SWANTON — Cupped in Sandy Kilburn’s hands is a plain rock she bought from a gift shop a while ago. For the longest time, Kilburn couldn’t figure out why she made the purchase.
The stone only became significant when she began self-esteem building and teaching about drug prevention with children in the Swanton school system in the 1980s. The rock became a symbol for the similarities and differences among people.
“To me, it signifies our samenesses,” she said. “On the outside, this looks like any other stone you might see. Just like people, on the outside basically we all look similar.”
“When you turn it over,” she continued, flipping the rock over in her hands, “we all have this inner beauty. It’s innate. It’s born within us. My wish for everyone is that they can recognize and identify that inner beauty.”
Kilburn, 76, who works part-time at Champlain Housing Trust, serves on the board of NOTCH and is one of the leaders of the Swanton Enhancement Project, said she’s done a lot of things, but her passion has been strengthening families. “I think how we raise our children is primary prevention for all of our social problems,” she said.
She quoted anthropologist Margaret Mead, “The solution to adult problems tomorrow depends on large measure upon how our children grow up today. There is no greater insight into the future than recognizing… when we save our children, we save ourselves.”
Kilburn brought up the current drug epidemic in Vermont as an example. “Prevention is where we stop it and we haven’t really done much prevention in the last 20 years,” she said, with the state’s resources mostly caught up with treatment services and policing the problem.
“We have to stop ignoring the front end piece, as difficult as it is, because we’re never going to break that cycle until we strengthen families and change the way we raise our children,” she said.
Research shows that people who feel good about themselves are less likely to do drugs. That said, if society teaches children to do two things, they will be able to handle life on their own, she said.
The first is to teach children how to think rather than what to think. The second is to find one’s inner beauty.
Starting In the late ‘70s, Kilburn worked as a mental health counselor for ten years. “To be an effective counselor, your job is to help people look within and come up with their own answers,” she said. “It’s my belief that we all have our own answers but things get in the way of introspection.”
Another part of being an effective counselor is helping people re-parent themselves.
To Kilburn, re-parenting means helping people think for themselves, get in touch with the goodness within, and self-nurture. “I think we are all able to nurture other people,” she said. “That’s an easy thing to do, easier than bringing that home and nurturing yourself, concentrating on the things you do well rather than the things that you shouldn’t do or the mistakes that you’ve made. “
“When people would come through my door for counseling, the biggest issue that everyone was dealing with was listening to that part of them that says I’m not enough,” Kilburn said. “We all have that part. But there’s another part of us that says, ‘Oh yes, you are enough. You’re not too much. You’re just enough.’”
Growing up in the 40s, Kilburn always struggled to read, often mixing up numbers and having a difficult time pronouncing words aloud. She didn’t do very well in high school so when it came time for her husband, Ron, to attend the University of Vermont for pre-law, Kilburn chose to attend the college in another way: as a secretary.
“It was awful for me because I’m dyslexic and I can’t spell,” Kilburn laughed at the irony of the situation. “It’s still difficult for me. As you can see, I have so much that I want to say and it’s so difficult for me to write.”
It wasn’t until she decided to earn an associate’s degree at the Community College of Vermont that Kilburn discovered her learning disability. But that didn’t stop her from continuing her education at Trinity College afterwards or reading as many books as she can get her hands on. “My books are my friends,” she said. “Couldn’t get along without my books.”
One of the books sitting on her shelf right now is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the book, the author writes a letter to his son about reality of being black in the United States.
“It took me a while to read it because I can’t even talk about it without,” Kilburn stopped, quickly tearing up. “I have a biracial grandson. But I’ve always been ashamed of the way white people have treated minorities all my life.”
Kilburn said her mother gave her the best advice. “My mother said to me, ‘If you look deep enough and long enough and hard enough, you find the good in everyone,” she said. “That’s been my belief all my life… There was never a baby with failure stamped on its bottom.”
It was this belief in people that drove Kilburn to become a mental health counselor in the first place, saying people have always come first in her life. “People are more important than things,” she said. “I have to keep reminding myself that when things get in the way.”
“I’m the first to admit that I’m out of balance now,” she said. “I really need to reorganize. I don’t want to give up on anything, but I need to cut back on everything or I’m not going to be able to do anything.”
With her roots deep in the community she grew up in, Kilburn said she’s having a difficult time stepping back from some of her roles. Just this summer, she helped organize a free summer camp for kids through NOTCH in Swanton. She also serves on the Drug Task Force for the Swanton Enhancement Project.
“If there’s one thing that I think I do well at, and its really almost as much pleasure as being a full time mom, is to bring the right people together to make things happen,” she said. “And then it just takes off and it’s bigger than you are.”
What started as an idea to bring businesses into downtown Swanton turned into more than 100 people from the community involved with six different task forces.
“I come out here and just sit on this porch and think, you know, I have more than everything I need. If I could just fix the rest of the world and have everyone else have more than everything they need, I could relax,” Kilburn laughed.
Editor’s Note: This story is part of an ongoing series profiling women in Franklin County. If you know someone the Messenger should profile, contact reporter Elaine Ezerins at 524-9771. 112 or at firstname.lastname@example.org