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Bourne to Run: An Action-Packed Day With Listen Community Services Leader

Sunday, December 08, 2013
West Lebanon — After running Listen Community Services for 12 years, Merilynn Bourne says she’s getting close to retirement. She’s not slowing down, though. Last week, a Valley News reporter and photographer followed Bourne, 67, around for a day.

8 a.m.

Up since 5 a.m., Bourne is into her second hour at WGXL 92.3 FM in West Lebanon, where for a couple of weeks before Christmas she spends her early mornings talking up Listen on the radio. But it’s not all business. On this morning, Bourne and disc jockey Deveney Choquette chat on-air about everything from Christmas ornaments to men who are in relationships with women “out of their league.”

The idea is to strike a “happy medium” between informing the public of Listen’s mission and lighter topics. “You don’t want to lecture people who are just waking up too much,” says Bourne.

8:06 a.m.

Sitting behind the control panel, Choquette signals Bourne that they’re approaching a break in the music. For the next couple of minutes, Bourne hypes Listen’s used furniture store in White River Junction.

“We have beds, mattresses, dressers, even some televisions,” she tells listeners. “We always remind people to go to Listen first to see if we have what you need for less money.”

Bourne’s radio appearances are free advertising for Listen, a nonprofit that has been around since 1972. The pop music station also benefits by soliciting businesses to sponsor its “I Love Listen” segments with Bourne.

8:31 a.m.

Back on the air, Bourne mentions that Listen’s four thrift stores generate about $1.6 million in revenue a year. Without the stores, Listen couldn’t have provided $154,000 in fuel assistance to 1,200 individuals last winter or paid $70,000 to send 275 children from needy families to summer camp.

Bourne segues into a plug for Listen’s annual fund-raising campaign, which is now under way. “If you’re not in a position to donate, you can help by shopping at our stores.”

Next topic: Drones.

A story on the previous evening’s 60 Minutes program is the buzz of the Internet. plans to employ unmanned drones in the not-so-distant future to deliver small packages to doorsteps across the country. “The skies are going to get very, very crowded,” chimes in Bourne. “It will be like giant cockroaches everywhere.”

8:50 a.m.

Choquette uses another music break to talk about a national survey that found 60 percent of men are willing to concede that the women in their lives are more attractive than they are. “That sounds right,” says Bourne, with a nod. “Women are generally better looking than men. But I’m biased, being female.”

Before joining Listen in 1996 as its retail director, Bourne spent 20 years in private business. Much of her time was in sales, where she sold everything from steel to skis. Later, off the air, she says, “I was a tomboy growing up. My stepfather was in construction. He then worked for a manufacturing company, selling cast iron and steel. I followed him around a lot. I found construction fascinating. That was probably what led me into business.

“I probably should have gone into construction, but women weren’t pushed in that direction in those days. We were supposed to be secretaries and dental hygienists.”

9:15 a.m.

Bourne heads for her office in Lebanon, where she unloads boxes of cereal, jars of spaghetti sauce and cans of organic corn from her Volvo wagon. The donations came from a gathering at St. Barnabas’ Episcopal Church in Norwich, in which Bourne had been invited to speak about Listen on the night before Thanksgiving.

She drops off the food in Listen’s storage room. Tall shelves, stocked with donated food, and freezers fill the room. “It looks like a lot of food, but it goes fast,” said Ruth Emery, who manages Listen’s thrift store in Lebanon.

Last year, Listen’s food pantry provided $118,000 worth of meals to 1,360 individuals who were struggling to make ends meet.

9:27 a.m.

Upstairs at Listen, a former rooming house on Hanover Street which the nonprofit bought in the 1970s, Bourne stops by Christine Eastman’s office. She hands Eastman a zipped bag with $450 in checks from the St. Barnabas gathering.

“I need copies of these,” says Bourne.

Eastman, Listen’s administrative director, doesn’t ask why. She knows her boss wants the photocopies so she’ll have the names and addresses of the donors. “She’s into perfection,” says Eastman. “That’s why she writes all of her own thank-you notes.”

Bourne writes nearly 2,000 thank-you notes a year. She doesn’t believe in form letters. “I try to keep them personal and fresh, but after all these years, I don’t how successful I am.”

9:32 a.m.

