Home News and Features A Model of Community: Rainbow Bridge Flood Recovery Model Goes Permanent

A Model of Community: Rainbow Bridge Flood Recovery Model Goes Permanent

Michele Phenney of the Rainbow Bridge Community Center in Barre, center, discusses help options with Kathy Smith, left, and Judy Thurlow at the Berlin Mobile Home Park on Saturday. The Rainbow Bridge center, which generally focuses on issues of the LGBTQ community in Central Vermont, has taken on a major local role in the wake of flooding. Photo by John Lazenby.

The Rainbow Bridge Community Center and its executive director, Shawn Trader, became central to the Barre flood response by seeing the need and taking action. A vibrant hub of community before the July 10 flood, Trader and the center are turning their volunteer coordination and supply distribution into a long-term plan.

“My first day, day one after the flood, I filled up the bike and the wagon with all of the supplies that we had in this building. Luckily we had several cases of water already, and we have snacks in a little area and hygiene products, etc. And I basically gave everything away,” said Trader. “Day two, two of my friends showed up. Day three, five showed up. Day four, there were 10 people here.”

“One of the reasons it was so successful was because it was really organic,” she said. “A lot of listening. And not a lot of control.”

“Guess what. You’re on the Rainbow Response Team the moment you show up, and you care, that’s all that’s required,” said Trader.

The team coordinated volunteer efforts for flood cleanup in Barre and the surrounding area and distributed supplies. Trader posted live updates daily on Facebook. “Supply-wise, we had zero needs. We would ask for something, the next day it would all show up and more.”

A difference between the Rainbow Bridge and a bigger organization such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was that dynamic approach. “FEMA would like to stamp every city in America with the same kind of programming and services,” said Trader. “To be organic, you have to stay hyper-local.”

“We have faith organizations doing their thing … we have Capstone, and we now have the Barre-Up group,” said Trader. “There are multiple groups happening,” she said, “which I think is absolutely necessary.”

The Barre-Up group, which formed out of the flood response effort and of which Trader is a member, will focus on long-term recovery and planning for Barre City.

Initially, “the feedback, anecdotally from the people, was, you’re the only ones we’ve talked to, or, you’re the only ones that are helping, etc.,” said Trader. “That made me question. You know, I definitely had some bitterness, like where is my city, where’s my state.”

“It doesn’t matter is the short answer” if it’s one organization or another doing this work. “Especially at first,” said Trader. “Over time, we don’t want to duplicate stuff.”

Building Damage

Flood waters had filled the Rainbow Bridge basement “to the rafters. So that’s what knocked out all of our facilities, power, everything,” said Trader. “The mud line was right up to the door, but it stopped short.”

“We advocate for tenant’s rights and landlord accountability. That fuel comes from the fact that we here have also deeply struggled with a landlord that is incredibly slow to get services back up and running,” said Trader. “I’ve definitely wanted to collaborate in the past, but it just seems like … it was just a lot of waiting game.”

“We might be the only place on Main Street that still doesn’t have power,” they added, which means no lights.

“A lot of our programming took place in the evening,” said Trader. “What programming we have is being shifted toward Saturdays and Sundays,” during daylight hours.

“This place was already a booming hub of flood recovery. And so to lose the space would have been really disruptive,” she said. “For the first month we were so busy working,” she said, “we weren’t looking at our own spaces a whole lot.”

“We worked nonstop,” said Trader, “and then we all were kind of burned out by the end of that month.”

“I had to do mandatory time away,” she said. “I’m happy to say that since then I’ve been camping three times.”

Community Care Days and So Much More

“Community Care Days is the third Sunday of every month going forward,” said Trader. “It’s 10 to 4, it’s right here at the Rainbow Bridge.”

“There will be therapeutic art, there will be a school tutor, there will be a grief worker. And outside there will be the Department of Health with a vaccine popup. The Vermont Workers center will be helping people sign up for Medicaid or health insurance. There will be hot food,” she said. “We also want space for people to just come in and build community. So that means just us chilling on the couches and talking. You know, that’s how we do it.”

“I’m super excited. So the Rainbow Relief Fund was established to provide disaster recovery work in Barre and central Vermont now and in perpetuity,” said Trader. “We raised over $50,000 dollars for it.”

They also have the Laundry Love program. “We lost a lot of washers and dryers because of the flood. A lot of people’s stuff was in the basement,” said Trader. They can replace machines, give cash for laundromats, and provide detergent. “We want to have a community laundry day. We’ll have a cookout and we’ll pay for all the laundry and the soap and everything else, too,” said Trader.

“It’s not about how hard you work, it’s how hard you recharge,” she said. “In the world that we have, we can’t recharge hard enough. Especially if you don’t have money. If you’re poor, forget it,” said Trader.

“Remembering Joy is our program that’s about helping people just forget about the flood and the recovery for a couple hours,” said Trader. “So we’re paying for tickets to go to the fair or go to a show.”

The Importance of the Rainbow Bridge Community Center

“Our work here has been incredibly, deeply, influenced and motivated by our canvassing work,” said Trader. “The people that are out in our community, whether they’re in a home that still has damage and has kids running around and has no money and no food, etc., or if they’re out in the woods, or if they’re displaced to another town or city or some other patch of woods because of the flood, those voices will never be heard, unless we go to them.”

Trader brought up respiratory problems, and anxiety about future floods. Barre residents lost their cars, their spaces, and for some, their community. “The human pain and suffering came from a lot of residential areas that were hit.”

“I only know that information because I was at their doorstep, or inside their homes, or hugging them on the sidewalk and crying while they told me about their stories,” said Trader. “And obviously I don’t just mean myself. I mean everyone that responded.”

“It’s important to remember the pain of the flood, but it’s also important to launch off of that and go to new heights,” said Trader. “In this context, we do that by letting go of the old ways of our thinking, and our old behavior that led to this humanitarian crisis here in Vermont.”

The importance of the Rainbow Bridge Community Center, “for me personally, that was obvious pre-flood,” said Trader. “Our goal here is to make a model of community.”

“We want to lead by example,” said Trader. “We have a lot more friends and allies and partners now because of our work.”

Editor’s note: The Bridge recognizes that countless community organizations, businesses, churches and individuals were working to cleanup central Vermont during and after the flood. Stay tuned as we continue to report on the many ways the community pulled together in the face of a disaster.

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