Michelle Monroe, St. Albans Messenger
If you give people a bar to live up to, they want to live up to it.
RICHFORD — Faith in God and love of community. Levi Fuller possesses both in abundance and they are what moved her to leave a full-time job to become director of the Cornerstone Bridges to Life Community Center in Richford.
“I spent my whole life running away from this community, and I always came back whether I wanted to or not,” Fuller said Saturday. However, she admits, a recent decision damaging Cornerstone’s future has led her to the decision to leave.
Fuller has a master’s degree in special education. Her first goal when she began at the center in 2012 was to work with Vermont Adult Learning (VAL) to help more people earn high school diplomas. Before Cornerstone opened VAL hadn’t had worked with a student from Richford in eight months, in part because the people most in need of an alternative path to a high school degree are the very people without transportation to St. Albans.
There are currently 20 students in the adult learning program and four on the waiting list. Some are high school students taking an alternative path to degree completion while others are older adults earning a GED.
Ethan (his real name is being withheld to protect his identity) is one of the young men who took advantage of the adult education program. Before he started the program he was drinking and using drugs. “Once he came here, he knew somebody cared about him,” said Fuller. He doesn’t come to the center any longer, because he’s taken a full-time job out of state. But he convinced his younger sister to go to the center and she’s now one of 30 girls in the Girls on the Run program.
Girls in the program are training to run in a 5K in Burlington later this year.
“It’s a job you come to and you actually know you’re making a difference,” said Fuller.
“These kids who come here don’t feel like anybody’s proud of them. I am proud of them. They’ve made some huge changes in their lives and they’ve made huge changes in mine,” she said.
“One of my former students came in and said, ‘I need to talk to somebody who cares about me,'” Fuller said. They talked and the next day he assisted her with a Salvation Army fundraiser.
Since then, he stops by the center regularly. “He’s a kid who had to raise himself,” said Fuller. “He dropped out of school. He spent years popping around from home to home.”
Now he’s working, she said, and “getting his basic needs met.”
Fuller also worked with Beth Crane of Franklin County Caring Communities to start a mentoring program for elementary school students. Students in the program are those who could succeed with a little more support, explained Fuller.
The mother of a child in the program came in to Cornerstone one day and told Fuller about the changes she’d seen in her child as a result of the mentoring program. The mother “started crying and gave me a hug,” said Fuller.
Fuller clearly believes that many of those served by the center simply need to feel someone cares about them.
“Everybody loves their children the best way that they can,” she said. “Sometimes they just have too much on their plates.”
“These kids, I’m never going to stop loving them. I have unconditional positive regard for these kids and they can never disappoint me,” Fuller said.
“If you give people a bar to live up to, they want to live up to it. Nobody wants to disappoint you and if you love them anyway when they do, they’re going to be able to forgive themselves,” she said.
Growing up in Richford
Fuller herself is from a single parent home and spent much of her own childhood moving around. “I had one little brother who was my best friend,” said Fuller.
Then her mother met a Richford farmer and the family moved in with him. He became like a father to Fuller and Richford became her hometown.
But it wasn’t an easy place to grow up. Fuller graduated a year early from high school and went to college in the Midwest. “I just knew I needed to get out or I wasn’t going to survive,” she said.
She was doing far too much partying, Fuller said.
The Midwest wasn’t for her so she transferred to a college in the east, then served as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer in Alaska. She settled in Maine initially, but retuned to Richford when she became pregnant with her six-year-old daughter, Harper.
Part of the reason she succeeded where others did not is the support she received from adults in the community including her high school principal and former state representative Al Perry, according to Fuller. “Al had a lot to do with me being me,” she said. “People stepped in and were the people I needed… Now I do that for other people.”
“It took me a long time to see the good in this community,” said Fuller. Then, for a while, that was all she could see.
However, the decision by the Richford Development Review Board (DRB) to deny a conditional use permit that would allow Cornerstone to relocate to the former Spears Funeral Home on Main Street (see accompanying box) has changed her view. “My heart has been broken by this decision,” said Fuller. “Just broken.”
“Every time I see people reaching for change in this community, people find a way to keep them down,” she said.
“I wish I could believe this was done in a way that showed integrity,” Fuller said of the decision. “It just wasn’t.”
She was especially struck by language within the DRB decision that called Cornerstone “your community center.”
“This is not your community center,” said Fuller. “This is the community center. This is our community center.”
The DRB’s decision was, for Fuller, the proverbial straw. She is stepping down from her position at the center and on Friday gave notice at her part-time job as the Richford Elementary School librarian, and is interviewing for jobs outside of Vermont.
“I’m not giving from the right place in my heart anymore,” she said.
The possible loss of the center is not the only reason Fuller is leaving. She is in the midst of family turmoil that involves another’s substance abuse, she said, adding, “There’s no doubt I know what everybody here is living.”
If the DRB once again votes to reject the center’s permit, the center will become homeless on June 1, and the plan is to find locations for each of the programs.
“My hope is that as I leave, more people will see the value in this and step up,” said Fuller. “They need to fight for this,” she said of the community.
“I don’t think I’m in the minority to say I love this community,” she said. “There’s so much hope here.”
“But not quite enough to keep you,” the Messenger observed.
“I don’t think so,” Fuller said, voice gone soft with sadness.