Vermonters of the Month: Matt Kehaya and Steve Gagner

TJ Donovan, Matt Kehaya, and Steve Gagner at 14th Star Brewing CompanyThis is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Through the “power of great beer” Matt Kehaya and Steve Gagner, our December Vermonters of the Month, are proving that “a company can create positive outcomes in our community and show other businesses that there is a tangible benefit to serving others before serving the bottom line.” When Matt and Steve founded their company 14th Star Brewing Co. in 2011, they knew that they wanted their beer to be “brewed with a mission” which is why these Vermont-natives and Army veterans founded the business on the principles of “improving our communities and inspiring others to put their neighbors first.”

The business plan for 14th Star was drawn up on the back of a notebook while Matt and Steve were deployed together in Afghanistan. When they returned home, they decided to take the leap from homebrewers to entrepreneurs with the mission of continuing to serve others. Since opening 14th Star in 2011, the St. Albans-based business has grown to 24 employees and distributes their beer in 5 states. In keeping with their mission, the business gives back to organizations like Purple Hearts Reunited, the Josh Pallotta Fund, Make-A-Wish Vermont, Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports, and Martha’s Kitchen, while also hosting community events at their Taproom.

With 20(+) years of service, Matt (20 years) and Steve (23 years), attribute much of their success as business owners to skills they learned from the Army. Leadership, strategic planning, safety, mentorship and teamwork are all skills that they have applied directly to entrepreneurship. Now, Matt and Steve (along with partner Zac Fike) have made it their mission to share this knowledge with other veterans. Their latest venture, Danger Close, is a whiskey-distillery that teaches other veterans to draw on skills they learned through service to start their own businesses.

We visited Matt and Steve at 14th Star’s Brewery and Taproom in St. Albans to learn more about the inspiring work they’re doing.

Brewed with a Mission logo on t-shirt

 

Tell us a little about yourselves (What are your official titles? What have been your career paths? How did you get to where you are?) 

(Matt): I’m from Burlington, Vermont and currently live in Swanton. I am married with two wonderful boys. I am a platoon sergeant in the Vermont Army National Guard’s Mountain Infantry Battalion and have served in the Army for 20 years. I have two deployments (Iraq and Afghanistan – both with Steve) and we founded 14th Star Brewing together in 2011. Steve and I met in late 2000 and we knew early on that we wanted to continue to find ways to work together. After our 2010 deployment to Afghanistan, Steve and I decided to put the brewery business plan we wrote overseas into action. We never envisioned the brewery to grow as big and as fast as we did, but we find that our military experiences have helped us grow the business.

(Steve): I am originally from Highgate, Vermont and live in St. Albans with my wife and two children. I am the executive officer for the Army’s Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vermont. I have served in the Army for almost 23 years. I think our time in the Army, and the Vermont Army National Guard in particular, has helped us as entrepreneurs. As full-time guardsmen, we assist the traditional guard leaders who work the “one weekend a month, two weeks a year” schedule in completing their goals and training objectives. Since we aren’t at the brewery full time, we use the very same tactics in leading the organization: We have a talented team of full-time staff and leaders at the brewery and simply provide them guidance and direction and let their natural talents shine.

What inspires your work with the Army, 14th Star Brewing, and in the community?

The desire to serve others and our community not only led us to joining the military, but to continue that service through our business. We believe that leaders should show others what right looks like and inspire them to “Follow Me.” We look for those very same characteristics in our employees and partners because we know that our efforts as a company can create positive outcomes in our community and show other businesses that there is a tangible benefit to serving others before serving the bottom line.

What sets 14th Star Brewing apart from other brewers? What’s its mission?

Well, we can start with amazing beer! But seriously, there is some fantastic beer being made throughout Vermont. We think the thing that sets us apart is that we have a reason for doing what we do—beer happens to be the product we create. This translates directly to our motto of “Brewed with a Mission.” This means that we work to improve the lives of our nation’s veterans and our local communities through the power of great beer.

You give to so many organizations, is there a cause or organization that you are most proud to support?

We are proud of all of our efforts in working with organizations dedicated to doing good and helping others. From the very beginning, we have been a supporter of Purple Hearts Reunited and their mission of return lost or stolen purple hearts and medals of valor to veterans and their families. We also have a very deep connection with the Josh Pallotta Fund, founded by Valeria Pallotta, the mother of a Soldier who deployed to Afghanistan in our Brigade and who took his own life after struggling with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. Outside of the veteran organizations, however, we are pursuing projects like Vermont’s first “The House That Beer Built.” Working with the Green Mountain Habitat for Humanity and gathering support from other Vermont Craft Brewers, we’re working to fund the building of a home for families in need – simply through the power of great beer. Helping these organizations certainly keeps us busy, but it is the kind of work that the brewery was founded on: Improving our communities and inspiring others to put their neighbors first.

