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Giving Back: What Matters Most?

Story by Anita Rafael Photograph courtesy Community Heart & Soul




Community Heart & Soul, a philanthropic nonprofit founded by Lyman Orton, wants you to go out and ask a simple question around the town where you live—what matters most to the residents?


A few years ago, the folks in Essex, Vermont (a town that includes the village of Essex Junction) asked everyone that question, and, walking hand in hand with the Heart & Soul program, they created a new way for everyone to do business together as neighbors, residents, and elected officials. On paper, Heart & Soul reads like a civic-action “roadmap”—it is practical, common sense guidance for towns and small cities all across the nation. On the street, it’s something else entirely. It creates breakthrough civic action for peaceful, positive change. Essex is lasting proof that Heart & Soul is a sustainable collective mindset for small communities.


One of the Heart & Soul leaders in Essex, Liz Subin, states it succinctly, “Learning how to work together as a Heart & Soul community changed the conversation after 50 years of fighting over what divides us. Now we are focusing on the things we all value.”


If the name Orton rings a loud bell, it should. Vrest and Mildred Orton were the founders and first proprietors of the much-loved Vermont Country Store, established in 1946. Today, run by Lyman Orton, their son, along with Lyman’s sons, Cabot, Gardner, and Eliot, it is a successful, far-reaching enterprise with two retail locations in Vermont (the original in Weston and another in Rockingham). It is one of the most outstanding mail-order and online sellers in the country.


Community Heart & Soul has been Lyman Orton’s largest and most significant philanthropic endeavor during the past decade, backed by a portion of the company’s profits. Orton’s ongoing support for additional research and continued data analysis (in which millions of dollars have been invested) of each Heart & Soul initiative has yielded a valuable prescription that has proven to foster civil discourse. In case you have forgotten, it is civil discourse that is proven to foster and sustain progress in the ways in which people live in and enjoy their communities. So far, there are 72 Heart & Soul towns and cities in 16 states, from Maine to Washington, where residents are boldly, bravely moving forward on various civic tasks with a single goal in mind: to make their communities wonderful places to live, work, and play.


“Community Heart & Soul starts with one thing,” says Orton. “Asking what matters most to residents. That’s the catalyst. The reason it works is because everyone gets a chance to say what matters most to them. It’s not your typical consultant’s gig where the final report full of cold numbers just sits on the shelf. Instead, Community Heart & Soul has an emotional component built into it. It guides the residents to trust each other and to trust their feelings about their town to plan and decide their civic affairs for themselves.” He explains, “To figure out what matters most to people in a certain place starts with a two-year, four-phase process that, along the way, begins a fresh approach to doing business that will carry towns and small cities forward on productive and vibrant paths indefinitely.”


The townspeople who follow the Community Heart & Soul roadmap do something astonishing over and over again—they talk! Then, they gather, crisscross age- and ethnic-barriers, connect diverse groups, eat potluck, plan, organize, talk some more, watch new leaders emerge, attract new volunteers, eat more potluck, talk again, make decisions, and take positive collective action one step at a time.


What can small-town residents accomplish with Community Heart & Soul? The success stories are almost too good to be true.


The people of Biddeford, Maine, population 21,000, revitalized their city center after agreeing to end years of discussion about tearing down a giant trash incinerator; by listening to their own hearts and souls, they finally did it.


In Laconia, New Hampshire, population 16,000, the residents looked to Heart & Soul to discover a different way to coalesce everyone around an exciting, new vision for the city’s master plan. They worked together on it with what the press called “a barn-raising approach.”


Everyone in Thomaston, Georgia, population 9,200, faced hard times when a major textile mill shut down, until their open-hearted Heart & Soul collaboration with neighboring towns in Upson County began to turn things around. This is their second year in the initiative.


Then, there are the citizens of Cortez, Colorado, population 9,000. Hardly anyone had ever shown much interest in their city’s affairs and planning issues, so, just as Heart & Soul’s leaders suggested, the administrators, planners, and volunteers went out to every neighborhood. Together, they hosted block parties and community dinners, cooking up a storm and holding 55 individual events, just so people could talk to one another.


Actually, one of the tenets of Community Heart & Soul makes so much sense it ought to be engraved in all public spaces everywhere: “Stop thinking you have to bring more people to the table. Instead, bring a really big table to the people.” They mean all the people. Annie Cooper is one of “all the people” living in Essex, and, not long ago, she took a seat on the town’s select board. Seven days a week, she provides swimming lessons for children at safe and comfortable indoor heated pools. Through her teaching, she has acquired a special feel for families, as well as for the family spirit of the entire town of Essex. She says, “We found out what mattered most to the residents of Essex. My three children, now grown, are better people because they were raised here in Essex, in this community that embraced Heart & Soul. It also embraced each of my kids. I can honestly say that I am here today because the heart and soul of Essex saved us.”


Looking back at the Orton family’s remarkable history, it was 1930 when Vrest Orton, a World War I veteran and a Harvard grad, left New York City (he was a rising star at H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury, Alfred Knopf publishers, the Saturday Review of Literature, and Life magazine) and moved to the excellent country town of Weston, Vermont. A few years later, he married Mildred Ellen Wilcox, of Vermont’s ice cream Wilcoxes, and together they started a business and a family.


Typical of small towns, Weston was a place where everyone knew everybody, and the potbellied woodstove in the middle of the Ortons’ store was the prime gathering place to play checkers on top of a cracker barrel while hashing over exactly what was bothering people around town.


Something that Lyman Orton absorbed from being born and raised in that village—with its tall- teepled, white clapboard church, broad town green, and a well-stocked country store—about the

particular way Vermonters think, think about themselves, about the way they relate to each other, about their communities, may have a lot to do with what he does today. By giving away Community Heart & Soul, he makes it possible for everyone else to live in a place that has found its heart and soul, too.


And, just so you know, when you visit Weston’s Vermont Country Store, you will find that Vrest and Mildred’s old potbellied woodstove is still in the exact same place. Along with the checkerboard, of course.


Community Heart & Soul

120 Graham Way, Suite 126

Shelburne, VT 05482

Call 802-495-0864, visit orton.org, or email info@orton.org

Towns and small cities (with up to 50,000 residents) can easily look into how to become a Community Heart & Soul participant. Start by reviewing the guideline materials, reading the deeply inspirational Community Heart & Soul case histories of towns and cities across America, and watching the short video interviews on the website (orton.org).


The basic resources are free to download or available in print by request, starting with the guide titled “An Introduction to Community Heart & Soul.”


Once a town’s residents are gathered, enthused, and fully onboard with the idea of what can be described as a civic self-awareness movement, the town’s volunteer coordinators are ready for the next step. By reaching out to Community Heart & Soul, the townspeople become linked to a network of communities, leaders, volunteers, coaches, and partners who can share their experience and can lend support.

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