The Genesis of Higher Ground

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This article is in three parts, the first from Gail M. Burns, our former Office Administrator, the second from Rev. Carrie Bail, our former pastor, and the third from Susan Puddester, current President of the the Board of Higher Ground.

From Gail M. Burns, former Office Administrator and Assistant to the Pastor at First Church, and former Administrative Associate for Higher Ground

Mine is a very personal account of how Higher Ground came to be and how it came to be affiliated with First Church. I speak here about what I did, rather than what other organizations and individuals were doing, because this was a very intense time and I was completely focused on my role. Needless to say, many people and groups were also hard at work and made an enormous impact on how this community emergency was handled.
Tropical Storm Irene formed in the Caribbean August 20 and struck Williamstown overnight from Sunday, August 28 to Monday, August 29. By the time I arrived in the church office on Monday morning I knew that The Spruces had flooded and 300+ of my neighbors were homeless.
Being the week before classes began at Williams, nearly all the area clergy were out of town – including Pastor Carrie Bail who was busy delivering her twin daughters to their first day of college at Wesleyan – so when I started calling around to find out whether we were considering any collaborative action I reached nothing but answering machines. About 1 pm some church members came to the office and told me that the Sprucians – as we would come to call them – who didn’t have family/friends in the area to stay with were all at the shelter at the Elementary School and that they felt frightened and very alone. They couldn’t stay at the school because the students arrived the following day, and we couldn’t accommodate them in the church because we had just moved all the tag sale stuff up from the basement the day before the storm and Fellowship Hall was full to bursting.
I forget exactly how I did it, but by the time I left work at 3 pm I was able to go straight to the Elementary School and tell the assembled town employees that the members of the First Congregational Church had committed enough money to pay for all the Sprucians at the school to stay in area motels that first night, and that I also had commitments from local hotels/motels for enough rooms at the Williamstown Ecumenical Association (WEA) voucher rate of $45 per night. Town officials refused to speak to me, so I left, unable to help, which made me both sad and angry. But I was determined that no neighbors of First Church were going to feel frightened and alone on my watch.
When Carrie arrived on Tuesday morning I explained the situation. Sprucians had been housed at St. John’s in a shelter that was to be run by the Red Cross and at Town Hall but since they weren’t permitted to bring their pets with them many had opted to sleep in their cars – if those too hadn’t been destroyed in the flood. The Red Cross had also refused to speak with me about offers of assistance.
So Carrie put on her clerical robes and walked over to St. John’s to deliver some pillows that had been requested by Robin Lenz, a parishioner of St. John’s. Knowing that First Church was offering assistance with lodging, she returned with a steady stream of neighbors in tow. We set up a coffee station and waiting area in the parlor where wonderful church volunteers served food and sympathy, and Carrie and I spoke one on one with person after person after person. We cried with them, we laughed with them, we sang with them, and I wrote WEA vouchers – $20 for groceries, $20 for gas, and $45 for a night’s lodging. Many of the motels allowed the Sprucians to bring their pets, which was a blessing.
I was acting entirely on faith. I didn’t actually have permission to write all those vouchers, and it was quickly apparent that this would cost more than was in the WEA treasury. I also ran out of voucher forms and was literally writing “Give Jane Doe $20 worth of gas. Thanks, Gail” on post-it notes – and our dear, wonderful merchants and motel/hotel owners were honoring them.
Volunteers were flooding in to minister with us. One of the volunteers who showed up the very first day was a woman named Susan Puddester, who introduced herself as a social worker who had just moved to town and wanted to help.
People were showing up in the office with gift cards for Stop & Shop, Big Y, Price Chopper, and Wal-Mart. The Northern Berkshire Youth Hockey League gave us an enormous stack of cards, thanks to the young players’ door to door solicitation. As I handed out each voucher or gift card I would say, “This is from your neighbors. You are not alone.”
Financial donations were coming in rapidly too – I remember I raised $15,000 in one day. The money was being funneled through the church account (bless Annie Parkman!) so the donations were all tax deductible. By the third day the South Adams Savings Bank called and asked “Gail, if we gave you $5,000, what would you do with it?” and I replied that I would pay back all the merchants who had been giving away groceries, gas, and lodging on the strength of a scrap of paper with my name on it. And that was the start of the Fund for the Spruces.
By the end of the week clergy and community leaders had gathered in the church library to form what would become Higher Ground. Carrie was its first president and Susan is its last. Ten days after the storm I ceased my direct involvement, other than to make sure Higher Ground got to rent the office space it needed here at First Church. It was an honor to return as the Administrative Coordinator late in 2014 and play a small role in seeing Higher Ground fulfill its mission with the construction and opening of Highland Woods.