What advice do you have for other businesses looking to impact their community?

It’s not as daunting as you think it is. The return on investment in terms of goodwill and community engagement you’ll receive from your efforts, no matter how big or small, is infectious and you’ll find that it eventually makes its way into your financials. The important part is not the size of your efforts or contributions, but the fact that you’re engaged. “Many hands make light work” and if every business were involved in the improvement of the community as a responsible corporate citizen, our little corner of the world would be a far better place!

 

Matt Kehaya, Steve Gagner, and TJ Donovan at 14th Star Brewing Company brewery14th Star Brewing Company glass with logoSteve Gagner speaking with TJ Donovan14th Star Brewing Company taproom and brewery sign

Vermonter of the Month: Jason Fitzgerald

Jason FitzgeraldThis is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Father. Exercise Physiologist. Athlete. “Diaper Guy.” These are just a few ways one can describe Jason Fitzgerald, our November Vermonter of the Month.

In 2007, Jason was out for an early morning run when he started thinking about different ways to help Vermonters, and it hit him: diapers! According to the National Diaper Bank Network, 1 in 3 American families experience “Diaper Need” and lacks access to a sufficient supply of diapers. As a father, Jason understands the financial burden that purchasing diapers can put on a family, especially given the lack of public funding available specifically for purchasing diapers. With the help of his employer, Dee Physical Therapy (Dee PT), Jason created the Great Diaper Drive, which collects diapers for families assisted by the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS). Through sheer force of will, the drive, under Jason’s leadership, has collected more than 325,000 diapers over the past 11 years for Vermont families in need.

A native of Massachusetts, Jason came to Vermont as an undergraduate student at Champlain College. He left after college, but always knew that he would be back. So, when a job opportunity opened for him in Vermont, he jumped at the chance to return to the state he loved. Jason began working at Dee PT in 2007 where he currently serves as a Clinical Coordinator and Exercise Physiologist. At Dee PT, Jason is able to combine his professional pursuits with his passion for helping others to make a positive impact on the community. Here’s more about the amazing work that Jason is doing:

What inspires your work, both at Dee Physical Therapy and in the community?

My work at Dee Physical Therapy is inspired by my coworkers. They put so much into the job and care so much about the wellness of other people. I’m one of those people who enjoys coming to work every morning. I’m so fortunate to be able to come to work and know that I’m helping people get stronger and reach their goals.

My work in the community is inspired by my kids. I am lucky that I was put in a situation with Dee Physical Therapy that I was able to work at a place that allowed me to start a fundraiser. I want my kids to see that when you are put in these situations you should find ways to reach outside of the four walls you work in and try to help people every day.

Why diapers? How did you come up with the idea of the drive?

I start each day with an early morning run. I use this time to think and come up with different ideas. Some of these ideas seem amazing at the time, but when reflecting on them the next day, they often seem ridiculous. In 2007, I had two children both in diapers—Riley (now aged 14) and Kaia (12). I was out for my daily run when I thought about diapers—how expensive they are and how, as a parent, you are constantly worried about running out of them. I wondered if there were any organizations or fundraisers that collected diapers and I couldn’t think of any. When I went to work that day, I mentioned it to my coworkers who thought it seemed like a good idea. I then reached out to the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS) to see if they would be interested in a fundraiser that collected diapers. COTS said that there was a need for families living in their shelters and seeking services from their organization, but that no one was collecting diapers at the time.

What has been the impact of the Dee PT Great Diaper Drive and what does it mean to you?

When the drive started in 2007, 6,000 diapers were donated and sustained a couple of COTS’ families. Now, as the drive has grown, we are able to collect enough diapers to last for an entire year for all of the families COTS serves. The impact of the drive is more than just diapers; it allows families to save money that would otherwise be spent on diapers for independent housing. We did the math and a box of 100 diapers can cost about $35. Depending on how many kids you have, what ages they are, and what’s going on with their bodies, a family can go through 10-12 diapers a day. Since the drive began 11 years ago, we’ve collected over 325,000 diapers. As a parent, there is nothing worse than knowing that you don’t have a diaper for your child. The diaper drive has taken away some of this burden that parents are dealing with on a day-to-day basis and is allowing them to save for housing.

