Led by Tobiason, who put his carpentry skills to use, they built an outdoor classroom for a rural town in Mississippi that had lost its school.

A good deed for sure. But what was the likelihood of Act II?

Then Irene hit in their backyard in 2011, leading the “band,” as Tobiason calls it, to regroup. Sari White served as coordinator of Woodstock’s volunteer effort. Seely helped families navigate FEMA and played a big role in the Woodstock Area Flood Relief Fund, which raised $400,000 for flood victims.

“We all have regular jobs, lives and families,” said Madelaine Daniel. “We just do what we can.”

One thing I like about the group’s approach — and there’s plenty to like — is they’re not afraid to get their hands dirty. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, they drove a school bus to Staten Island, where they picked up sledgehammers and shovels to help a family of five Syrian immigrants rebuild their two-bedroom home.

They only recently came up with a name for their group, and are still completing paperwork to become a nonprofit. In the meantime, they’re piggybacking off another nonprofit, which allows contributions to be tax deductible.

All the money they raise goes directly to whatever relief effort they’re involved in. When they’re on the road, team members pay for their own transportation, housing and meals.

After Hurricanes Harvey and Irma packed a one-two punch to the Gulf Coast in late summer, White emailed Tobiason: “Is there anything we can do?”

While exploring Florida’s nooks and crannies, the Tobiasons, who have a second home in the Florida Panhandle, came across Everglades City. “It seemed like a good match,” he told me.” The town is off the beaten path.”

White contacted Everglade City’s volunteer coordinator who mentioned that many families had resigned themselves to going without Christmas. They had more pressing needs, such as home repairs and furniture.

“We can bring Christmas to them,” responded White, who requested a “wish list” for kids in the Everglades City area. (Adults aren’t being left out — they’re getting Vermont-made socks and chocolates.)

Teens requested gift cards (iTunes, in particular). Younger children asked for scooters, dolls and Star Wars toys. The goal is to spend $40 to $50 per child.

One girl wants a hamster, which isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. On its 2006 trip to Mississippi, the team came up with three parakeets for residents who had lost pets in Katrina. “For some people, a pet was all they had in their lives,” Daniel said.

The Green Mountain team will spend the next couple of weeks seeking donations from individuals, businesses, service organizations and churches. (For more information on how to make a donation or provide a gift on a child’s wish list, call White at 802-296-1296.)

Team member Keri Bristow, a Woodstock Union High School teacher, is getting students involved. “Woodstock has a lot of resources,” she said. “The kids recognize they’re very privileged. This makes them feel as though they’re making a difference in a small way.”

On Dec. 13, the Tobiasons will leave Woodstock with a truckload of wrapped gifts. Other team members are making arrangements to fly to Florida. Gifts will be handed out at Everglades City’s outdoor holiday party on Dec. 16.

Any money that’s left over will go toward helping Everglades City families rebuild their homes and lives. Team members are planning a return trip early next year to assist with the rebuilding effort.

Anything else?

“There’s always Puerto Rico,” Tobiason said.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.