It’s on

Essex Heart and Soul project launches

By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter


Toni Morgan shares what she loves about living in her community. Photo by Oliver Parini

Approximately 200 people gathered at the Champlain Valley Exposition in Essex Junction on Tuesday to kick off a community visioning effort known as the Heart and Soul of Essex.

Funded by a grant from the Orton Family Foundation of Middlebury, the Heart and Soul effort is designed to identify the shared values of Essex residents and define a community vision for the coming decades. In the process — through neighborhood-level conversations, school events and larger forums like Tuesday’s — organizers believe there will be an overall increase in civic engagement that will last beyond the two-year life of the $100,000 grant.

A committee of citizens has planned for months how to engage residents in the process. On Tuesday, the wheels were set in motion for a conversation that will culminate this winter with Heart and Soul’s vision for Essex. In early spring, the committee will set up priorities and action plans to ensure the vision is realized.

“We all know grassroots efforts and the voice of the people is what truly moves mountains,” Brad Luck said during the event. “We want you to talk about your quality of life now and what you want your quality of life to be in the future.”

Doreen Giannelli talks about living in Essex. Photo by Oliver Parini

The event featured music, food, child-care and a video presentation explaining the Heart and Soul project. It also initiated conversations among attendees as organizers asked people to discuss single words that define the community. The words — health, recovery, diversity, tolerance, strength and kindness, among many others — were collected and will be used to spark the neighborhood-level conversations planned this fall.

People were encouraged to sign up to host and/or facilitate gatherings of about a dozen in their neighborhoods by the end of the year. The committee hopes to hold about 30 of them throughout town. They aim to include different racial and demographic

groups, from older people to young adults, young parents, members of the military and business owners. A member of the Heart and Soul committee will attend all the neighborhood gatherings.

“Having the opportunity to give voice to people’s values in the community is hugely important,” said Kim Gleason, a resident of Essex Town who attended Tuesday’s event. “Unless you define where you want to go, you really can’t get there.”

Dan Raut is the leader of the Vine Nepalese Christian Church, which has operated for about a year out of First Congregational Church of Essex on Main Street. He encouraged Essex’s small and new Nepalese community to participate in the Heart and Soul process. He said there are 16 Nepalese families in Essex, all of which have arrived since the beginning of 2011.

“Heart and Soul is talking about how we can work together to help each other, how we can see our American culture and Nepalese culture combine,” he said. “People in Essex have helped us so much. So how can we help the town?”

Kate Searles Brayton of Essex Junction writes on the community timeline. Photo by Oliver Parini