This drive means a lot to me. I’m fortunate to be the one that gets to talk about the drive and spread awareness, but it really is the community around me that supports this effort. Through the drive, I’ve been able to make connections with amazing people. There are people that come back each year to donate diapers that they’ve been saving up all year. It’s a true community effort.

What’s your goal for this year’s diaper drive and where can people donate?

The goal is to collect 40,000 by December 21st. We’re on our way towards meeting this goal but want to collect as many diapers as we possibly can.  Donations can be dropped off between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Fridays at the following locations:

  • Dee Physical Therapy at 23 San Remo Drive, South Burlington
  • Dee Physical Therapy at The Field House, 166 Athletic Drive, Shelburne
  • Dee Physical Therapy at 52 Farmall Drive, Hinesburg

What advice do you have for other businesses (or individuals) looking to impact their community?

Look around you. See what resources you have and take advantage of them. I’m not a fundraising guy and it’s a lot of hard work, but I’m so glad I did it. Every year I think about how to make the drive more efficient and effective.

Ask for help. Vermonters want to help each other, including people they don’t know. This is a huge asset and a great part of living here.

Dee PT Diaper Drive PosterJason Fitzgerald

 

Vermonter of the Month: Dan Fraser

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Dan Fraser at Dan and Whits

Through helping raise over $1 million for local nonprofits and providing second chances at employment, our July Vermonter of the Month, Dan Fraser of Dan & Whit’s in Norwich, is proving that small businesses can have BIG impacts on their Vermont communities.

Dan D. Fraser is the Vice President and Treasurer of Dan & Whit’s, a family-owned general store which is fondly considered the unofficial community center of Norwich. Dan began working at Dan & Whit’s (named after his grandfather, Dan S. Fraser) afterschool for two hours a week while in the 4th grade. As an adult, Dan continued his dual responsibilities of school and store for many years while working as a special education teacher and continuing to work at the general store. For 14 years, Dan worked in the Hartford (Vermont) and Dresden (New Hampshire) school districts before leaving to focus solely on his work at Dan & Whit’s.

After meeting with Dan and hearing about the positive work he is doing in his community, it’s clear that the same passions and beliefs that informed his work as an educator have carried over to his business. If you haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Dan and Whit’s or meeting Dan, just look to the banner hanging outside of the store—”Hate Does Not Grow In the Rocky Soil of Norwich, Vermont”—for proof of this.

What sets Dan and Whit’s apart from other general stores? What is the mission?

Our motto is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it”—produce, meat, grocery, gas, hunting/fishing, clothing, hardware, lawn/garden, beer/wine, etc.  We are the epicenter of town. Houses are sold locally in reference to us—“Just 2 miles from Dan & Whit’s.” We are the “community center” of Norwich. Our mission is to serve our customers. We set ourselves apart from other general stores in terms of size and product selection. We are open every day from 7am – 9pm, except for Thanksgiving and Christmas when we close at noon.

 What inspires your work, both at Dan and Whit’s and in the community?

What inspires me—well, giving back to our community, supporting the needs and organizations of our customers creates loyalty.  It’s a win-win.  We like to make things happen when people say that it is impossible. I love a challenge.  Helping others is so easy, and so rewarding. We support almost every sports team, religious organization, and non-profit in town and the Upper Valley. We do a monthly wine tasting, pairing with a different non-profit each month.  We began this in December 2010 and have raised over $50,000. We also have Milk and Egg Monday where customers can purchase milk/eggs that we deliver to the Upper Valley Haven homeless shelter.  Wednesdays are Pizza Wednesday and we donate $1 from each pizza sale to a non-profit.

In December 2013, I began “The 19 Days of Norwich, 1% for the Upper Valley Haven,” where we donated 1% of sales to local homeless shelter. Soon, all the businesses in town joined us. During the second year, many businesses in the Upper Valley joined us—over 100 businesses participated! In 2017, our fifth year, our cumulative total raised is over $1 MILLION!!!

 What have you learned from your work with Dismas of Vermont?

With my background in special education, we employ many individuals with special needs. In addition, we have paired with Dismas of Vermont for many years now to employ newly paroled persons. I have learned that with additional layers of support, this can be very successful. Everyone has something to offer and deserves a second chance.  We also employ homeless individuals who are guests at the Upper Valley Haven.

What advice do you have for other businesses looking to impact their community?

Think outside the box. Talk to nonprofits in your community and see how you can pair to solve issues and provide employment opportunities. Take the first step and get involved.