Before settling behind her desk, she holds up a small hand-colored lithograph, which Listen recently received from a donor. But before it could be put up for sale, Bourne had detective work to do. The signature in the corner of the print indicates that it’s the work of a painter named Charles Maurice.

Bourne, who paints for a hobby, learned from going online that Maurice was an English painter who killed himself in 1908 at age 25. An art website values the lithograph at $320.

Bourne hopes to sell the artwork at Listen’s White River Junction thrift shop for $90. Typically, Listen sells clothing and other essentials for 10 percent of their retail price. “With luxury items (like the lithograph), we try to push up the sale price,” says Bourne.

The lithograph probably won’t be on Listen’s shelves for long. It’s likely that a “reseller,” someone who scours thrift stores for items that they can then turn around for a profit, will snap it up. Many of Bourne’s colleagues in the thrift-store business don’t look kindly on the professional bargain hunters.

“I don’t hate resellers,” she says. “We need to move product. What we sell provides the revenue we use to run our programs. It’s how we buy fuel for people, and help them with car repairs and deposits on apartments.”

9:45 a.m.

Bourne signs onto her desktop computer to start sifting through emails from the weekend to figure out which ones need an immediate response. Sometimes, Bourne feels like she’s putting out fires.

While she was on vacation before Thanksgiving, Listen was taken to task in a letter to the Valley News’ Forum. A thrift store shopper complained that Listen’s prices were a “bit high for low-income people.”

Alarmed Listen board members fired off emails to Bourne. She assured them that Listen hadn’t increased prices since opening its new thrift store in July at River Point Plaza in White River Junction.

From time to time, Bourne finds herself reminding board members and other Listen supporters what it means to be a nonprofit. “It’s a tax status; it’s not a business philosophy,” she says. “If we don’t make money, we can’t survive.”

If people are in such dire straights that they can’t afford essentials, such as winter coats, boots and snow pants for their kids, Listen makes sure they don’t go without. Last year, Listen provided more than $30,000 in vouchers for free clothing and furniture.

Another Listen trademark: People who ask for help in paying heating and electric bills aren’t made to fill out a lot of paperwork. Listen tends to work on an “honor system,” says Bourne.

Listen also helps people who are having trouble coming up with deposit money on an apartment. Sometimes, aid provided by Listen is the difference between having a roof over a struggling family’s head or them sleeping in their car. (Last year, Listen’s rental assistance program aided 119 households.) Before writing a check, Listen sits down with the individual or couple to make sure they can swing the monthly rent. It also will ask for a recent pay stub. “If the apartment isn’t affordable that’s no good for them or us,” says Bourne. “We’ll just be throwing away deposit money.

“We help people do the math. It’s a matter of educating people on finances. If they didn’t learn it from their parents or somewhere else growing up, how can we expect them to manage?

“Education is what it’s about. That’s all it ever is.”

10:20 a.m.

Candy Uzarek, a Listen salesperson, stops by Bourne’s office with a check that had just been left downstairs at the thrift store. The donation was in memory of Robin Adams, a 50-year-old Enfield woman who died Nov. 22. Adams’ family had asked in her obituary that in lieu of flowers that donations be made to Listen. So far, Listen has received nearly $300 in Adams’ memory.

“I’m always touched when we get these gifts,” says Bourne. “They are a great tribute to a person. A gift like this lives longer than flowers.”

Bourne adds the donor to her thank-you note list. Her goal is to have a note in the mail within 24 hours of Listen receiving the donation. “If someone sends you a donation, you don’t wait 30 days to get back to them.”

11:07 a.m.

Bourne walks down the hallway to the front desk. “The big excitement today is picking up the mail,” she says.

She’s not joking. In its annual appeal for donations last month, Listen sent out 8,000 letters. The first batch of pre-addressed envelopes, which Bourne hopes by the end of the year will bring in 1,500 contributions, are starting to arrive.

At her desk, she digs in. It’s like she’s staring at a stack of lottery scratch-off tickets. Except every ticket is a winner. Checks range from $25 to $1,000. Even with the promising start, it will be hard to top last year’s campaign, which netted $237,000, including a $75,000 gift from the Hanover-based Byrne Foundation.

