Tenants fill church with good works

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BENNINGTON -- In the year after the first non-profit tenant moved into the Nichols Education Building at First Baptist Church in January 2009, three more tenants moved in, filling up the available space.

First, the Bennington Free Clinic opened up on the first floor of the building, located downtown. Next, Project Against Violent Encounters’ Family Time program moved into the building, and the Vermont Center for Independent Living and Easter Seals later followed suit.

The offering of the previously unused building space is the result of a deliberate decision by the First Baptist congregation to reach out to the community as a form of mission.

"We’ve pretty much taken on as a missional church the goal of providing the missing components for basic human needs in the area here. We’re too small by ourselves to tackle any one of these things," said Wayne Kachmar, a member of the church board of trustees. "But this collaborative model of missional church has given us the opportunity to partner with many different groups and to use what we bring to the table: open space, visibility on Main Street -- accessibility, we’re flat, we’re level -- accessibility to transportation."

In addition to providing easy access for those in need, the use of the space by human services non-profit groups also frees up commercial space downtown for economic development, he said.

Tenants filled the available space faster than anticipated. "It’s sort of amazing when a plan comes together that quickly," Kachmar said. "We think that it was obviously (something) that was needed and the affirmation seems to be that our tenants are thriving, the activity levels are high."

‘Build their confidence’

Tracy L. Dorman, peer advocate and community outreach specialist with Vermont Center for Independent Living in Bennington, said that it promotes independent living for individuals with disabilities.

"Many VCIL peers are living on limited, fixed incomes and experience overwhelming financial, physical, mental, or emotional challenges," she said. "VCIL working as their partner helps to build their confidence to face those challenges through accessing services in the community, and to their developing and managing their well-being."

Being located in the building next to the Bennington Free Clinic allows VCIL a closer connection with Free Clinic executive director Sue Andrews and the free clinic on behalf of the people VCIL serves, Dorman said.

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"In addition, VCIL endorses the Health Care Is A Human Right Campaign," she said. "VCIL’s location in the First Baptist Church allows the local organizing committee and campaign members a more visible presence."

Another advantage is accessibility. "Being located on the Green Mountain Express route going east on Main Street allows VCIL peers to utilize the bus to attend our events, meetings, and appointments," Dorman said. "Our peers enjoy the autonomy that the church location provides.

"It is a welcoming, friendly, supportive environment. This location provides VCIL the ability to accommodate large and small groups that include support groups, community meetings, trainings, and also one-on-one meetings," she said. "The kitchen space has allowed us to offer cooking classes to our peers without having to find alternative space."

First Baptist has helped offer healthy cooking and basic sewing classes and hopes to collaborate in presenting more such activities. "The idea here is it’s not necessarily the First Baptist folks completely doing it. We really seek out partnerships," said First Baptist coordinating minister Jerrod Hugenot, adding that one does not have to be a person of faith to participate. "Collaboration is key. So we work fairly fluidly with folks within the faith community and with others within the larger community."

The church has received a $6,000 grant from the Vermont Community Foundation. "What they were specifically interested in was the collaborative model we’ve put together and the governance structure we had to put around it," Kachmar said.

The grant was for basic support, and part of this is to update some of the infrastructure for common use, such as Internet access, a more energy-efficient heating program, and setting up a hall in the church for interactive conferences, he said.

Though the Nichols Building is full of permanent tenants, "We’re not done, Kachmar said. "We may be full for the time being. But we’re looking at the other options: people who need a temporary facility, people who may need an office for a month or two and being able to come in here and support an activity.

""Finding that in town is not very easy and at this point that’s perhaps the next step that we have to look at," he said.

Hugenot, who is originally from Kansas, said that in studying the history of Baptists in Vermont, he has found that First Baptist in Bennington a century and more ago was always prominent in mission work.

"There’s certainly precedent that mission is very much a strand of the DNA that has made this place tick and thrive and grow over the years," he said. "So in some ways we are reclaiming our roots while also casting out for a different day."


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