You Ask. We Take Action: A look at Northeast Kingdom Community Action

CANAAN, Vt. - Some residents of a town in Vermont, facing a major employer void, say the local community action agency isn’t doing enough to help.

Viewer Suzanne Phinney, of Canaan, contacted Local 22 & Local 44 News because she says Northeast Kingdom Community Action, NEKCA, is unreliable.

NEKCA is an anti-poverty organization that covers Orleans, Caledonia and Essex counties. It provides food and help accessing services to people in need.

A resident who has utilized NEKCA for 25 years said “it’s scary how bad it has declined.”

Canaan, Vt. is a bit of a ghost town. Homes are for sale. Buildings are abandoned. Major employers have drastically downsized and shut their doors altogether.

“It's not an affluent community, is how I would put it,” said Phinney. “Our people cannot access the help that they need up here on a consistent basis."

Phinney says NEKCA’s doors are intermittently open, with inconsistent hours depending on where you look.

“There are hours posted in various locations that do not match. The hours that are posted in our post office, do not match the hours that are posted here on the door of the facility. If you go online, you will find different hours posted as well,” said Phinney. “You'll go to the door, there's not a light on within the building during posted hours. It doesn't look like they're open. You go to open the door on the outside, it's locked.”

She says she’s heard of someone being given meat that expired in 2016.

When the doors are locked, some people go next door to Indian Stream Health Center with questions about their needs.

“The food pantry in Colebrook, New Hampshire has been very accommodating, letting people come over there to get things on an emergency basis. I make phone calls every now and again,” said Sharon Belleville, outreach coordinator at Indian Stream Health Center. “I wish that NEKCA, the organization, would give more support to their most rural community."

Canaan took a big hit in 2009 when Ethan Allen laid off hundreds of workers at its furniture manufacturing factory in Beecher Falls.

Other major employers have left.

As of February, the nearby Derby labor market area had the state’s highest unemployment rate at 6%. Vermont’s statewide unemployment rate is 2.8%.

“It's challenging here, obviously,” said Kathy Griffin, director of the parent/child center, outreach department and youth services at NEKCA.

Griffin says NEKCA pours lots of money into the Canaan office in mortgage payments alone.

One 30 hour/week employee staffs the Canaan and Island Pond NEKCA offices.

Come June, she says, the Canaan office hours will be cut from three days a week, to two days. Island Pond will then be open an extra day.

“I can tell you there will be people who will be upset to hear that. What do you want them to know?" asked Local 22 & Local 44 News reporter Staci DaSilva.

“I want them to know that we are reachable. People may not know where to contact when they're in Canaan or Island Pond for a need, but they need to know they can contact the Main Street office, 334-7316,” Griffin said.

Griffin says NEKCA receives $30,000 a year from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to buy food for Orleans, Caledonia and Essex counties.

It costs more than $26,000 to buy food every year for the Newport office alone.

Fundraising helps cushion the budget.

According to Griffin, several years ago there were fears that NEKCA would have to close its doors. That’s when a local business leader and philanthropist, Ronney Lyster, donated $10,000.

He then planned an annual music event, Hungerfest, to raise money for NEKCA’s food program. Last year, $30,000 was raised.

Late last month, Lyster passed away suddenly.

While his passing leaves sadness in its wake, it also leaves uncertainty about the future of Hungerfest and, in turn, the future of NEKCA.

"If Hungerfest goes away, then we're back to budgeting a $30,000 budget across 3 counties. That's the scary piece of it all. It's just contingent on what we're receiving from donations,” said Griffin. "He was super modest and I feel like we should probably change the name and maybe we will change the name. I can see it being a Ronney Lister Hungerfest because he is in fact our hero."

Last month, 11 households utilized the food shelf in Canaan. That’s compared to 80 households per day who use the food shelf in Newport.

“How often is that office closed and it's not supposed to be? Is it a problem?" asked DaSilva. “I haven't heard of it being a problem. So if it is, I hope people can call and let us know,” said Griffin.

Griffin said when it comes to the allegedly expired meat, sometimes things go unnoticed.

“Things can slip through when it comes to some of our meat products. We go through so much meat that it's shocking that there would be any meat that would be sitting around for any length of time,” she said.

Griffin said she will look into and fix the differing hours posted in town and online.

Phinney also mentioned people were upset because NEKCA recently stopped collecting clothing donations.

Griffin said, in fact, NEKCA in Canaan hasn’t collected clothing for several years.

“People were dropping it off and it became unmanageable...There's not the capacity to wash and dry things to make sure that they're clean to be handed out, said Griffin. “I know people talk about volunteering and they're welcome to contact [the Canaan office manager] and see what her needs are for volunteers and the days that they could if they needed to. Sometimes it's challenging to have a volunteer and have them open an office without a staff member there."

The governor’s office and the area’s state representatives did not respond to our request for comment on how to help these Northeast Kingdom communities.

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