Nearly every nonprofit depends on good returns from their annual campaign. But for Listen, it can be even more crucial.

Listen has made it a practice over the years (going back to before Bourne’s arrival) not to seek federal or state money to support its good deeds. Too much time and money is wasted explaining to the government how the money will be used and then documenting how it’s been spent, says Bourne.

“We can function better without government’s interference,” she says. “We put funds where they need to go, without all the paperwork, bureaucracy and nonsense.” That’s as close as Bourne will probably come to sounding like a bedrock New Hampshire conservative.

11:17 a.m.

She’s still opening envelopes. She picks up a check for $10, but it’s not part of the annual appeal.

A person who Listen had helped make the deposit on an apartment had sent their monthly repayment. Listen expects people to pay back the deposit money, at no interest, even if it’s $10 at a time.

“We don’t want people to ever think that they’re getting a handout,” says Bourne. “We want them to look at it as a loan. It’s really important for people to be able to keep their pride intact.”

11:34 a.m.

Bourne experiences a minor coughing fit. “Don’t worry,” she says. “I’m not contagious.”

It’s her asthma acting up. Moments later, she’s driving to Canaan, where Listen operates a thrift store on Route 4. “Business is slowing down out there, and I can’t figure out why.”

It could be that some of Canaan’s business has shifted to Listen’s new store in White River Junction. But Bourne doesn’t think so.

She blames herself. Much of her time and focus has been directed toward launching Listen’s new complex in White River Junction, just across the bridge from West Lebanon. The Canaan store is her “next fix.”

It won’t be her first.

Paul Tierney, a retired certified public accountant and banker, joined Listen’s governing board during a particularly rocky time in the late 1990s. “I looked at the financial statements, and they were a mess,” he said.

A couple of years earlier, Hilde Ojibway had stepped down as executive director. Her replacement was floundering, and so was Listen. The organization’s bank account showed just $40,000 in cash.

A change in leadership was needed to keep Listen from “going further in the hole,” said Tierney. “To make sure the organization survived, we needed someone who had a grasp of business.”

Knowing that Bourne had run small retail businesses before joining Listen, the board asked Bourne in 2001 to take the helm. “It was a good deal for the board,” she says, with a laugh. “Instead of paying two people (an executive director and retail director), they could have me do both jobs. I would have done the same thing.”

Under Bourne’s leadership, Listen has not only survived, it’s thrived, said Tierney. A national nonprofit watchdog, Charity Navigator, gave Listen a score of 65 out of a possible 70 points when it comes to financial health.

In conversations with Tierney, Bourne mentioned on more than one occasion her plan to retire next year. His comeback: “Would you be interested in staying around a little longer?”

She’s agreed to stay until 2016. “I’ll be 70 then. I think that’s enough.”

11:50 a.m.

Bourne strolls through the small rooms of the Canaan store, once home to a clothing manufacturer, before catching up with Amy Perkins, the shop’s young, energetic manager who is sorting donated pieces of clothing in a back room.

“What are your thoughts about furniture?” asks Bourne.

“We could use more,” replies Perkins.

Bourne nods in agreement. “More and more people are shopping at thrift stores. It’s ‘green.’ It means less stuff is being thrown into landfills.”

The two women head back to the front of the store, a room dominated by racks and racks of clothing. Blue jeans selling for $4.25 a pair; a woman’s leather coat for $30; a baseball cap that proclaims “Jesus is My Boss” can be had for $2.25.

“When you walk in all you see are racks of clothes,” remarks Bourne. “It’s looking a little plain. We need to make it look more a living room.”

Bourne suggests Perkins move a couch into the front room, which could then be dressed up with stuffed animals and Christmas toys. “Don’t be afraid to experiment,” Bourne tells Perkins.

“Any Christmas decorations? Push them. Soon you won’t be able to give them away.”

12:23 p.m.

On her way out of the Canaan store, Bourne bumps into Ojibway, her former boss, who happened to be Christmas shopping.

In 1996, Ojibway, who now works as a consultant to nonprofits, hired Bourne to oversee Listen’s four thrift stores. “Merilynn had the retail background, and the personality,” said Ojibway.

“I had no experience with social services. I just knew how to run a business,” said Bourne.

