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MANCHESTER — You couldn’t ask for a better day for students from the Northshire’s largest independent high schools to get together for a good cause.

With blue skies and sunshine overhead and spring decidedly in the air, a combined 19 students from Burr and Burton Academy and Long Trail School gathered at the end of Jennifer Lane to lend their talent and boundless energy to Bennington County Habitat for Humanity, and to the families they serve.

The organization said it’s the largest volunteer event in the chapter’s history, and the effort was not wasted. Whether it was carrying boards to a nearby build site, pulling apart pallets, digging a new garden by hand or even picking up the less-than-savory remains of a black bear’s epic trash raid, the kids – 12 from LTS and seven from BBA – dug in and got things done.

The morning started with volunteer coordinator Tye Poquette addressing the group on Habitat for Humanity’s mission and methods, as well as the tasks ahead to make the neighborhood nicer for the two builds presently underway.

“The projects we’re going to do today are going to make this neighborhood a little nicer for the people that live here,” he said.

Both Long Trail and Burr and Burton have community service requirements for graduation, and a number of LTS students were putting in hours for their International Baccalaureate diplomas, or to qualify for the school chapter of the National Honor Society.

Some of the students were familiar with Habitat for Humanity’s mission; others knew of the organization, but learned more by volunteering their time.

Aimee Wildman of Danby, a sophomore at Long Trail, volunteered to gain service hours for National Honor Society. “I love getting out and doing this kind of stuff,” she said.

Wildman was among those not familiar with Habitat before Wednesday. But now that she’s aware of what they do? “It seems great, I would totally do this again,” she said.

Volunteering at an early age is how Sam Krauss, the director of student life at Long Trail (and a 2008 graduate) got involved at the age of 17, on a house build in Rupert. He still remembers what it felt like to help a family that was active in the community finally attain its goal of home ownership.

“It was cool because I was up framing the side of a house with other competent skilled workers and that was empowering for me. But it was really cool to see the community come out and support a family that’s a fixture in everything,” he recalled.

Some of the student volunteers got involved because they like working with their hands or are interested in related careers.

Josephine Monder, a junior at Long Trail from Hebron, N.Y., was pulling nails out of boards for re-use; she lives in a converted church and has already rebuilt the bathroom. Madison Lewis, a sophomore at BBA, recently moved to a farm in Pawlet; she said she felt at home as part of the community garden crew, since she grew up working in the garden with her family. And Joseph Morris of Danby, a sophomore at BBA, works in landscaping when he’s not in class.

But the students also are aware that they’re living in a place where home ownership has gotten a lot harder in the past few years.

Poquette touched on the situation during his opening talk. At present, he said, homeowners need $50,000 to afford the down payment and closing costs on a two-bedroom home, as well as between $1,000 and $3,000 for mortgage and tax payments monthly. That’s not approachable for 80 percent of Bennington County residents, he said.

Habitat bridges the gap with volunteer labor and by designing fuel-efficient homes, “This house is practically a submarine,” he said in describing the air-tightness of a home nearing completion.

But the assistance is not charity, Poquette said; owners must prove they can pay an affordable mortgage and have skin in the game through at least 100 hours of sweat equity in building the home, and another 100 hours of community service.

Some had personal experience with that. Lewis, who was living in Peru before moving to Pawlet, recalled the anxiety of hoping her family would find a home in a BBA sending town so she could remain at the school.

Kieren Giejda, a Long Trail junior from Londonderry, has the experience of living in a ski town where short-term rentals have become more common.

“I know a couple people who are trying to buy a house and have lived in Vermont for most of their lives or all of their lives and it’s hard for them to find a house,” Giejda said. “It’s hard for people to stay in communities since it’s getting so expensive in some areas.”

Wildman has noticed it, too.

“We do talk about it in class sometimes. Sometimes I’m just looking at houses for fun because I want to live up here, and looking at my options, prices have gone up so much,” she said.

Around lunchtime, Poquette, surveying the work the kids had done, was expecting that they’d be able to call it a day early, given their progress.

“We’re scheduled until 2 p.m. but all of these guys here are just crushing it,” he said.

“If they personally come back one time on their own volition, I will personally write them a letter for recommendation for college or jobs, whatever they want,” he added. “I do think there’s a couple of people here I’ll probably see again.

“The work is fun, the people you’re with are fun, and it’s super impactful.”

Greg Sukiennik covers government and politics for Vermont News & Media. Reach him at


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