MAU students envision a better Bennington

Contest generates ideas for empty buildings, vacant lots

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BENNINGTON — Sometimes a vacant lot needs a vegetable garden.

That's the idea Mount Anthony Union Middle School eighth-graders Leah Smith and Maple Van Orden shared that won the Photovoice contest by the Alliance for Community Transformations. The contest asked youth to photograph neglected public areas in and around Bennington and share their vision of that space — transformed into an area that is fun, substance-free and accessible to all, according to ACT's website.

The contest was open to all MAU middle and high school students; submissions were due May 24.

Leah and Maple visualized a space transformed into a free source of fresh food, with volunteers helping to tend the garden. It was easy to identify a place they'd like to see transformed — the vacant lot is across from where Leah's mother works.

"So we would just see it all the time," Leah said. "It seems good for a garden."

A garden would help people in the community who might need healthy food, Maple said.

Leah said she notices healthy food, like fruits and vegetables, is expensive in stores.

"We thought that if there was a free food garden, healthy food could be more accessible," Maple said.

The two wanted to come up with an idea that would benefit the community, Maple said of their submission.

For their shared entry, Leah and Maple split a cash prize of $100. They said they don't know yet what they'll do with the money.

The other finalists were: Lucas Corey, Emma Denio, Josiah Durfee and Carson Gordon, all tenth-graders.

Durfee was the runner-up.

Leah and Maple's submission addressed multiple community needs while highlighting a prominent and accessible downtown location, said Dare Meunier, program director of the Alliance for Community Transformations, in an email.

She said she was "delighted" by the creative responses from this year's participants.

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"The submissions are ideas (for now!) that generate meaningful discussion about effective change," she said in the email. "We'd love to see these dreams become reality!"

Shannon Barsotti, Bennington community development director and one of the contest's judges, said she really loved that Maple and Leah's submission involved the idea of revitalizing a downtown area.

She said she also connected with their idea to serve a need in the community — food insecurity.

"They recognize that as a need, and that's something that we're also looking at as a community," she said.

Barsotti said she has been involved in community gardening efforts in the past in Chicago, where she used to live.

Maple and Leah's submission also made her think about some recent data showing that Bennington has a high rate of food insecurity in children, she said.

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"It's an interesting idea to think about what town-owned land that we have available that could actually grow food," Barsotti said. "I think that's kind of an interesting concept, and something to think about."

Several finalists this year visualized new lives for old buildings.

In his entry, Durfee imagined the now-closed Shaftsbury Country Store restored once again, drawing customers passing by on Route 7, especially during leaf-peeper season.

"Its most numerous customers would be the residents of Shaftsbury who lament the old store and want it renewed," he said in his entry.

Durfee recalled his own family's use of the store, making trips there after cookouts when they realized they had no more s'mores supplies.

Corey saw the old Bennington High School as a building with the potential to be a homeless shelter, with some effort and funding. It could also be housing for Bennington College, an art gallery or even a place for the public to gather, with a cafeteria and rentable bedrooms for tourists, he said in his submission.

"There is limitless potential in this building, and there are dozens more like it!" he said in his submission. "Imagine the dramatic change in the quality of life in Bennington and surrounding towns if just a few of these buildings were revitalized."

Gordon's entry visualized new life for the old middle school, currently "an eye sore," as an open art gallery for the people of Bennington — with some heavy cleaning, painting and modernization.

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There could also be opportunities for music and other visual arts in the space, Gordon said in the entry.

Denio focused her entry on a large clearing in Bennington behind her grandfather's woodcutting business.

It's filled with debris, old household machinery and litter, she said in her entry.

"This area was not originally intended as a dump," she said. "I believe that it could be changed to be a lovely area for hiking if someone were to [get] rid of the garbage and open up the clearing for public use, as there are many beautiful woodland trails that haven't been used by many in several years."

The clearing could also be a welcoming picnic spot for family reunions and events, she said in her entry.

The fact that finalists also thought in a clever way about what can be done about old buildings is inspiring, Barsotti said.

At this time, the town doesn't own any of the buildings the finalists mentioned, but the town can look at the properties they do own, she said.

"And even the ideas that those students had about what community needs are — and affordable housing was one of them that was mentioned," she said. "And the idea of more public gathering spaces."

Photovoice contest entries were judged by a panel: Barsotti, local photographer T.W. Collins, Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd, Bennington County Sheriff Chad Schmidt and Better Bennington Corporation Executive Director John Shannahan.

Photovoice is not exclusive to ACT, Meunier said in the email. It came about in the 1990s to define the approach of blending photography with narrative to explore issues regarding public health concerns like neglected or dangerous public spaces, homelessness and alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse, she said in the email.

ACT's first Photovoice was in 2014, when Katrina Hollis brought the project to the Teens for Change program; the effort was rebooted in 2018 after a long hiatus.

"We were struck by the compassion and thoughtfulness of the submissions this year," Meunier said in the email. "We loved how finalists spoke to accessibility and the importance of supporting our citizens."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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