Listen made the right move when it promoted Bourne, said Ojibway. Running a nonprofit is a lot like parenting, she said. An executive director obviously needs a compassionate side, but there are times when he or she must be “strict and business-like to keep the family together.”

12:50 p.m.

While reading and responding to emails, Bourne munches an egg salad sandwich at her desk. Photos of her children and grandchildren are nearby.

Bourne, who grew up in Rhode Island, jokes that she was part of the “hippie movement” that landed in Vermont during the early 1970s. After high school, she told her parents that she wanted to attend art school. They didn’t consider that a good use of their money.

Bourne became a bank teller.

In 1971, Bourne and her husband, Edward, moved to Cornish. They had a small farm, where Bourne milked cows and raised chickens. Her husband worked as a sales rep for a Tennessee-based steel manufacturing company.

In 1977, tragedy struck. Edward Bourne was killed in a farming accident. Bourne found herself a 30-year-old widow with three young children. “There was no life insurance,” she said.

She persuaded her late husband’s employer to let her take over his sales territory, which covered New England and New York. “It was important that I keep that job in the family. We needed the money. Two weeks after Edward died, I got on the road.”

She traveled four days a week, while her mother, who lived in Rumney, N.H., stayed with her children. After six months, Bourne gave up the job. Her kids needed her at home. But Bourne needed a change of scenery.

She packed up the kids and moved to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. After a couple of years working in a dive shop, of which she became a part owner, Bourne decided it was time to get back to reality.

Back in the Upper Valley, Bourne worked at Art Bennett’s ski shop in Hanover. When the business closed, she moved over to Carroll Reed, a now defunct small chain of clothing stores with a shop in Hanover. Her next job was at a discount store chain, where she climbed the corporate ladder to regional manager.

By 1996, she’d had enough of private business. “I was so tired to trying to sell things to people that they didn’t need.”

3:03 p.m.

Bourne arrives at Listen’s crown jewel, the River Point Plaza in White River Junction. The new one-story building, with a deck overlooking both the Connecticut River and White River, opened in July. The $2.2 million project includes a large thrift shop, teen center and dining room.

At the thrift shop, a glass jewelry case is the first thing that customers see when they walk through the front doors. That’s the way Bourne wants it. She wants customers to feel as though they are shopping at a TJ Max, not a thrift store.

It seems to be working. More than a dozen shoppers are perusing shelves and clothing racks. Josh Fogg, one of Listen’s 40 employees, is tidying up a shirt display.

“It looks like you’re going gangbusters,” says Bourne.

“We’re busy,” replies Fogg.

“That’s good. I like to see exhausted employees at this time of year.”

Just not every day. Bucking the national retail trend, Listen was closed on Thanksgiving Day. “I want my employees to work hard, but they won’t be working on holidays,” she says. “It’s morally appalling what more and more retailers are doing. Employees should be home with their families on holidays. The shopping can wait.”

3:06 p.m.

In a large back room, a few employees tackle what seems to be a never-ending job: sorting through plastic bags of second-hand clothes that donors have dropped off.

The donations are Listen’s lifeblood. But Bourne has heard complaints that the mound of plastic bags, visible from Listen’s parking lot, “looks like a garbage heap.”

It’s a valid point, she says.

She tells the staff that she plans to install window coverings that will shield the pile of donations from public view while continuing to allow natural light to filter into the room.

With employees gathered around her in the sorting room, Bourne brings up how sales are going now that the Christmas shopping season is in full swing. “The goal is $2,000 a day,” she tells them. “You’re not always going to hit it, but that’s the goal. If you don’t make it, I’m not going to fire anybody.”

The workers know Bourne is joking, but they also know how seriously she takes the business. The more money that Listen makes at its thrift stores, the more money it will have to help people struggling to pay the cost of rent, utilities and car repairs.

3:25 p.m.

The teen center is hopping. Kids shoot pool, listen to music and carry in groceries for an upcoming event. Others are doing homework. The cold weather tends to draw them in.

Listen’s Teen Life Skills Center, better known as the “Junction,” is one of the nonprofit’s undertakings that Bourne is most proud of. In Listen’s November newsletter, Hartford teen Brittany Goodwin said that the Junction was for kids “when they had no place to go for the day, if they were bored, hungry, (or) having a tough time and wanted somebody to talked to.”

