An old school building at 115 Lincoln Street houses Northeast Kingdom Community Action (NEKCA). Step inside and you'll be greeted by a receptionist juggling phone-calls, managing the flow of applicants waiting to see case-workers and guiding them through the labyrinthine process of receiving the resources they need, and training new volunteers. She has soft features, brown eyes that gleam when her infectious smile spreads across her face, wispy salt-and-pepper hair, and an accent that can at first be mistaken for that of a Vermonter. This is 57-year-old Lydia Chartier.
Many in St. Johnsbury know that if you're having trouble making ends meet - if you need help to feed yourself and your family, to heat your home during the seemingly endless Vermont winters, or to pay the rent - NEKCA is the place to go. If you go between 8 a.m. and noon, you'll be greeted by Chartier.
That's a good thing, too. It's not easy to admit when one needs help. It requires honesty, humility, and vulnerability. All tough to come by if your first point of contact is uncaring, or rude. Instead, Chartier is pragmatic and compassionate. Qualities born of her own rich life experiences.
She's seen her share of ups and downs. Whether it's raising children on her own, struggling to survive in the face of catastrophic loss, or being a stranger in a new place, she's been there. And, through it all, she says, she's been helped by countless people who could have been unkind to her when she asked. Or, when she was too afraid to ask. Maybe that's why she spends her time volunteering at NEKCA by day and spending time with her neighbors who would otherwise be alone.
"I'm a Vermonter now," she says, settling into a chair at the newly-opened Central Cafe on Railroad Street. "But I'm originally a maniac." She laughs when I ask how one can go from being a maniac (a state of mind) to Vermont (a state in New England).
"I'm not a Vermonster, I'm a Maine-iac," she clarifies, her ghoul-themed joke befitting the holiday. "I'm from Rumford, Maine. I came to Vermont to join the Job Corps in Vergennes after leaving high school."
Job Corps is a nation-wide academic/ job training program run by the U.S. Department of Labor. Students learn a trade, such as an electrician, auto mechanic, or secretary, to name a few, while they earn their high school diploma.
Chartier, who trained as a secretary, makes a point of getting to know the people who visit and do business on Railroad Street, even as older businesses close down, and new ones take their places.
"Things are changing here," she says. looking out the window at storefronts that didn't exist even two years ago. There's Kingdom Taproom across Railroad Street. Next door, there's the Kitchen Counter and Frame Dames has moved into the space that used to house Gauthier's Pharmacy.
In Maine, she says, people are friendly but very resistant to the idea of chain stores coming in and setting up shop.
"Where I'm from, people don't want Dunkin Donuts," she says. "They'd rather go to the diner, sit down, have coffee with homemade donuts, talk with people. They want to socialize. They want to feel like they're part of the community. They're mostly resistant to change."
One of the most notable differences between Maine and Vermont, she says, is that in Maine, there aren't a lot of highways. "The roads are all winding through the mountains. We don't have these long, open roads where you can go 70, 80 miles per hour. Are you kidding me? You'll go off the road in Maine!"
Maybe this cautious approach to driving has bled into other facets of life, compelling Mainers to move a little more slowly than others, to reflect a moment longer, to move at their own pace without giving a damn if others are in a hurry. Though she loves it there, she hasn't visited for nearly seven years.
"I've slowed down on the traveling," she says. "There are people here who need me. I can't leave them."
She never really fit in at the high school, and couldn't wait to leave. "They had ways of holding kids back, putting you in special ed,” she says. “But I wanted to get on with it, you know? Get on with life. I went to Job Corps."
That's where she learned the skills to deftly manage the demands of being a receptionist at a busy office.
"They taught me a lot," she says. "I learned bookkeeping. Computers weren't out then. I didn't even touch one till 1980, or something like that."
She also learned a bit of culinary, light mechanics, and even some welding. But she wanted to be around people. She wanted to feel useful, and helpful. "I'm a people person," she says, smiling again. "Job Corps had people from all over. Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, you name it. I enjoyed it. If I went to work for a place, and they stuck me in the back, and I couldn't talk to people, I don't know what I'd do. I'd probably go crazy."
