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BENNINGTON — Sometimes, being a parent in a rural community isn't easy. Childcare providers can be few and far between, transportation can be scarce, and it can be difficult to truly be involved in the community when you have young children to care for.

Catamount Connections, launched in May, is looking to make the lives of community members easier by offering access to other community organizations, as well as providing support, classes, and valuable information to parents.

This parent-founded and led organization is an accessible, drop-in community center located in the heart of downtown Bennington in the basement of the Mount Anthony Lodge on Main Street. It boasts a nurturing environment to bring parents and other community organizations together, whether someone is looking for a playgroup for their kids, story time, cooking tips, or even advice.

One main part of the organization is to bring together other community organizations and help local parents and caregivers realize the resources that are available to them.

Kayla Becker, previously the area director for the United Way, leads Catamount Connections as program manager. Rose Morrison, former child care coordinator for the county, is now the center coordinator. Morrison is assisted by Loni Myron, program assistant.

Becker says Catamount Connections is looking to continue supporting other community organizations and help the community realize all the resources Bennington has.

"When we started, it was not to take over anything," she said. "It's really to be a support to not just [the community] but the organizations that already exist."

Happy adults, happy kids

"There's a immediate misconception that we are focused on children, whereas I really want people to realize we're focused on parents and caregivers," Becker said. "We believe by supporting the parents and caregivers, the kids can benefit."

"Happy kids are the byproduct of happy adults," Becker added.

The organization offers open hours Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Tuesday and Thursday from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. This way, parents can have a cozy space to spend time with their kids or even interact with other parents to get parenting tips.

"Parents can learn from each other here," Morrison said. "This is something I wish I had 15 years ago."

Since Catamount Connections rents the entire downstairs of the lodge, there are multiple rooms with endless uses. Rooms are deliberately designed and furnished to be similar to kindergarten classrooms.

"We change rooms around to fit our needs," Becker said. "It's a really flexible space."

The main room offers a sitting space and a display with binders detailing support services across town. A classroom boasts a large chalkboard wall, which is "very popular" with the kids, Becker says. There is also a room with couches and comfy chairs for parents to relax with their children or breastfeed.

There are also art rooms where free art classes are held. Some of these classes are for kids and their parents together, while art therapy classes are geared toward adults.

"We try to have it so parents are involved with the kids, but some things are just for the parents," Morrison said.

A local need

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The idea for Catamount Connections stemmed from discussions at community cafes, which sought input from parents and community members.

At these cafes, Becker noticed an overwhelming request for parents to have more community resources and a space to get together. Having a community gathering spot in an accessible place downtown without transportation barriers was identified as the number one community need.

"We want to make sure parent voices are heard," Becker said. "Often, they are not."

Community cafes are still held, too. Three times a month, parents can come to Catamount Connections for discussions and to give their input about what other resources they need. Oftentimes professionals are invited to give talks and offer resources, too. The monthly event calendar can be viewed at https://www.catamountconnections.org/calendar/.

"It's about connecting people to people," Morrison said.

Catamount Connections is also exploring the need to offer childcare during significant town meetings so parents can be involved in town decisions without worrying about where to leave their children during that time.

The Alliance for Community Transformations and the Office of Economic and Community Development have already chosen to hold some meetings at Catamount Connections so childcare can be offered.

Becker also invites community organizations to come in to the Catamount Connections office and tell others about the resources they offer.

"[Catamount Connections is] intended to support what's already here," she added.

The birth of a community center

Catamount Connections is funded through the end of the year by a $150,000 Promise Community grant, a statewide initiative funded by a federal Early Learning Challenge — Race to the Top grant.

While this grant is non-renewable, the organization's workers are confident it can remain funded through community collaboration and perhaps other available grants. Becker says they are currently exploring a "sustainability plan" to stay open.

To keep the program going, Catamount Connections will seek out more grants and determine what other community partnerships can be made.

So far, the organization collaborates with other community organizations like the Vermont Department of Health, Sunrise Family Resource Center, RISE Vermont, and Bennington Elementary School.

Aside from these successful partnerships, community demand for the organization's resources is prominent.

"We've got really good numbers coming through the door," Morrison said. "We're trying to make everyone feel like they belong and feel like they have a piece of what's going on here. We're open to suggestions."

Christie Wisniewski can be reached at cwisniewski@benningtonbanner.com and at 802-447-7567, ext. 111.


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