Jim Kenyon: Barbara’s Red Stocking brings a little cheer to those in need

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 11/30/2019 10:44:44 PM

For 25 years, a small group of public-spirited volunteers have quietly gone about delivering bags of groceries to families in need in some of the Upper Valley’s most hardscrabble rural communities during the holidays.

Keeping at it for such a long time speaks to the nonprofit’s commitment to its motto: neighbors helping neighbors.

But it also says something about the Upper Valley that I find disheartening: A quarter-century has passed since the need was identified, and rural poverty remains an intractable problem.

Which means that Barbara’s Red Stocking, as the group is called, is more important than ever.

Paul Dalton, a retired plastics engineer, is among the volunteers who have been pitching in since Red Stocking was founded in 1994 to help down-and-out families in West Fairlee, Fairlee and Vershire and across the river in Orford and Piermont.

“The need is still there,” Dalton told me. “In fact, it’s growing.”

Red Stocking, its original name, was started by Barbara Mack, a journalist who had moved to the Upper Valley from California. Mack, who did some reporting for the weekly Journal Opinion in Bradford, Vt., in her retirement, recruited members of four area churches to donate food.

No one who I’ve talked with has figured out why Mack chose the name “Red Stocking,” but after she died in 2000, volunteers tweaked the program’s name to honor her.

Although she was a transplant to the area, Mack understood families’ struggles to put food on the table.

“Rural poverty is often hidden,” Fairlee Town Clerk Georgette Wolf-Ludwig told me. “There’s so much prosperity in our area that you don’t see it until you go onto the back roads.”

Added Dalton, “The poverty isn’t right there in front of you all the time. It’s hidden up in the hills.”

Wolf-Ludwig, who has been involved with Red Stocking from its early days, pointed out that residents of rural communities often must drive to the Hanover-Lebanon area to find work. That requires an insured vehicle in decent working condition. Along with paying for housing and food, people need extra money in winter months to cover heating bills.

“It can be difficult to make ends meet here,” Wolf-Ludwig said.

Red Stocking can’t end rural poverty, but it can make people’s lives a bit easier during what can be a stressful time of year.

The beauty of Red Stocking is its simplicity. (Although the volunteers who do the heavy lifting might beg to differ.)

The work starts in earnest each fall with Mary Davenport at Wing’s Market in Fairlee talking with her store’s suppliers.

“She finds the best deals on canned goods and stockpiles them for us,” Dalton said.

Town officials and others who have a sense of what’s going on in their communities quietly pass along the names of families who could use a boost to Red Stocking’s organizers.

Rarely do families ask to be included on Red Stocking’s list of recipients.

“There’s a shyness about accepting charity,” said Don Phoenix, who serves on Red Stocking’s board of directors and also oversees West Fairlee’s food shelf. “People are hesitant to acknowledge they need help.”

What started out with Red Stocking helping a couple dozen families has ballooned to more than 80 this year. Each family receives a turkey or ham. Along with the canned vegetables, cereals, peanut butter and other staples that Davenport has secured at discount prices, families get fresh fruits, vegetables and cheese. The goal is to provide enough nutritious food to feed a family for a week.

“It’s one of the most satisfying programs that I’ve ever been involved in,” Dalton said.

This year, volunteers will meet at the Mount Cube Masonic Lodge in Orford to fill grocery bags six days before Christmas. On Dec. 22, a Sunday, about 20 volunteers will drive the back roads of the four towns to deliver the goods.

Nancy Cushman has seen Red Stocking’s good work from both sides. Cushman and her sister Gloria Durkee have been making deliveries in West Fairlee for a few years.

But Cushman’s family has also been on the receiving end. Her son and his partner both work in the service industry in Hanover. The jobs aren’t high-paying. And with six children in their family, Cushman told me, money can be tight.

“This is a big help,” she said.

Why does Cushman volunteer? “It’s a way for me to pay back,” she said. “Red Stocking is very helpful to a lot of people in the community.”

Volunteers also deliver fruit and cheese baskets to dozens of elderly residents who may not get out much in winter months.

“We try to give some Christmas cheer to people who might need a little pick-me-up,” Wolf-Ludwig said.

In recent years, Red Stocking’s mission has expanded to helping out area food shelves, community dinners and Meals on Wheels programs.

Where does the money come from to cover a grocery bill of more than $4,000?

Red Stocking is not a big fundraising machine. Last week, it sent out an annual letter to about 500 people seeking donations. Every year it’s somewhat a leap of faith that enough money will come in to keep the program going. (Checks made out “Barbara’s Red Stocking” can be sent to the nonprofit’s treasurer, Susan Taylor, 118 Indian Pond Road, Orford, N.H. 03777.)

“We do the best we can to take care of our families in need,” Wolf-Ludwig said.

Neighbors helping neighbors.

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




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