From the Reverend Carrie Bail, former Pastor of First Church, former Board President for Higher Ground

On Monday August 29th it was clear that our town had suffered under the ravages of Tropical Storm Irene, but our family had planned for months that early that morning – on my day off – I would drive our twin daughters to their first day of college in Middletown, CT.  We left in the early light, and I didn’t get back until late at night.
Before I got to the office I knew something big was happening, looking at the lake around the lions that were just down from my street. Gail filled me in quickly on what was happening, and then, getting a call from St. John’s, she sent me over there with two decent bed pillows, donated by the ABC Clothing Sale, that were needed.
St. John’s Lower Room was set up with some cots and a desk with a Red Cross volunteer, and lots of folks milling about the door waiting for some warm food. Having soon determined that those folks had nowhere to stay, because the Red Cross operation would not allow their pets at the shelter, I invited them to follow me across the lawn to First Church where I knew we had hotel vouchers available. (Refer to Gail’s statement about the wild chaos of that first day and the crowd of people who arrived for help.}
Along with them came many (in)famous volunteers who wanted to help, Susan Puddester, of course, and the invaluable Cathy Yamamoto, but also Shamus Heffernan who took a semester off from college to help, and eventually Bilal Ansari, the then-brand-new Williams College Muslim Chaplain, who just happened to have lots of experience in public housing. God kept dealing up miracles for our fledgling operation.
We were scheduled to have the local area clergy meeting later that week (could it have been Thursday already?) and I recall the discussion at the Synagogue that day being on fire about what we needed to do – and keep on doing – as people of faith.
It was already clear that “the work” was overwhelming folks who had other jobs to do, and that we would need a paid coordinator to keep up with it all. That day, on faith, and with hope in a possible grant from the Episcopal Relief Fund , we decided to hire a coordinator, Robin Lenz.
Before long we realized – with the help of many experts in disaster relief from the ERF and FEMA who soon arrived – that we would need to become a “Long Term Recovery Group” (part of the FEMA’s disaster-speak for volunteer groups established to aid recovery) and eventually need to get our own 501-C3.
So, within about ten days of the flood we established a board which was named “Higher Ground” from Bilal’s creative remembrance of his mother’s church’s hymn. We drew an amazing array of local talent from churches and other local groups, and I found myself as President, at the beginning of a year-long learning curve in Disaster Ministry. Learn we did; and you now know the happy result, with Susan being the final President of Higher Ground, overseeing the opening of Highland Woods.

From Susan Puddester, Geriatric Social Worker, current President of the Board for Higher Ground

My husband and I moved to Williamstown in July of 2011. In late August Tropical Storm Irene made her visit, destroying homes, roads, and landscapes, including leaving 325 residents of the Spruces Mobile Home Park, homeless. I grew up in Vermont, so my first thought was to go there to see what help I could offer. Very quickly I learned that I could not get to the areas affected, because so many roads were out.
I learned that people were going to the First Congregational Church for assistance. There I met Gail Burns (who got the ball rolling), in the midst of trying to locate housing for those who had instantly been made homeless. I told her I was a geriatric social worker, and she sent me to the Spruces. I arrived with a wheel barrow, and every shovel we owned. The Red Cross was setting up a base there, and residents were trying to make sense of things. Could they get into their homes? Who was going to keep their possessions safe? What were they going to do? Where we they going to go?
The next day I found myself back at the Spruces, but there really wasn’t any way for me to be helpful there, so back to the church I went. Robin Lenz had set up shop at First Church, in an office she was sharing with Annie Parkman. Jean Vankin was there greeting those who came seeking help. Soon I was part of that effort. We were inundated by requests for assistance. Bernadette Archibald and Barb Dohaney arrived to help. We worked many long hours, contacting hotels, and giving our vouchers for food and gas.
Financial support started coming from members of First Church and then the rest of the community. It was an amazing outpouring from our Faith Based Organizations and the community at large. The Fund for the Spruces was set up at the Williamstown Savings Bank. A committee was formed to help allocate these funds, consisting of Rev. Carrie Bail, Liz Costly and Tom Sheldon, from the Community Chest Linda Conway and Anne Singleton, with Judy Giamborino from the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce. The idea came from conversation Jane Allen and I had with John Law at then-Williamstown Savings Bank. . Soon Higher Ground was formed and the funds shifted over to us. The first days, weeks and months were very busy. I felt privileged to work with the individuals who walked through the door, sharing their experiences, hopes, dreams, as well as their acute sense of loss, not only of their homes, but their community. It was a very emotional time. Once FEMA was in place, a lot of what I did was to assist folks with that process.
As a result of my involvement with the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, I was fortunate to connect with Pastor Carrie Bail, and the other members of First Church. Everyone I met there was so warm and welcoming and so supportive of Higher Ground’s role in assisting the survivors of Irene. Annie Parkman was helping us with the bookkeeping aspects of giving aid, as well as selflessly sharing her office. Over the years it has been so wonderful to get to know so many of you. Higher Ground and I are so grateful for the support you have shown us, and me.
I had mixed feelings about cleaning out my office. Higher Ground is in the process of Dissolution because our Mission and Goals have been met, but I will miss being in the bosom of such a special place.
Williamstown is a special place, something I found out very quickly after I arrived. The members and friends of First Church should be very proud of all you did to help your neighbors whose lives were forever changed.