Dan and Whit's general storeTJ Donovan with Dan Fraser at Dan and Whit's

Dan and Whit's bottle redemption bell

TJ Donovan with George Fraser at Dan and Whit's

TJ Donovan, Dan Fraser and George Fraser standing outside of Dan and Whit's

 

Vermonter of the Month: The Mercy Connections “Justice League”

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General features Vermonters doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

This month we are honoring a team of people as our “Vermonters of the Month.” The Mercy Connections “Justice League” team works on the Justice and Mentoring program. The team is comprised of Joanne nelson, Director of Justice & Mentoring, Kelly Moran, Justice and Mentoring Coordinator for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated women, Mary Beth Barritt, Justice Liaison and Heather Gilbert, Program Facilitator.

Mercy Connections is an educational values-driven non-profit organization living the legacy of the Sisters of Mercy with an enduring concern for women. By compassionately nurturing self-sufficiency through education, mentoring, entrepreneurship and community, people are empowered to make significant life changes

Mercy Connections has 3 program areas that serve 300 participants: Education & Transition Programs (for adults who have faced adversity in meeting their personal, professional, and academic goals), Justice & Mentoring Programs (for people involved in the criminal justice system), and the Women’s Small Business Program (for aspiring female entrepreneurs).

Joanne, Kelly, Mary Beth and Heather have all dedicated themselves to lifting those around them who need help. The “Justice League” is doing essential work for Vermont women and we are honored to have them as our May Vermonters of the Month.

How has the team’s work impacted the community?

The Justice & Mentoring Program team alternates presence in the Treatment Court Docket to be able to receive referrals to the programs at Mercy Connections. In that action, we invite the women to a meeting with the director to become acquainted and to discover whether there is a desire to enroll in a class or program. Sometimes the referred woman is also interested in becoming a mentee in the Vermont Women’s Mentoring Program. The real impact on the woman is potentially multi-faceted. It is sometimes confidence-building to just get to Mercy Connections and enter a place that is not familiar. It is also clear that women feel and learn about a community here that is non-judgmental, educative, safe and brave and in that discovery, a potential participant may grow, relax and learn. There is something connective when the participant understands that Mercy Connections can become a supportive place, connected to the clinical and legal teams in the court docket, but that Mercy Connections is different. It is not mandatory, it is chosen freely…that ability to make a choice freely, well, that is often something that leaves a referred person empowered.

Executive Director, Dolly Fleming, has said that Mercy Connections “…weaves the social fabric of community and one’s [life]” and I believe that means that the (potential) impact on community is that Mercy Connections kind of weaves some of the very difficult, mandated parts of a recovering person’s life in with some of the softer, kinder, happier threads that every human being possesses. We think that holistic approach reflects something very positive on each person and on the community as a whole.

What is the biggest challenge?

We receive referrals to Mercy Connections which are not realized. They are not chosen by prospective participants.

On a challenging day, it may be hard to look at each individual accomplishment and realize joy against a very dismal system, (criminal justice, economy, racial and gender discrimination…), one that just doesn’t work for human beings.

In general, the challenges lie within the participant population and while we strategize and work hard, sometimes the biggest challenge is accepting that we can’t do more than we do.

What is rewarding about this work?

Our programs offer education to people. Education opens up doors. Open doors and access to more people means a more diverse, just world/community.

Knowing that we are working to offer possibilities for a more successful reentry process through the Vermont Women’s Mentoring Program and hence, a lower recidivism rate.

Working with participants who are rejected in many ways by society and learning how wonderful they are. How resilient they are. And how much they have to offer. Seeing a mentee’s face when she realizes we treat her and her mentor in the same respectful manner. That we don’t judge her based on the worst mistakes she has made. Being able to support mentors, some of whom have made serious mistakes, in a way that allows them to grow and give back.

What advice do you have for others looking to impact their community?

Become a volunteer for a worthy cause- one which speaks to the values you hold most dear. The action will allow you to realize greater purpose and meaning in your life.

Vermonter of the Month: Luke Stafford

This is a monthly series in which the Attorney General will feature a Vermonter doing exemplary work in their community. Have someone you think should be featured? Email AGO.CAP@vermont.gov.

Luke Stafford owns Mondo Mediaworks, Inc., a digital marketing agency specializing in content development for the web. He earned a BA in Journalism at Saint Michael’s College. After landing in Brattleboro with his wife, an artist, he worked in the marketing department at Mount Snow until 2009. He then founded Mondo, and in the eight years since it has grown into a 17-person shop. The company’s Values Statement is to build its surrounding community through economic development. It is proudly a certified B Corporation (“B-Corp”), which are for-profit companies that meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.