Bourne stops outside to talk with more students who are just arriving. “I heard you on the radio this morning,” says Lydia Pecor, a Hartford High sophomore.

“This one,” says Bourne, pointing to Pecor. “She says she’s going to have my job someday. And I believe her. She’s already that committed to helping people in need.”

3:36 p.m.

Bourne moves across the hall to the dining room. Community dinners have long been a Listen staple. The meals, served five nights a week, are a team effort. Volunteers from Upper Valley churches, schools, civic organizations and businesses take turns helping with the cooking and serving.

Last year, Listen provided nearly 17,500 meals at four locations. The opening of River Point in July gives Listen even more capabilities to reach out to people in need. On the evening before Thanksgiving, it served 100 pounds of turkey to 128 guests from its commercial sized kitchen.

Every weekday, the dining room’s doors open at 2 p.m., three hours before the meal is served. “We want this to be a place where people can come inside to get warm and drink a cup of coffee,” says Bourne.

Two people are playing cards. “It’s a place to socialize, too,” she says.

Bourne spots an elderly woman sitting alone. “How are you?” asks Bourne.

“Not good,” replies the woman.

They talk quietly for a few minutes. Bourne clutches the woman’s hand. She encourages her to keep stopping by. “If you have nothing else to do, we’re here,” she says.

3:50 p.m.

A volunteer mentions to Bourne that the kitchen is running low on decaffeinated coffee. “I’ll go pick some up,” says Bourne.

The volunteer checks with Kyle Fisher, a Listen employee who is overseeing the night’s dinner preparations. Fisher thinks they are set on coffee.

Fisher, who earned his MBA at the University of Michigan before joining Listen a short while ago, is the nonprofit’s resource manager, which means he does a little bit of everything, from helping out at community dinners to solving office computer problems.

Working with Bourne is an opportunity for him to watch and learn. “There’s nothing she’s unwilling to do,” says Fisher. “She’ll take the trash out, do the recycling. If they need help in a store, she’s ringing the register. An hour later, she’ll be talking to the Rotary club.

“She’s all over the place. You never know when the boss is going to show up. It’s good quality control.”

6:35 p.m.

Having finished her day job, Bourne is now sitting at a table inside the Cornish Town Hall with the town’s two other selectman. She’s brought along her laptop to type in meeting minutes.

At her first meeting nearly nine years ago, the then-board chairman asked her to serve as board secretary. She got the feeling that she was being given woman’s work. She didn’t object.

In recent years, the board’s members have changed. She’s still the only woman, but it’s not the boys’ club that it once was. And she continues to serve as the board’s secretary. “I really enjoy working with John (Hammond) and Scott (Baker),” she said. “It’s a congenial atmosphere. We make a good team.”

The highway department dominates much of the evening’s discussion. Kyle Witty, the town’s road commissioner, reports that it’s time for a new sander and a truck needs tires. Bourne wonders if the sander can be put off until January. Flash flooding in early July “put a hole in our highway budget,” she says.

8:10 p.m.

The board doesn’t work from a written agenda, so the direction the meeting goes is unpredictable. There’s a short discussion about the board’s desire to find a suitable place in town for a gravel pit. The board also had heard that organizers of the farmers market are in need of composting toilet before the season. Apparently, a neighbor of the market is growing weary of people knocking on her door.

A town official mentions a house in town that recently sold for $630,000.

Bourne says she hopes that Cornish won’t be getting more retirees who are moving to New Hampshire for its low state taxes. Like her colleagues on the board, she worries about Cornish’s future.

The town’s schoolhouse was built to hold 300 students, but K-8 enrollment is down to 113. From the studies that Bourne has seen, the trend won’t be turning around anytime soon.

Couples are having fewer children and young people, partly due to a shortage of good-paying jobs, don’t seem to be as taken with rural living as much as they once were. Then there’s the cost of housing. “Are young people being priced out of Cornish?” Bourne asks.

Bourne wonders if Cornish should rethink it’s land-use regulations that require housing lots to be at least five acres.

8:40 p.m.

Bourne’s Volvo is the last car out of the Town Hall parking lot. When she gets home, she plans to turn out the lights fairly quickly. She’s back on the radio at 7 the next morning.

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