After completing the program at Job Corps, she moved back to Maine, where she worked in a local fast-food joint, as she called it. "But it wasn't really for me," she says. "So, I followed my sisters to St. Johnsbury. They all moved here, got married, had kids, you know."
She waited to have kids and called herself smart for waiting to get married. And she had a bit of wanderlust.
"I traveled down to Connecticut," she says, looking out the window as though she was reliving her travels. "I traveled down to Rhode Island, and all the way down to Tennessee. Saw Kentucky, Dallas. I need that, you know? I wanted to see the country."
She had two children by the time she came back to Vermont. around 1995. "I had to pick myself up. I was in a strange community, raising two kids by myself. It was the scariest thing in the world."
To complicate things, she developed a chip on her shoulder.
"I thought I didn't need anybody's help," she says, laughing, yet slightly amazed. "Boy was I wrong."
She remembers countless people who helped her throughout the years: teachers, neighbors, her sisters.
"One day you look up, and they're almost grown, almost out of the house, and you think: I did it. I did it, yes, but not without the help of all those people. If it wasn't for them, I don't know if I could have done it."
During that time, she had many jobs. Among them, she worked as a crossing guard for the St. Johnsbury School District, then she worked for the St. Johnsbury Police Department as a traffic controller.
"In five years, I never saw an accident," she says with a sense of pride. "I kept the traffic flowing. I enjoyed it. Then, after five years, they said I couldn't do the job anymore. They let me go. I was devastated."
She said she misses the job, but losing it may have been a blessing in disguise.
"I came down with pneumonia around that time," she says. "Come to find out, it was from the weather, and the carbon monoxide I was breathing. I was out of work for a while after that, but I needed it to get better."
When she was out of work, she volunteered at the community food shelf in St. Johnsbury and helped with free lunch programs in the area.
Then, in November of 2007, she was reminded that bad things often come in threes.
"I was traveling up to Newport to work as a telemarketer," she says. "And one day, the roads were really nasty, and I ran off the road. That month, I also lost my mom and my sister."
Today, she feels blessed. She spends her mornings at NEKCA, helping people find the resources they need. Though her name tag reads "volunteer,” she gets paid by the Vermont Senior Community Service Employment Program. They help senior citizens find paid training positions at 501(c)3 non-profit organizations. When she was out of work, she felt lonely and restless, she explained. She goes to church and offers to help the people close to her, who clearly need it.
"There are women in my building," she says. "One of them is older, in her 70's. She has chronic lung problems, bad heart. She's beyond fixing, okay? But she's all alone. And nobody should be left alone, and go through that kind of pain."
Chartier says the building she lives in is for aging folk who are technically independent, but situations still arise that require them to help one another.
There's one woman with whom Chartier feels especially close.
"The best thing I can give her," she says, "is to be there. Giving her the comfort of someone being there, so that she's not alone, is the best gift I could give. She tells me all the time: Lydia, I appreciate you. I'm just trying to give back the way people have given to me."
Things came full-circle for Chartier in October, when NEKCA held an open house. "There was a Job Corps representative who visited. I recognized her, but I couldn't put my finger on it, you know? Then it hit me: She was the spokesperson for Job Corps when I was there! She recognized me, and asked if I might go down, talk to the students about my experience at Job Corps, what I'm doing with my life now."
Chartier pauses for a moment, lifts her teacup, but doesn’t drink from it. "That's where it all started for me."
Reflecting on her life, she's faced her share of challenges, but she's in a good place right now.
"Life has its speed bumps," she says. "But they just slow you down. They don't stop you. I've got grandkids. I've got friends. I've got the people at NEKCA, my co-workers and the people who come in seeking help. I look at a lot of them - especially the young women - and I see myself. I understand them. I know they need help, and they're very brave for coming in and asking for it. So, it feels good to be the one they see when they first come in the door."