Luke also sits on the board of Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS).

How did you learn about becoming a B-corp, and why was it a fit for Mondo?

I’d been hearing about B-Corps for years, mainly from exposure to certified Vermont brands like King Arthur and Ben and Jerry’s. Because they are such large, product-based companies, I never thought seriously about our small marketing agency being eligible. One day I was explaining Mondo’s mission and values to our accountant, who operates an impact-driven business herself, and she recommended I speak to a local person who is knowledgeable on the certification process. Around the same time, a few of Mondo’s employees were learning about B-Corps. All of a sudden, it seemed doable.

Joining the B Corp movement is a fit for Mondo because, like a lot of companies, we’re run by people. And most people — or, I could argue, all people —  want to contribute  to something bigger than monetary profit in their jobs.

What prompted you to make economic growth in Brattleboro and Vermont as a whole part of Mondo’s mission?

Since I started Mondo in 2010, there was a broad values statement to “give back to the community.” We donated to local organizations and supported local events, but it didn’t go much further than that. Then, in 2015, I got my first glimpse at the data coming out of the Vermont Futures Project, which clearly projected that the Vermont economy would be in big trouble if we didn’t solve some serious problems around workforce and population. I resolved that I couldn’t sit idly by and let the projections become reality.

What impact have you had, with Mondo and independently, on your community?

Last year we paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in salaries to Mondolians who live, shop and play in the Brattleboro area. Most of those jobs didn’t exist a few years earlier. Of course, we can’t attribute a thriving Main St. or a restaurant opening solely to new Mondo jobs, but it feels great to see new Mondolians investing in the community, whether it’s buying a house or just going to the movies in Brattleboro’s historic theatre. As for myself, I have the privilege of sitting on the boards of my local elementary school and Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies, where I advocate for programs and policies that make Vermont the best place to live for young families.

What inspires your work, both at Mondo and in the community?

You’re going to start thinking that I’m an overly obsessed fanboy, but really, it’s Vermont. Not just the lifestyle, but the landscape, the people, the… everything. I knew I was going to be a Vermonter immediately after my first snowboarding trip to Stratton when I was 14, and I can’t imagine myself living anywhere else. Specifically, my inspiration comes from my weekend hobbies: snowboarding, logging and processing firewood from our property, maple syrup making. Lately, my best ideas are surfacing during  pop-up camper trips with my family to Vermont State Parks. The four of us are working to join the “251 Club,” whereby we visit all 251 towns in the state. We’re only about 10% of the way through, but it’s been a great way to explore the state and make memories with our 2 daughters. Check with me in 10 years to see if we’ve hit all 251.

What have you learned from this community work?

Democracy is alive and well in Vermont. I was blown away when I attended my first Town Meeting Day. It’s a very beautiful thing that everyone in this state truly has a voice. But it’s also the frustrating thing, right? Because for everyone who wants to see change, there is someone who likes things the way they are, thank you very much. When I moved to Brattleboro 13 years ago, I got involved with a committee to build a skatepark in town, thinking we’d be able to accomplish the goal within a few years. But some townspeople did not want a skatepark in the downtown area. Their voices were heard loud and clear, which I very much respect. But it means that getting things done can take a long time. In the end, though, I trust the process.

What advice do you have for others looking to impact their community?

I understand that big time commitments to boards or volunteerism is not always possible. But I would argue that little gestures, added up, have a much bigger impact. Picking up a piece of litter on the street makes for a cleaner downtown. And that clean, inviting sidewalk may be the small detail that reminds residents, “Hey, this really is a great town. I love it here.” That person will speak highly of the town to others, and the message continues to spread. Our everyday actions, and how we choose to speak about our communities, have huge consequences.

What advice do you have for businesses considering a B-corp certification?

First, it’s not easy to be certified. At least it wasn’t for us as a young company. But it spurred us to make a lot of “grown up company” decisions about our policies and standards. It took us about 9 months and we hired a consultant/project manager to get everything we needed in place. Today, we have an employee who maintains our B-Corp status as part of her job, which involves everything from monitoring our electricity usage to organizing our volunteer days. But it’s 100% worth it. Some of our best job applicants come through the B-Corp job board, and it’s a helpful distinction during the recruiting process. We regularly attend B-Corp-sponsored events, where we’ve met other B-Corps and shared ideas about sustainable ways to grow our companies. But the biggest piece of advice I could give is that your values at the company come first; if it aligns with B-Corp requirements, awesome. But stay true to your values, always.