IT TAKES A VILLAGE

Dustin’s journey: Overcoming poverty in Franklin County

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By Matthew Preedom, Messenger Correspondent

Messenger Contributor

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Dustin Tanner is a big, gregarious man, but even the biggest need a hand sometimes.

Raised by his mother, Cynthia Brady, his stepfather, Mike, in Fairfield, he had few opportunities. One advantage he did have was supportive, loving parents who wanted the best for him.

“My mom and my step-dad are the best parents anyone could ask for,” Dustin said.

But like many parents, Dustin’s experienced their share of hard times. Cynthia worked as a flagger for Green Mountain Concert Services when Dustin was young. “It was good work and she provided for us,” Dustin said. “But supporting a family of four was hard, and then she lost her job.”

When Fairpoint filed bankruptcy in 2009, Green Mountain Concert Services lost its contract and Cynthia found herself looking for work. She found it working minimum wage cashier jobs to support Dustin and his two sisters. Mike suffers from a chronic spinal condition and was struggling to qualify for disability.

To complicate matters, the family’s home burned during his first year of high school and the experience demoralized the young man.

“I grew up in the Chester Arthur School House. When it burned down, I just stopped trying. I never liked paying attention in school, so I just stopped doing homework, stopped caring. I did a lot of extracurricular activities that kept me busy, but I just didn’t want to do school work,” he said.

One of those activities was a podcast in which he and a friend discussed local and national sports. That allowed Dustin to discuss things he was passionate about and learn about a field that he still dreams of breaking into full time: broadcasting.

Dustin graduated but with D’s and C’s. He felt college was not in the cards. He had no driver’s license and no money to buy a car, so finding work proved a serious challenge. “Unless you work on a farm or know somebody, there is nowhere to work in Fairfield,” Dustin said. “I never had an opportunity to work until after I graduated.

When Dustin realized that graduation was barreling down on him, he decided it was time to “figure out how to make some money.” He had yet to have any type of work. He did what many students do; he visited his guidance councilor.

Mary Lynn Reid was Dustin’s councilor at the Cold Hollow Career Center where he spent half his days in the design and visual communication program. She described Dustin as a friendly young man who could talk the ear off of anyone. She also said his abilities were underestimated by everyone, including himself.

“Dustin has more ability than a traditional high school setting picks up on,” she said. “Dustin is a very outgoing, friendly kid. His verbal communication skills are tremendous, but there was no way to translate his skills into a traditional classroom.”

Learning through doing is gaining more traction in traditional education, but it’s something the Cold Hollow Career Center and other technical centers have been doing for years, Reid said. “That doesn’t mean those kids are not smart or that they can’t be successful. What it means is that they learn differently and that was Dustin’s case.”

When Dustin approached her looking for help, Reid knew just where to send him. “I picked up the phone and called Kathy,” she said.

Workforce Investment

Kathy Lavoie is the executive director of the Franklin Grand Isle Workforce Investment Board. Her organization works to train and connect people looking to start a career or make a change. “We don’t have a lot of money, but we have connections. Our role is to help people connect with employers and resources that can help them find good-paying jobs,” Lavoie said.

Lavoie was impressed with Dustin. He had an encyclopedic mind that could recite sports statistics and a polite, well-spoken manner. She knew she could help this young man.

“Teachers and administrators loved him,” Lavoie said. “To all of us, what was obvious is that he had so much potential. People who knew Dustin knew that there was much more to him than his GPA.”

Dustin is a success story for workforce development. He is typical of “high risk” students who are faced with challenges that prevent them from finding good work. What many people like Dustin don’t know is that they are eligible for a host of programs and subsidies to help them.

Dustin’s story is a success partly because he is a bright, energetic young man and partially because he was surrounded with people who helped him.

Lavoie said, “Dustin’s problem was poverty and transportation. For other kids its substance abuse, parents in prison, or have a criminal record themselves. All of these kids have significant hurdles to becoming successful. It’s our job to give them the tools to overcome these obstacles.”

As Lavoie got to know Dustin, she came to understand his passion for communication. Lavoie said, “Communication is a skill he naturally has, so I took him to meet Elizabeth Malone at Northwest Access TV in St. Albans.”

Dustin peppered Malone with ideas and his passion for sports. He told her about his podcast and his ability to work with technology.

“Dustin really floored [Malone]. She whispered to me afterward that she thought they could do something, maybe get Dustin a job at the station. But, she said, they weren’t sure if they had the money to pay him,” Lavoie said.

Lavoie and Reid contacted Christine Sheldon at the Vermont Department of Labor. Sheldon is a career development facilitator who came up with the money to pay Dustin for five months at Northwest Access TV, to purchase professional clothing, and critically: a bus pass.

Sheldon could not talk specifically about Dustin because she did not have a signed waiver from him. She was able to describe the program (see accompanying article).

Dustin says he learned a lot about hard work at Northwest Access. “During my first week I smashed a hard drive that had the only recording of a local event. [Malone] had me call the people who were injured and apologize. It was a humbling experience, but in that, and many other mistakes, I learned a lot about personal responsibility and how to be a good employee.”

Today, Dustin works at Enosburg High School in the technology department providing basic computer repair and help to the teachers and staff from which he once learned. He is a track and field and JV volleyball coach. He hones his skills as a broadcaster by providing commentary to local basketball and hockey teams.

“It’s very excited to see Dustin working here at the school,” Reid said. “I liked him as a student and saw a lot of potential in him. Now that he is back I appreciate him as a colleague and a friend.”

Dustin does not feel he has arrived. “What I really want to do is work in broadcasting full time. I want to get my degree and make that happen.”

He also appreciates how far he has come and how lucky he is to have the support of a team that knew he had potential. “What I really want to do is help other people who come from tough backgrounds to know that they too can be successful and find good jobs. I think about my life, and it really could have gone the other way. Friends and family supported me and I had teachers and counselors who encouraged me. Kathy [Lavoie] has been a big help. People should know that there are resources out there to help him.

Students and young adults now shadow Dustin in the broadcast booth at local games. He tells them about where he came from and he tells them about where they can go.