Jim Kenyon: Digging his way up


Valley News Columnist

Published: 04-16-2023 6:15 AM

On paper, Ben Goodwin doesn’t seem like a safe bet as a new employee. He’s been in and out of jail since he was a teenager. Until about four years ago, he was losing the battle of substance use.

And as I wrote in a recent column, Goodwin is also homeless.

But Jim LaMontagne, who has had an Upper Valley landscaping business for 32 years, doesn’t scare easily. “We all have pasts,” he told me. “I was a bit of hellion in my younger days.”

When one of his workers mentioned that Goodwin, who grew up in Enfield, was looking for a job, LaMontagne agreed to meet with him.

They talked outside Kilton Library in West Lebanon. Goodwin, 33, was upfront about his past troubles. “I appreciated his honesty,” LaMontagne said.

Following a short stint in a Florida jail on drug-related convictions in 2021, Goodwin stayed with a relative in the Sunshine State. He worked at a Burger King restaurant until he’d save enough money to buy a bus ticket back to the Upper Valley. He arrived in the fall of 2021 with just the clothes he wore on the three-day bus trip — shorts, a T-shirt and a lightweight jacket.

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Goodwin moved in with his stepfather at a Lebanon apartment complex. But after his stepfather died suddenly last summer, Goodwin became homeless.

A social worker at the Lebanon-based nonprofit Listen helped him enroll in the Federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program, better known as ERAP, that Congress passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Along with dozens of other people at risk of homelessness, Goodwin was put up at the Quality Inn on Route 120 in Lebanon.

When ERAP funding for individuals ended on April 1, Goodwin was forced to move out. His father, a truck driver who lives in Georgia, reached out to people, including Will Mohn, he knew from his Upper Valley days about helping his son find a decent job.

Mohn, along with his twin brother, Jesse, has worked for LaMontagne for years. Even before the Upper Valley’s labor shortage made finding seasonal help all the more difficult, the 69-year-old LaMontagne has “always been willing to give people a try.”

“It doesn’t always work out,” he added.

Goodwin, who is earning more than $15 an hour, has only been shoveling mulch, raking leaves and planting trees for two weeks, but so far, so good.

“Some guys come in here and think it’s going to be easy work,” Jesse Mohn said. “They don’t last long. Ben is pretty humble. He’s shown that he wants to learn.”

Before joining LaMontagne’s crew of a half-dozen landscapers, Goodwin bounced around from one low-paying job to another at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been happy to go to work,” he told me. “Jim absolutely took a chance on me. I’ll be forever grateful.”

Outdoor works suit him. “After being in prison,” he said, “you don’t want be inside any more.”

He bought work boots at Walmart that aren’t waterproof, but they’ll have to do until he can save up for a better pair.

Since having to move out of the Quality Inn, Goodwin is paying $200 a week to shower and sleep on an air mattress in a friend’s one-bedroom apartment.

Goodwin, who has never had a driver’s license, takes two Advance Transit buses, starting at 6:15 a.m., to get from downtown Lebanon to Norwich, where he walks a short distance to LaMontagne’s supply yard.

He’s started apartment hunting. “I can’t find anyone willing to rent to me, or anything I can afford,” he said.

He saw an ad for a studio apartment in Norwich that was close to work. He figured he could swing the $1,175 in monthly rent, but the landlord requires tenants to have three times that amount in income per month.

That’s fairly common these days, said Lebanon Human Services Director Lynne Goodwin, who is no relation to Ben.

In Lebanon, one-bedroom apartments rent for $1,200 to $1,500 a month, she said. Sometimes having the money, plus a little financial help from the city and Listen, isn’t sufficient. “If someone has an eviction history and poor credit, landlords are just passing them over,” Lynne Goodwin.

For Ben Goodwin and others who have criminal records “that’s a third obstacle,” she added.

Dartmouth grad students 1, administration 0

In an outcome that was even more lopsided than expected, the college’s graduate students voted, 261-33, to unionize last week.

Heading into the vote, which was conducted under the auspices of the National Labor Relations Board, Dartmouth argued about half of the college’s nearly 800 graduate students were ineligible to join the union because it doesn’t consider “fellows” to be employees of the college.

As I wrote last week, the college was using its website to advise fellows to still vote in the election. Student leaders of the union drive alleged the college and its lawyers hoped that if enough fellows cast ballots, election results could be legally challenged.

The strategy backfired. Only 13 fellows voted, according to a news release issued by Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth, or GOLD for short.

“We look forward to bargaining our first union contract,” Genevieve Goebel, a leader of the union effort, said in a statement. “With a union, we can fight for enough pay and benefits to live dignified lives.”

Grad students often help teach undergraduate classes and conduct research for which the college is currently paying them about $35,000 a year. On July 1, their pay is scheduled to increase to $40,000, but students say that’s still not enough to cover housing costs and other living expenses in the Hanover area.

If a contract agreement can’t be reached, grad students — now that they’re part of a union — will have the ability to strike.

Without grad students helping teach undergraduate classes and running labs? Just the thought must terrify Dartmouth’s administration and faculty.

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